Artist sculpts facial expressions with cheesecloth

“Homeless Love” by textile artist Mary Pal of Ottawa, Ontario, was created from cheesecloth, buckram and burlap, and measures 34 inches by 24 inches. It’s based on a photograph by Clint Colbert. This quilt will be shown May 3-6 at Denver National Quilt Festival VII at the Denver Merchandise Mart complex. It’s priced for sale at $2,500 on Pal’s website,

“Memories of Gombe” by Mary Pal is on exhibit through May 13 in Art Quilt Elements at the Wayne Art Center in suburban Philadelphia. Pal based it on a photograph by Diana Quintela and made it from cheesecloth, buckram, scrim and acrylic paint. It measures 30 inches by 44 inches.

This is a detail of Mary Pal’s quilt, “Solace,” based on a photograph by Clint Colbert. Measuring 44 inches by 33.5 inches, it is made of cheesecloth, denim and burlap. It’s listed for sale at $4,000 on Pal’s website.

“I see far greater beauty in the lines and creases that develop in a face over time. To me, they signify the wisdom gained during the course of a life well-lived.” MARY PAL Canadian textile artist, explaining her preference for mature faces in her portrait art

Society will never give up its quest for the Fountain of Youth.

With each passing year, cosmetic experts offer more elixirs of life, plumping fine lines and wrinkles with collagen and Botox injections. The number of potions promising firmer skin rivals the candles on an octogenarian’s birthday cake.

But one textile artist whose specialty is portraits prefers the mature visage.

“I see far greater beauty in the lines and creases that develop in a face over time,” says Canadian Mary Pal of Ottawa, Ontario. “To me they signify the wisdom gained during the course of a life well-lived.”

Her materials are most unusual ­— cheesecloth, linen and burlap — but the combination yields compelling images with masterful use of positive and negative space. (Cheesecloth is a thin cotton with a loose weave and a gauze-like appearance, so named because of its use in making cheese.)

Pal works from photos of older friends or pictures taken by other photographers who capture faces that intrigue her. One of the larger pieces she has made with the cheesecloth faces is titled “Solace” and shows two homeless men comforting one another.

Her process consists of manipulating a photo on her computer, transferring it to newsprint and placing it under clear acetate.

Pal then dips cheesecloth in a mixture of polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glue and water for stiffening and moves it into position onto the acetate surface, sculpting the details of cheeks, eyes and foreheads. When the cheesecloth dries in position, she carefully peels it off and stitches it with monofilament thread onto linen, denim or whatever background she chooses.

The homeless men are stitched on black denim and quilted on burlap.

“I like the combination of the rough texture of burlap, which accentuates the fibers of the cheesecloth,” Pal says.

Her techniques may vary with each piece, but she always begins by studying the light and shadow in the photograph. Pal says she’s always surprised that the smallest pieces of cheesecloth can reveal so much about the mood of the person she’s portraying.

“The final stage, when I step back and see that I’ve captured the nuances of the personality in the face, is always the most exciting and rewarding for me,” she says.

The art quilt world has discovered Pal’s creations. Her work was exhibited at the International Quilt Festival last fall in Houston, and a piece titled “Memories of Gombe” is showing now through May 13 in the Art Quilt Elements exhibition at the Wayne Art Center in suburban Philadelphia.

Pal is now in Philadelphia herself attending a Studio Art Quilt Associates conference; she serves as a director on that organization’s board. The opening of the quilt exhibition coincided with the conference.

Another quilt titled “Homeless Love” will be part of a special exhibit at the Denver National Quilt Festival VII, scheduled May 3-6 at the Denver Merchandise Mart.

In August, Pal will head overseas where yet another piece is juried into the Taiwan International Quilt Exhibition. She’s been invited to teach her textile technique at the event.

That’s not all. An upcoming book, “Art Quilt Portfolio: People & Portraits,” will feature her as one of the artists. The publication will be written by Martha Sielman, author, curator and executive director of Studio Art Quilt Associates, and published by Lark Books.

Pal admits she’s “been taken aback at how my art career has skyrocketed in the past year.”

“To fund my fiber addiction,” she continues to work one day a week for a charitable agency, but Pal dreams of one day devoting every minute to her art and hopes that the new exposure for her portraits will allow that.

Each year, she donates a 12-inch-square portrait as a September fundraiser for Studio Art Quilt Associates.

“My pieces invariably disappear within minutes on opening day (of the auction)” at a price of $750, Pal says, so she knows collectors appreciate their value. Marketing herself and her other larger works of art is her next goal.

She’ll continue to sculpt glue-soaked cheesecloth into facial contours to reveal people with time-worn expressions, bringing them to life on her canvases.

Next time you look in the mirror and notice a cross-hatching of fine lines on your cheeks or parentheses around your lips, don’t despair. See yourself as a work of art.

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