Mary Tooley Parker


Favourite woman artist and why/how has she/her art or life inspired you? 

My favorite woman artist is Loretta Pettway, one of the quilters from Gee's Bend, Alabama, in the deep south of the United States. Hers is not a household name, though her works were recently featured at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Her quilts are astoundingly powerful and unique, and her use of color and abstract shape is striking. Her work rose out of practicality and necessity, assembling cast-off clothing and materials into quilts to keep her family warm. But she, like other women of the Gee's Bend quilting community, had the ability to transform this utilitarian craft by imbuing these functional pieces with spirit, individuality, and deep beauty.



Women globally are far less represented in galleries and museums than their male counterparts. Have you yourself found the art world difficult to navigate as a woman or have you come up against any particular obstacles and how did you deal with them? Do you support all-women shows etc..? Why/why not? Have you noticed any changes?

 Since I only started showing my work in 2012, I've really only been involved with the “art world”for a few years. I have often felt supported by other women artists, both on social media and irl, but I  haven't personally run up against any male-generated obstacles that I am aware of. I have,however, noticed a marked prevalency of bias against textile arts in the art world—I believe because of its being associated with “women's work.” This elitist misogyny seems to be softening, especially in New York City.



When did you first discover art and decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?

To me ART is a broad term and I don't think of it primarily as visual art. I've been involved with the arts for a long time, though I never thought of myself as an artist until recently. I studied classical piano for 9 years as a child, was a modern dancer in NYC after high school, worked in the art departments of Vanity Fair and GQ magazines, and then got into fiber arts, especially rug hooking. After I started showing my hooked textiles locally, I was encouraged to pursue art professionally in 2015. Receiving a Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts played a key role in that decision. It was very validating and gave me more confidence that what I was doing resonated with others.





Tell me a bit about your background!

I grew up in Westchester County, New York, about ½ hour north of NYC. After high school I lived in New York City for 20 years, pursuing a career in dance, and then in publishing at Condé Nast.Then I left the city and moved to a more rural environment farther north. At that point, with a house and child, I was able to more seriously dive into fiber arts of all kinds. I took up quilting spinning, weaving, dyeing, and rug hooking. I started out hooking with a local group and quickly realized this milieu really suited me, and I came to focus on it because of the tremendous joy it brought me. I  learned more and more through extensive reading, online research, and going to big hooked rug shows. I have done a lot of experimenting with design, texture, materials, color, and historic rug-making techniques during the past 16 years of working in this medium. For this reason, I consider myself mostly self-taught.



What subjects/subject matters do you explore in your work? 

My work is mostly very personal, drawing from my family, my memories, local history, and my immediate environment inside and outside. I hope to show the viewer things they may not look at or think about in their daily lives.



Describe your process! What’s a day in the studio like for you?

 As mentioned above, I have done a lot of research on rug hooking and its origins, as well as other 19th century  rug making methods. I studied the designs and construction methods of primitive rugs made from used clothing cut up and pulled through a burlap feed sack foundation made to keep floors warm; works of beauty created by untrained women artists. I also studied dyeing so that I can create colors as needed in my work. This learning included color theory, various dyeing techniques that achieve different results, and the contrasts between synthetic dyes and natural dyes.

I favor an intuitive approach always. I can only work on a piece that gives me a buzz of excitement when I think about it. I usually start with a sketch and then enlarge it, either on the computer or using a grid. I only work on one piece at a time, though I always have a bunch of other projects going on too, like knitting, spinning, basket weaving, that I turn to for different moods or locations. My smaller hooked pieces can take about a week, larger ones a month or more, depending if I want to spin some yarn to use, or need to dye certain colors, or if there are other additional activities involved in its creation.



What have been your influences?

I am mostly influenced by early primitive rug images and other “folk art.” I love the simplicity and unabashed honesty of these pieces created for purely personal expression and satisfaction. I'm also often inspired and motivated by artists I follow on Instagram. I think it’s really wonderful to be able to see so many contemporary artists working in real time, and I've found a very supportive community there. This is especially important when living in a rural area instead of a metropolitan area.




Could you name a book you would recommend to every artist?

I recommend the book “American Hooked and Sewn Rugs—Folk Art Underfoot” by Joel and Kate Kopp to anyone interested in folk art or the history of textile art. It is a fabulous compilation of images and information about this early American art form, written by two well-respected antique dealers in New York City. The work featured within is extraordinary when you consider the lives the makers led and all the other work they were required to do to survive. Also you will note that much of the work is surprisingly contemporary in feeling.


Do you have any advice for other emerging artists?

I know there is a lot of advice out there about how to be a “successful” artist, with tips on how to achieve that. My advice is to turn that on its head. Do what excites you, motivates you, andmakes you feel something. Keep doing that and following what you truly love and it will take you to where you need to be. You may not be a “successful” artist, but you will be a successful ARTIST.


Do you have any exhibitions coming up? Where/when? 

I am currently exhibiting at the Silvermine Guild galleries in New Canaan, Connecticut, throughFebruary 6. I will have work in the Small Works show at Five Points Gallery, also in Connecticut,from February 1-23. And I will have a solo show at Viridian Artists Gallery in Chelsea, NYC, from May 21 to June 15, 2019.

See more of Mary Tooley Parker’s work at and follow her on Instagram @m.tooley.parker !!