An artistic life doesn’t happen overnight. Rather it comes together in pieces, one colorful swatch at a time. No one knows this better than Heidi Parkes, whose own artistic journey has unfolded as a patchwork of experiences.
Now, she’s adding the latest piece: fine art quilting.
I first met Heidi through the local branch of CreativeMornings, a breakfast lecture series for the creative class. Her thoughtful talk on improvisation in art inspired a whole new way of looking at my own work. Maybe the most significant shift ever in my own artistic evolution. (More on that in the coming months.)
Recently I had a chance to catch up with Heidi over coffee and learn more about how she and quilting found each other. It turns out that art has always been a part of her life. In high school and college, Heidi worked weekends and summers at a ceramic artist’s studio. She also studied fine art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After a decade as an art teacher, she discover fine art quilting and realized that this was the medium she wanted to commit to as an artist. And that realization set in motion a multi-year journey which included leaving her art teaching position, moving from Chicago to Milwaukee to be nearer family, and creating her first twenty-four fine art quilts.
So where does she get the inspiration for her work? Like any professional entering a field, Heidi has begun to reach out into the fine art quilting community around the country. She takes inspiration from among others fellow quilters Maura Grace Ambrose of Folk Fiber, Luke Haynes and Mark Bradford and her grad school instructor Diana Guerrero-Macia, who taught her to make meaning with her materials. She’s also recently discovered the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts, and looks forward to exploring partnerships there.
She also takes inspiration from her family, friends and everyday life. In fact, the fabrics for each quilt alone represent who and what has been involved in shaping that quilt. For example, just in the quilt below, the following life experiences, people, and places visited are commemorated: “Boston, Michigan, Florida, Japan, Korea, Naperville, Pilsen, friendship, co-worker, brother, mother, roommate, garage sale, Christmas… So many memories for such a small corner.”
At any time, three or four quilts will be floating around in Heidi’s head, “just waiting to be made physical.” Her planning and producing processes happen in tandem. As the design unfolds through the available fabrics and influence of the moment, Heidi listens carefully to her intuition, trusting it for everything from the piecework pattern to the final stitching, which follows a general direction but often takes on a pattern all its own.
“Some other fine art quilters actual pencil in their lines ahead of time,” she explains. “For me, the wandering of the line is part of the art and story itself.”
In between quilts, Heidi finds time for other pursuits and passions. She is also an art tutor, a yoga instructor and does one-on-one yoga therapy sessions. Now that the move from Chicago is finished, she is slowly putting together her new home in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood—enjoying the sunshine, the chirp of the birds, and the rhythms of the community she now calls home.
All of which is part of the attraction of quilting, really.
Says Heidi, “When I worked in the ceramics studio, I loved the end result of our work, but I knew I could never survive the days on end in a dark basement studio. So many kinds of visual arts requires one to be rooted in a studio. I wanted to be able to move around—and take my work with me.”
Take it, she has. To Chicago on visits, to Boston, to New York and many other places. While some of the process is better undertaken in the home studio, Heidi can work on portions of her quilts from anywhere. And she likes to take the finished product to different places to be photographed, too.
Perhaps it’s that sense of mobility and freedom—not to mention spontaneity—that keeps Heidi coming back to quilts. These qualities I believe all of us crave deep down inside, but aren’t always the first ones that come to mind when we think of art.
I think of my own multi-year journey with writing, and how many years my creative practice was weighed down with the “must do’s” and “disciplines” and fear of critique. Spontaneity and freedom were not gifts I would have associated with writing . . . until Heidi reminded me of how precious they really are.
We talked about the beauty of improvisation and how so often, in our culture, we’re encouraged to silence that voice that rises up within, whispering what the next step should be. Heidi mentioned a number of writers whose writing seems to capture that “spontaneous” quality—as if the lines were written with as much freedom as the stitches on her quilts. Writers like Anthony Bourdain, who is “so witty and crass,” Heidi smiles, “and says, ‘Dear Reader,’ as if he were dashing off the lines in a casual letter. There’s a freeness about them that I love.”
In fact, if I were to characterize Heidi and all of her work, that’s the word that would come to mind: free.
Free from fear. Free from subservience to expectation. Free, even, from the desire for fame and fortune that keeps so many of us changed to an office desk. Her contentment and joy in the small things of life, and in the daily routines of her creative practice, as well as her attention to the beauties of nature, are a like a tall glass of water on a sweltering day.
And I’m not the only one who’s noticed.
As her artistic journey here in Wisconsin unfolds even further, I have no doubt that Heidi will continue improvise many more times, and that her art career will evolve with her quilts. We’re lucky to have her here in Wisconsin. And I’m lucky to have met her—if for no other reason that to get in touch once again with the joy of the moment.
Piece by piece, one stitch at a time, our stories unfold.