A Slice of Americana Told Through Tapestries

BOSTON — When I first saw Mary Tooley Parker’s hooked rugs attached to the gallery walls, my knee-jerk reaction was to consider it folk art, a nostalgic expression of Americana, but the details, color, and composition of the large pieces kept me looking and looking. Soon, I was won over by the works in Tooley Parker’s debut show The Crystal, at LaiSun Keane. The white horse grazing in the lower left corner of “Wisconsin Medieval Tapestry” will likely bring to mind the “Unicorn Tapestries” at the Cloisters. 

In her mid-60s and mostly self-taught, Tooley Parker got her BFA in dance from New York University and studied music for many years. According to Keane, she did not begin making hooked rugs until years later, after moving out of New York City. From Tooley Parker’s website, I learned that she makes the foundation for the rug, spins the yarn, and hand-dyes it, which explains the wide range of unlikely colors, from magenta and pink to multiple greens.

Tooley Parker’s imaginative use of color is one reason why her “tapestries” held my attention. Of the exhibition’s 14 works, four are aerial views of a room in a farm house she visited for many summers when she was growing up. There, the press release explains, she became “enthralled by the [textile] medium since she was eight, and finds that the brain receives textile art differently from paintings.” It is in these works, all depicting a room in Ruth’s house (the artist’s grandmother), that Tooley Parker attains something that is unmistakably hers.

In “Upstairs Bedroom, Ruth’s” (2023), the bird’s-eye view offers multiple perspectives, which the artist fits together on the rug’s two-dimensional plane. It appears as if the walls have fallen outward, however the objects in the room are presented from different viewpoints. A bed with a high headboard is jammed in the upper left corner, while a rocking chair in the opposite corner is perched on the edge of a pink rug, ready to tumble into space. The left wall angles upward, and the cropped windows conform to that reading, yet the wall on the right is flat. A crib seems to be lying on its side, but two oval portraits above it and a doorway to the right suggest it is upright against a wall. A small striped rug by the bed and the green concentric bands of an oval rug by the crib add to the overall sense of patterning. 

Further complicating this view is the blue, carpeted staircase angling in from the lower left edge and flattening into a horizontal band across the pictorial space. This is the landing before the room, overlaid with a wooden banister. Beneath the banister is part of a yellow and umber wall, matching the color of the room’s walls.

Tooley Parker’s flat composition requires the viewer to envision the room and everything in it as three-dimensional. There is something funny about the white crib lying on its side and the open closet door, revealing a dress both hanging from a hook and lying flat, in the same orientation as the crib. The artist invented the logic of the composition, which conveys both a penchant for order and an openness to the topsy-turvy demands of an infant. Meanwhile, the colors of each object infuse the work with a cheery, familial warmth. 

Tooley Parker’s attention to detail is everywhere in her work. In “Ruth’s Back Porch” (2023), everything is set at an angle that enables us to recognize what we are looking at. Just below an angled green refrigerator in the upper left is a wooden desk with a sewing machine. Tucked tightly in the upper right-hand corner is a brown box-like enclosure. The bottom edge of a toilet and a person’s bare legs tell us that it is a bathroom, while the red, low-cut sneakers and white ankle socks suggest the person is a child. Along the right edge, we can scrutinize the top of a green stove, a kitchen sink with its drainpipe below, and the corner of a bluish carpet contrasting with the bright pink floor. You get the feeling that Ruth did not hire an interior decorator and the sewing machine may have played a large role in Tooley Parker’s life. 

Tooley Parker’s ability to articulate small details, such as a pair of scissors by the sewing machine, the window panes and curtains, and a suggestion of what is outside, underscores her emotions and warm memories of this place, which was in rural Wisconsin. In “10 PM Lunch in Ortonville” (2023), the title points to the constant demands of living on a farm — here seemingly tended to only by women — as well as their strength and sense of community. Tooley Parker’s view is multigenerational, and the camaraderie is evident from the expressions of the three older woman, each wearing glasses, sitting with younger generations at a large round table. 

Tooley Parker has taken a folk art form that emerged in the mid-19th century and transformed it into a way of recounting a slice of rural life in the early 1960s. Her memorialization of key periods in her early life is quirky, tender, and winsome. The softness of her tapestries exudes a welcoming comfort. 

Mary Tooley Parker: The Crystal continues at LaiSun Keane (C8A, 460C Harrison Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts) through March 31. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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