Heidi Parkes was destined to quilt. While at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, her early textile work included pressing fabric into ceramics and constructing a quilt made of metal. But it wasn’t until she picked up a quilt-top project abandoned by her grandmother that she found her calling. She fell in love with the meditative qualities of hand quilting and appreciated the memories represented by fabric and the intrinsic comfort of quilts.
Parkes, 33, now constructs abstract scenes depicting urban density, the expansiveness of the ocean and landscapes as seen at night from an airplane window. She uses a variety of materials that range from vintage tablecloths and hand-dyed solids to fabrics from her travels to New York and Korea.
Quilting in America began as a largely utilitarian practice, according to Margaret Andera, adjunct curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “By the late 19th century, as more items were available commercially, rather than having to be made by hand, quilting evolved from a functional to a largely leisure activity,” she says. “As designs became more complex and intricate, and quilts were made for non-utilitarian purposes, the interest in them as aesthetic objects took hold.”
You won’t find the precise angles or familiar patterns in Parkes’ quilts, but they do carry a handmade quality. “Her work is special because it combines modern aesthetic and traditional methods,” says Luke Haynes, a Los Angeles-based artist who has collaborated with Parkes on a quilt. Their cross-country project meant mailing the quilt back and forth, adding stitches little by little, a process determined, in part, by the Postal Service.
For her series, “I Know the Stars Are There Beyond the Clouds,”an exploration of the dormant mind, Parkes used old bed sheets “because we’re tapping into the unconscious mind when we’re dreaming,” she says. For her, it’s not just fabric that infuses a quilt with meaning, but the stitches. “The straight lines are like creating a list of things you want to remind yourself are true,” she says. “Like, I know the stars are out even though right now I can’t see them.”
While you could cuddle up with a Parkes quilt, the artist would rather see them hung on a wall. “I’m more inspired and excited when they feel more like a painting,” she says, “more like fine art.” ◆