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Mary K. Borkowski

Mary K. Borkowski’s art, with which the artist coined a technique she called “thread paintings,” contains more complexity than meets the eye. During her lifetime, it was often assumed that her work was done with the latest in embroidery machine technology. “These pictures are not embroidery,” she said, “but more like low relief sculpture, and require hundreds of hours to create.” Each contained three or four layers of material, including canvas, batting, and muslin. Instead of relying on one process, her practice drew on various techniques she had mastered, from needlework to crochet, appliqué, and quilting.


Each laborious composition, with its spotlighted scene, serves as an intricate recording of the artist’s emotions and personal history, through blending thread on textile canvas. Borkowski came from a maternal line of skilled seamstresses and quilters. Also, a domestic abuse survivor, many of her paintings memorialize struggles, injustice, and traumatic events, including her habit of wanting to please others. Such themes are present in The Whip and The Man who has Peace, made to commemorate the death of a nephew. Indifference (1967) commemorates the last night the artist suffered at the hands of her violent husband, including the presence of a witness refusing to help. Borkowski stated: “There are times when I think my ability to lose myself in this work has kept me from going crazy, for it has given me much pleasure, more than anyone can imagine.” The work also provided Borkowski with a way to support herself financially while she built a new life.

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