Looking at the overlooked

M. Parfitt

Photo By Larry Dalton

When I arrived at M. Parfitt’s house, the first thing she did was unroll the poop quilt. The piece, titled Wilbur’s Opinion after a cherished pet, is composed of hundreds of photos of dog droppings. She explained that she documented her dog’s backyard visits for a year to get the pictures and that no two are alike. She chose only the most interesting shapes and even fed Wilbur corn and carrots to influence his “artistic process.” Once I got over my initial “I can’t believe I’m studying poop” reaction, I started to appreciate the astonishing variety of shapes and textures, which is exactly the point. Parfitt’s art, created with hair, blood, forgotten photos, lint and other typically discarded objects, invites the observer to take another look at things that almost never get a second glance. It’s an approach that won her the $1,000 first prize at the 73rd Crocker-Kingsley exhibition last month at the Crocker Art Museum.

Were you surprised you won first prize?

I was totally shocked. I wasn’t even sure my piece was in the show. First, there’s a round of judging by slides. Then, they tell you to bring your piece in for the second round, so I did, and they said, “If we don’t accept it, we’ll let you know.” I never heard from them. I assumed it got in, but I didn’t really know. I thought maybe I’d missed a phone call. So, we went to the reception, and they handed us the catalogs, which we didn’t even open. If we’d opened them, we’d have seen a picture of the piece right inside. We wandered back, and there was my piece. I said, “Oh, there it is! It actually made it in.” Then, I noticed the sign that said first prize, and I just dropped everything. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I would win, especially with Gladys Nilsson being the juror. I’ve admired her work for years. She’s an excellent painter and a very interesting artist. For her to pick my piece just shocked the hell out of me.

What was the winning piece?

I collect old photographs and books. I took about 70 old photographs of women, and I found little bits of text to put under each one. I tore the pages and smeared blood all over them, so a lot of it’s blocked out and other words are emphasized. You can’t get a complete story out of each piece of text, but you can get an idea by reading a couple of words. Each piece of text was about constrictive behavior—how you’re supposed to dress, how to wear your corset, how to do your housecleaning, how to behave for your husband, how to behave in public. It’s all about behavior women were supposed to fall in line with. I combined the two and added rows of lint vertically, throughout the piece. I like working with lint because it’s something people throw away. They don’t notice it, but it’s really interesting material, the colors and the textures. It ties in with how these women were treated. They were sort of ignored and invisible, unless they followed these behaviors. Their lives were insignificant, just like the lint. But, if you look at the lint, it’s really interesting, so maybe these women had interesting lives, too. So, I sewed all that up as a quilt.

Victoria Dalkey, who reviewed the Crocker-Kingsley exhibition for the Sacramento Bee, criticized the use of text in art. Why do you use text in your work?

I think it adds another dimension. You can read as much as you want. You can look past the blood and try to figure out what the words are. You can glance at it and read a few words or just look at it visually, as part of the composition. I like to hint at ideas from books, throw in ideas that might not be apparent if it was just photos and color.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve used in your art?

I used to save my dog’s nail clippings. I used them in a house sculpture. They kind of formed a path and looked like pebbles.

You use a lot of blood.

I started using it maybe seven years ago. I wanted to make a quilt that looked like it was stained with blood. I tried acrylic paint, silk paint and watercolors. Nothing looked like blood. It looked like paint. Finally, one day I had my period, and I thought, “Well, why not try blood?” and it worked. I like the way it looks. You get thick clots and little runny bits and chunks. It changes color when it oxidizes. It’s fun to work with because you really can’t control it.

Do people assume you’re going for “shock value” in your art because of the blood?

Some people don’t even know what they’re looking at. Other people don’t know it’s menstrual blood, and they assume I cut myself to do it. It doesn’t have any real deep significance for me other than the fact that I like the color and the texture.

What inspires you?

I like looking at things that people throw away or overlook. I pick things up from the gutter on my way to work—scraps of paper and stuff. I’ve always liked … the idea of recycling things and making them useful again.

What is the role of the artist today?

Art, to me, is fun. I don’t believe in suffering for it. Artists who are tortured should be a in a different business, obviously. I make what’s fun to me, and I hope people like looking at it. I like to see people laugh at my work. That’s my role as an artist, to have fun.