Artists of the (cheese)cloth
By Jenn Watt
Published July 24, 2018
Under the practised hand of artist Mary Pal, the fibres of cheesecloth look remarkably like the wrinkles on the weathered face of a lighthouse keeper. They can also look like the scales of a fish, the mane of a horse, or the bark of a tree.
Using an unlikely medium, an everyday item more often associated with food than art, Pal creates startlingly realistic likenesses of her subjects.
Last week, the Toronto-based artist instructed a class at Haliburton School of Art + Design how to do the same.
Pal started incorporating textiles into her work about a decade ago, she said. The cheesecloth is particularly suited to the nuances of the face and skin. Transparency or opacity can be created by stretching or layering the cloth.
Pal will be turning 65 this year and said she’s “realizing the dream” to be an artist, following a career as a high school teacher. Having retired from teaching, Pal sells her art and is part of the Contemporary Textile Studio Co-op in Toronto. The co-op offers a studio space for its members, where they can work, teach and innovate together.
It is her third year teaching at the college, having been recruited by Shelley Schell, and her students are eager to praise her style and skill.
“It takes you from ‘I don’t know what the heck I’m doing’ to ‘oh my God, I finished this,’” says Deborah Murray as she irons her quilted piece depicting a windswept pine. She came to the college with five girlfriends and was “completely thrilled” with what she was able to create. Although she had done some sewing as a teenager, Murray had never done free motion quilting before, which involves a technique that looks like drawing with thread. The cheesecloth tree, which was shaped by hand and held fast with glue, is sewn onto the fabric once it’s dried.
Deborah Murray comes to the college each summer to learn a new skill. She said she was "completely thrilled" with the cheese cloth class and had created artwork that could be displayed in her home. /JENN WATT Staff
Murray doesn’t consider herself an artist, but was impressed by how many pieces she created during the class, which was a week long.
She found the cheesecloth a forgiving medium, which could be shaped and reshaped in order to perfect the image.
Other students didn’t feel the same way.
“I’ve never worked with cheesecloth before,” said Marilyn Ginsburg, from Thornhill. The photographer said she has avoided fabric and found it a challenge to use. That said, she was enjoying herself.
“You can always count on really nice classmates in Haliburton,” she said. This is the sixth year she’s been at the school.
Ingrid Langhorst first met Mary Pal last summer. On Thursday afternoons, the college encourages people to visit the studios and check out what students are doing. She visited Pal’s class and said “she was so welcoming and gracious” that Langhorst signed up for both of her offerings this summer.
She said the techniques can be applied to all kinds of work. Her fellow students agreed. Many said they weren’t fabric artists, but could take what they’d learned and apply it in their other work.
Abstract artist Christopher Staples of Moore Lake and Florida wasn’t sure at first how the class would apply to the work she does.
“I was excited today to have a moment of discovery,” she said. The cheesecloth could be used as line instead of as image.
Staples teaches and exhibits in Florida. This was her first year taking a class at HSAD and she said she was loving it.
Abstract artist Christopher Staples, in the foreground, begins her work on Thursday morning at Haliburton School of Art + Design. Staples spends half her year in the Highlands and the other half in Florida, where she exhibits her work and teaches classes. In Haliburton she was enjoying her first class at the college. "I'm loving it," she said. /JENN WATT Staff
“The college is amazing,” she said, pointing to the breadth of topics to choose from. She called the faculty spectacular and the people amazing. She hopes to one day teach a printmaking class at HSAD.
Fellow student Jan Anderson already teaches at the college and took Pal’s class to enhance her fabric art. She said the college has meant a great deal to her since moving to Burnt River in 2010. She took her first course in 2011 and by 2014 was teaching.
“I had never done anything artistic in my life,” said the retired osteopath. Her husband encouraged her to come to HSAD for a class and she was hooked. She takes three courses a year and teaches Fibre Art Techniques, a one-week class.
In the winter, she teaches from her home studio.
“The staff and faculty are totally amazing,” she said.