Telling stories and casting spells: Pfister Hotel’s Artist in Residence Heidi Parkes on her diary quilts


By Margaret Faust | July 9, 2024

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  • Quilter and artist Heidi Parkes works Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. She's the hotel's 2024 Artist in Residence. (Angela Major/WPR)

Quilter and artist Heidi Parkes works Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. She's the hotel's 2024 Artist in Residence. (Angela Major/WPR)

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With a mother who painted, a father who woodworked and a grandmother who went to art school, it’s no surprise Heidi Parkes has always been creative. She remembers spending evenings coloring in the kitchen as her mom made dinner. In the summers, she’d travel to New Mexico to make pottery with her grandmother.

Of all the art forms Parkes’ studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and practiced her whole life, quilting has always had a special place in her heart.

Before she was born, the family of Heidi Parkes collaborated on this quilt. Each person created an individual square. (Courtesy of Heidi Parkes)

Before she was born, the family of Heidi Parkes collaborated on this quilt. Each person created an individual square. (Courtesy of Heidi Parkes)

Before she was born, her grandmother and aunts made a collaborative quilt which eventually lived at the end of her bed. One square includes a bunny with the phrase “Oh little one, welcome to life” written around it. Another represents the nursery rhyme “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.” A third features an umbrella protecting a child from the rain. Parkes said the quilt square is a metaphor.

“Not only do (quilts) protect you physically with warmth, but also that continued knowledge that I had growing up that my extended family was there for me and watching out for me and caring about me was a very important part of that quilt,” Parkes said.

Since 2015, Parkes has worked as a professional quilter. Now, she’s the 2024 Artist in Residence at The Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Her style is improvisational and handmade, forgoing a plan and a sewing machine. She calls her artwork ‘diary quilts.’

“When I make a diary quilt I like to think that it is the place to do the good work that happens in a diary,” Parkes said.

A quilt made by Heidi Parkes is on display Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

A quilt made by Heidi Parkes is on display Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

She uses her quilts as a place to track and contemplate everyday dilemmas and milestones like interpersonal relationships, her travels and her health. If she makes a mistake, she moves on, believing that quilts should reflect life’s imperfections.

“The inherent slowness of quilting allows me that time to process and think about things. Generally when I’m making them, I just have to know my next right move. I don’t need to see the whole quilt in advance,” Parkes said. “I think a diary is like that too. You buy one and you’re full of wonder.”

Her diary quilts also act as “casting spells.” Last fall she was itching to give her home studio a makeover. She took to the quilt she was working on to brainstorm how she might redesign her space.

“It was pretty amazing to me that I outlined my home studio space in gold on that quilt in October and then in November, I got a phone call from the Pfister’s Artist in Residence program asking if I would be interested in moving my studio to the hotel for a year,” Parkes said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not even done making this quilt yet. It’s already creating this magical opportunity for me.’”

Quilts decorate the bright blue walls of her studio in the Pfister Hotel. Some are made up of dark black and blue fabrics. Other quilts are white and bright. But they are there to be looked at, rarely touched.

“It’s important to me that my quilts are soft and malleable. While they hang on the wall, they are full of the potential to wrap you up with comfort,” Parkes said.

Quilter Heidi Parkes works from a studio surrounded by quilts she created Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Quilter Heidi Parkes works from a studio surrounded by quilts she created Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

She said her quilts are deeply personal. Like the contents of a diary, they are full of secrets. The materials are equally as important as the image they create. Some of the fabrics she uses are finished artifacts like a table runner, a hanker chief or a shirt collar. Others come from parts of old clothing from her teaching days.

“That tells an interesting story and adds an element to the quilt that’s very meaningful,” Parkes.

She collects fabric from her trips around the world. Tucked away in a drawer in her studio are fabrics she brought home from France including stacks of lace, ribbons, silk and velvet.

She pulled out a green, blue and red piece of toile fabric that reminded her of a painting at the Pfister.

“Now this fabric is standing out to me more because it feels like France and the Pfister,” Parkes said.

A table of supplies sits next to quilter Heidi Parkes as she works Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

A table of supplies sits next to quilter Heidi Parkes as she works Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Her quilts range in price from $3,000 to $10,000. Because her quilts reflect her life story, it’s important to her to find the right owner.

“It’s really like a marriage finding the right fit for a quilt,” Parkes said. “Art is so unique and so special where yes, it will belong to someone else one day. But it will also still always be my quilt.”

On one wall in her studio hangs a black and white quilt titled “Magical Thinking Attempt no 8.” She worked on it while considering whether or not to move in with her partner, Beau.

“(It’s) about me casting spells and using magical thinking with the idea that making a quilt can change my life for the better,” Parkes said.

Quilter Heidi Parkes works Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Quilter Heidi Parkes works Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Margaret Faust

Margaret Faust

Margaret Faust is a Second Century Fellow with Wisconsin Public Radio. A California native, she’s new to Milwaukee, winter, and cheese curds.
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