Written and photographed by Catherine Guarnieri
For artist and budding pillow designer Mary DuLude, “gardening has always been my salvation.” And so the Litchfield-based owner of Paola Prints found inspiration in her gardens and a creative outlet by using her plantings to create luminous and boldly colored prints for her specialty pillows, made entirely in the U.S.
DuLude, one of 11 children born to an Italian father and German mother, credits her European heritage and family background for shaping her artistic process. Gardens were extremely important to her family, not only for their produce, but also for their beauty. Both her parents were artists and integrated art and gardening into their everyday life.
“The family life revolved around the garden, from planting to harvest,” she says.
DuLude says her work begins and ends in the garden and she has to “take it, it’s not a passive thing,” meaning it is an active choice on her part to pull what she needs from it, whether a bountiful harvest, flowers, photos for her project, or simply centering and aligning with the earth.
DuLude has a considerable background in the fine arts. She attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., majoring in painting. But before college, she had the opportunity study abroad in Italy for two years, fine-tuning her sensibility for exquisite craftsmanship with one of those years spent in Florence. Her drive for entrepreneurship was strong. She wanted to take a product from concept to completion.
For several years after coming back to the U.S., DuLude suppressed her artistic talents, but still remained creative through her marketing and consultation. Her last stint as a marketing consultant for New Morning Market in Woodbury fine-tuned her interest in fine arts and holistic living. This set her gears working on how to integrate her love of gardening, holistic living and the arts into her everyday life — and she came up with her pillow line. It is a product she says must “look beautiful, be functional and made well, and with integrity.”
The form of her art began not with a pillow, but with what DuLude calls her “Coat of Many Colors,” a quilted coat she embellished with appliquéd flower cutouts of many hues and forms. Sewing is one of her talents, so she began to think in terms of fabric.
“I didn’t want to just paint flowers and then it’s just hung on a wall and does nothing, or do sculpture even. I wanted something kinetic and beautiful at the same time, as well as useful,” says DuLude. “So I came up with pillows. You can put them anywhere, and covers can be changed any time, for any season.”
DuLude’s process starts in the garden, tending her plantings until they are works of art themselves, and then photographing what catches her eye. She photographs throughout the life of the plant, whether it is a showy rose, or a leafy hosta in her flower bed. She uses macro lenses to focus in closely on her subjects, so they are nearly abstractions of the plant. Still, they are recognizable. She then manipulates the image so that it is luminous and bright, ranging the gamut of her chosen color palette, but she credits most of the mystique of the plant to the plant itself, rather than her manipulation of the image. The images are then ready to print.
DuLude’s search for a printer who was able to give her the color accuracy she desired on her chosen fabric, a fine cotton sateen, was exhaustive. She finally settled on a printer in North Carolina who was familiar with fiber-reactive processes and began the back-and-forth trials of calibrating the press to her specifications. She finally achieved the results she aimed for and production began.
DuLude’s seamstresses then craft a pillowcase that is painstaking and incredibly precise. Each seam aligns perfectly on all four sides of the case, despite the variations in the print. They are aligned without flaw, and contain and invisible zipper. It is a three-dimensional work of art that is functional and beautiful. The pillow is a hypoallergenic down-filled form with high loft, she says.
During a recent interview, DuLude said she was about to travel to Highpoint, North Carolina, to a trade show in an effort to sell her pillows to home decor businesses and make connections there. She considers the show her test market.
Some have questioned DuLude’s use of flowers for her pillows, saying they may be too feminine, or colorful — but she counters, “You wouldn’t match a flower bouquet to your decor, would you? They are what they are.”
Indeed, DuLude’s designs are more abstract forms than floral, a form she hopes will appeal to a wide audience. She also hopes to expand into fashion, putting her prints on silk scarves.