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The Quilts of Pauline Parker

November 12, 2021

Thomas Connors reports from 'The Quilts of Pauline Parker' exhibition, currently on show at the Milwaukee Art Museum

We can see a painting and never imagine the artist standing at an easel, but no matter how determinedly artful, no matter how seemingly removed from aspects of domesticity and function, quilts always carry a sense of the maker at work. Often narrative in design (even abstract works tell a story in their materials), the labour embedded in them often makes one want to know the story behind the tale—why the quilter quilts and what the occupation means to that individual. The American Pauline Parker (1915-2013) trained as a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago and viewing her pieces in the current Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition—The Quilts of Pauline Parker—one appreciates how she seamlessly melded the language she learned there with the vernacular that gives quilts their peculiar eloquence. 

Girl on Beach, ca. 2002, Pauline Parker. 33 x 27 inches. Parker Art Legacy, LLC

Although she had seen her mother and aunts quilt growing up, Parker didn’t essay the craft until she had retired from a long career as a high school art teacher. And while she did exhibit her work on occasion at small Midwestern venues, and was conversant with the resurgence of quilting in the 1980s and 1990s, she did not pursue a high profile. 

Early on, Parker grasped the story-telling potential of her new pursuit and turned to the Old Testament for inspiration. A landscape painter, she went on to create richly imagined natural vistas, as well as city views and village scenes. In Swan Lake, the gathering of white birds is framed by trees whose foliage is fashioned from single, shard-like planes of fabric, shapes evocative of forms Isamu Noguchi created. Birches in Moonlight is a deeply layered work depicting bare trees in the snow against a dark ground that suggests a hillside, topped by a sky rendered in a shade of blue that screams winter. Swoops of stitching across the whole suggests the almost solid sensation of cold, cold air. 

Birches in Moonlight, 1992, Pauline Parker. 78 x 66 inches. Parker Art Legacy, LLC. Photo: Patrick Young

Parker’s depictions of the human form are especially engaging. The Bacchante-like figure in Gathering Wild Plum Blossoms in the Moonlight is executed in an almost mannerist style. In Girl on Beach, her manipulation of the fabric defining the subject’s bathing costume clearly captures the twisting of her torso as she raises her hands to shield her eyes from sun. And in its way, the spread-eagled, half-obscured infant in Moses puts one in mind of Bruegel’s half submerged Icarus at Brussels. No matter what the subject or strategy, Parker’s work evinced a determined effort—as she once said, to reflect ‘an enchanting something that for a moment catches all our instinct, all our attention.’  Thomas Connors

Read the full version in the next issue of COVER.

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