Child’s Play: How Mary Pal Discovered Her Artistic Voice

8 June 2022
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As children, we learned about our world through exploration and play. Our creative pursuits as adults should be no different. Often, in creating textile artworks, we’re so focussed on getting a perfect end result that we lose sight of how important it is to follow our instincts and make the process our own. While we might learn the rudiments of an artistic technique by following someone else’s pattern, true satisfaction comes from taking that technique, pushing its limits, and putting our own spin on it. But how do we do that?

Most of us, when we began our fibre art journey, started by following patterns and in the learning process gained some valuable skills. That was the case for me when I learned traditional quilting. Over time, through experimentation with shapes and colours, I was able to break the rules and push the boundaries of what textiles could do. I also had a little nudge from the goddess of art.

It happened in 2008 when I was working on a small abstract art quilt [below left, combining a variety of textiles, including cheesecloth, and stitching them to a background fabric. The goddess of art smiled and, when the quilt was rotated, the cheesecloth shape seemed almost human [below right]. Intrigued by the challenge of how I might achieve a more faithful rendering of a figure, I learned very quickly that dry cheesecloth has a mind of its own and stubbornly resists all attempts to force it to retain a specific shape. That led to experimentation with different gel mediums to wet the fibres so I could sculpt them into the desired shape.

image description: a close-up of a portion of a hand-sew quilt, made from a variety of different textured fabrics, some sheer ones on top of solid fabrics

Click on the image to enlarge it.

image description: a close-up of a portion of a hand-sew quilt, made from a variety of different textured fabrics, some sheer ones on top of solid fabrics

Click on the image to enlarge it.

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I discovered a wonderful copyright-free photo by Chalmers Butterfield, “Elderly Woman,” (below left) and using that as a model, I dipped pieces of white and black cheesecloth in gloss gel medium, squeezed out the excess, and attempted to manipulate the fibres into position on a sheet of plastic according to the values in the photo. When they were dry, I stitched them to a background of white and black linen, sprayed textile paint through an old lace tablecloth to give the impression of drapes and titled it “Waiting.” (Below right.) I had no idea I was embarking on a body of work that would occupy my creative life for the next fifteen years, and possibly beyond.

image description: a photograph of an old woman seated in a chair, looking away from the camera, through a window

 Original photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

image description: a portrait of a woman seated in a chair, looking away, made with layers of white cheesecloth fabric pressed onto a surface of black paint

Waiting. Click to enlarge, to see the details.

More experimentation followed as I adjusted the process to create increasingly detailed likenesses (below), and challenged myself to replicate unusual textures like zippers and grommets.

image description: a portrait of two men embracing, made with layers of white cheesecloth fabric pressed onto a surface of black paint

Homeless Love

image description: a portrait of a man, made with layers of white cheesecloth fabric pressed onto a surface of black paint

The Other 1

While I appreciated the drama of the black and white portraits, I wanted to incorporate colour in my work, so I began dyeing cheesecloth and painting or stitching the background fabrics. Whenever I discovered a new product at the art supply store—like Caran D’Ache Neocolor® II water-soluble wax pastels, I could not resist trying them in combination with cheesecloth, occasionally veering away from portraits to subject matter like animals (below) and landscapes. These days, when I teach my cheesecloth technique to students, I encourage them to tackle any subject matter. I am hard-pressed to think of a subject that could not be rendered in cheesecloth.

image description: an image of a horse, its mane made with layers of white cheesecloth fabric pressed onto a surface of colourful paints

Equus – reference photo by M. Bednar. Click to enlarge.

image description: an image of the head of a grizzly bear, made with layers of white cheesecloth fabric pressed onto a surface of black, yellow, green and grey paint

Jumbo Grizzly – reference photo by S. Ogle. Click to enlarge.

Though it is a cliché to suggest to fibre artists that they approach their work with the question, “What if?” it is still one important approach to forcing yourself to look at your medium with fresh eyes and see what impact even small changes can make to a piece you are creating. When I made “Lighthouse Keeper,” I wondered how it would look if I made him somewhat transparent so that the ocean backdrop could be seen through his figure. I loved the ghostly image and that inspired me to add the first few lines of the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield in the stormy sky.
image description: a portrait of a man, made with layers of white cheesecloth fabric pressed onto a surface of yellow, green and grey paint

Lighthouse Keeper

A second approach is to embrace your inner rebel. Adopt a no-holds-barred approach to colour combinations, subject matter, and unusual materials. Be audacious and, yes, even outrageous. I recently painted a figure onto fabric, using cheesecloth only for the hair and shirt and mounted it on a wooden panel, horrifying the curator at a local gallery, who sputtered that she wasn’t sure she could display it as it no longer qualified as “textile art.” I beg to differ.
image description: a portrait of a man, mostly painted; the hair and the tshirt are made from layers of coloured cheesecloth fabric pressed onto the paint

Reverie – reference photo by M. Geller.

My third recommendation is to look beyond your chosen medium, study other artists, and explore ways in which you can emulate their successes in your work. What is it about their artwork that resonates with you, and how can you harness and express that feeling yourself? When you are excited about what you are creating, that emotion will be palpable to the viewer, as I hope is the case with my David Attenborough piece.
5c A World of Difference – ref photo by S Faulkner

A World of Difference – reference photo by S. Faulkner.

Don’t approach everything you make with the premise that you must complete it. Make samples, try out crazy combinations, and keep notes on what methods and materials you used, so you can replicate the ones that you feel are successful. Branch out from your tried and true. And finally, when it comes to moving your artwork forward, consider taking a step back into childhood. Recite as your mantra Ms. Frizzle’s words from the children’s TV show The Magic Schoolbus: “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.” And have fun.

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All images by Mary Pal, unless otherwise noted.

Copyright © Mary Pal except as indicated.

About Mary Pal

Mary Pal is a Canadian fibre artist best known for her cheesecloth portraiture, artworks that are made with sculpted cheesecloth that is stitched to a textile backing, using a technique she pioneered over a decade ago. The resulting portraits are meticulously detailed and exquisitely textural. Her work has been exhibited and collected throughout the world, and published in numerous books and magazines. With over 40 years of teaching experience, she is a sought-after and popular instructor who enjoys sharing her knowledge and skills with her students around the globe. A past Director on the Board of the international organization, Studio Art Quilt Associates, Mary is an enthusiastic promoter of the burgeoning fibre art movement.

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