Jonathan Parker’s unique combination of painting and quilting is on display in Alcoves 20/20 No. 3 at the New Mexico Museum of Art. He calls his work Sewn Pieces, referring to his technique, but they may also be seen as Sown Pieces, referring to his natural and nurturing influence. His ideas are literally planted in his craft. “My pieces include elements of drawing, painting, and more provisional approaches like mending and applique,” Parker says.
Mr. Parker’s technique is meticulous and straightforward. He paints colors onto used canvas which is frequently stained or marked, cuts shapes from this painted material, sews the shapes onto another canvas background, which again can be stained or marked, and finally stretches the piece on a stretcher bar so the piece can be hung on a wall or placed on a shelf. His current pieces measure 14 by 11 inches so that they can be easily sewn and placed within available spaces. He has recently moved to more three-dimensional structures, covering the sides with patterns and details so that he develops a deeper space for expression.
Inspired by both nature and folk art, Mr. Parker views his works as a natural evolution of these sources. Nature seeps into the colors he chooses. The shapes he selects from this evolution can be geometric – circles, semicircles, arcs, spirals, quadrants, rectangles, squares, ovals – or they can be organic biomorphs reminiscent of Joan Miro. “People tell me that the shapes I use suggest machines, organs, tools utensils and aerial views,” he says.
Mr. Parker maintains a historical tradition and expresses his admiration for the quilters of Gee’s Bend, a small, remote, black community on the Alabama River, now growing increasingly famous and influential. The quilters are descendants of slaves who originally worked the fields of the Pettway plantation and who started making quilts in the mid 19th century, teaching three to four generations of their individual families. They did not use traditional patterns like Flying Geese, Log Cabin, or Irish Chain, but improvised patterns using selvage, recycled clothes, feed sacks, and other remnants. Mr. Parker and the Gee’s Bend quilters share the commonality of history, reusability, original variations, and creativity. These artists all look at fabric, design, and format with unorthodox, abstract visions.
Unknowingly, Mr. Parker is also following the tradition of hundreds of years of male quilters. Soldiers, sailors, prisoners, and patients would pass their confined time by quilting. Such quilts memorialized wartime exploits, provided comfort for those injured or convalescing, and helped forestall boredom or fear. Like Mr. Parker and the Gee’s Bend quilters, these men used old fabrics such as uniforms, blankets, and rags. During World War I, 138 wounded British soldiers quilted an altar cloth. “The quilts show man’s determination to create beauty out of the fear and dread of war,” writes Jason Daley in an article for the Smithsonian Magazine.
Now back to our current artist and quilter. Mr. Parker does not describe his process as intentionally historical, but rather spontaneous and intuitive. He does not start with a clean slate, a tabula rasa. His materials incorporate past actions, almost fingerprints from the past, of stains, mistakes, and raw, unraveled edges. He works subconsciously, and not necessarily intentionally, as tradition, texture, color, and shape all interact to inspire him. He notices that as he works, he falls into a flow in which the sense of time and place are lost. He feels no stress, no pressure, just a joyous reaction to the combination of method and material.
“I go into a space and do it.” – Jonathan Parker
Beardsley, John, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, eds. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. 1st ed. Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books in Association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002.
Daley, Jason. “The Centuries-Old Tradition of Military Quilting Is Getting Its First Exhibition in the U.S.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/quilts-made-soldiers-go-display-first-time-180964215/.
Written by Sharon McCawley, Curatorial Docent at the New Mexico Museum of Art
Image Credit: Jonathan Parker, SC # 207, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, sewn. Courtesy of the Jack Fisher Gallery