Reflections on Rug Hooking: Alexandrya Eaton’s “Everything in Between”

12 January 2022

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Lately, I’ve been observing other contemporary rug hooking artists explore and respond to the question: “How do I make the artistry of rug hooking visible?” Some artists, such as Michelle Sirois-Silver and Karen Miller, choose technical innovation or blow-up to garner attention. Deanne Fitzpatrick colourfully stylizes a regional geography. Laura Kinney uses simplified primitivism, but her ironic take on Maud Lewis seizes attention.

Toronto’s Textile Museum of Canada has toured its Home Economics show of hooked rugs, relying on social craft history as its focus. One group established a Contemporary Rug Hooking Group on Facebook last year, whilst another on Instagram instituted a weekly focus on individual artists. More traditionally, guilds or local groups of rug hookers frequently take on community projects, presenting the final collaborative rug to organizations for display or fundraising. For instance, in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, the Quoddy Loopers have collectively completed many rugs, so that every public building seems to have its own hooked rug commemorating the centrality of handicraft to the region.

While all of these approaches tell stories in which the artistry of hooked rugs is remarkable and visible, it seems to me that Alexandrya Eaton’s approach is unique.

Reflections on two exhibitions

Everything in Between
Owens Art Gallery, Mount Alison University, Sackville, NB; June 28 – Aug 31, 2021

Becoming: The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Port St. John Gallery, Saint John, NB; March 12 – April 30, 2021

image description: a woman looks at the camera, behind her are brightly coloured fabric wall-hangings

Alexandrya Eaton

Eaton is by no means a conventional or traditional hand-hooking artist trained in the Pearl McGown school. In her work, ends of wool are often clipped roughly, or left unclipped; repeated shapes show the influence of Eaton’s commitment to pop-art stencils during her creative process; text is off-centre or smack in the centre; wool is very wide-cut; graphic outlines frequently define spaces; the colours are vibrant to the point of violence; and the orientation of fill lines can suddenly change from vertical to horizontal. All this works to disrupt the orientation of those who are used to looking at hooked rugs.

More significantly, Eaton has placed square hooked rugs in a checkerboard arrangement with square acrylic paintings in large, colourful displays. There were fifteen rugs and fifteen paintings in the Becoming installation (with extra paintings also on display). The artworks do not butt up against each other, so the visible wall around them is on its way to becoming a quilted lattice framework for the brightly-coloured scraps of cloth and canvas, which are not really as distant as artists and curators tend to treat them.

Eaton’s demand that we respect hooked rugs (still often perceived as a feminized, and therefore inferior, craft) as much as we do paintings (perceived as fine art, the traditional purview of men, and therefore superior) is inherent in several respects: the highly integrated alternating organization of the pieces, their equality of size (both rugs and paintings measure 76 cm x 76 cm (30 inches x 30 inches), and their equality in number. Indeed, several squares—such as “SHE DANCED” and “Wonder Woman”—are realized in nearly identical paintings and hooked rugs. The narrative—equal recognition for equal art—seems to arise naturally out of the feminist sensibility of the series, its focus on women’s experience and inheritance.

Image description: Three female silhouettes in in bright colours.

SHE DANCED – in painted and rug form.

For many years a painter, Eaton in her artist statement, Eaton writesthat Becoming was “originally inspired by my grandmother, and the grief that followed after her passing.” Rug hooking offered “a traditional method of women’s cultural production” in an analogue to her grandmother’s quilt making. Eaton has commented that she deliberately chose in rug hooking a medium that is slow, to allow her to work through her painful loss. To explore this a little, take a turn through a passage of Victorian dramatic blank verse:

He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.
Eternity mourns that. ’T is an ill cure
For life’s worst ills, to have no time to feel them.
Where sorrow’s held intrusive and turned out,
There wisdom will not enter, nor true power,
Nor aught that dignifies humanity.

—Sir Henry Taylor, Philip Van Artevelde. Part i. Act i. Sc. 5., 1883

This scratches at the surface of what Eaton is doing. “He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.” If one (Ed. note: our preferred indefinite singular pronoun in this context) doesn’t make time to grieve (“to mourn”), then one doesn’t make time to heal (“to mend”). Presumably, the inverse is true: If one does make time to mourn, then one does make time to mend. But it seems to me that Eaton is offering this adage in reverse, and with a gendered difference: If you make time to mend—or to engage in therapeutic fibre arts—then you are making time to mourn. In Eaton’s formulation, “She that takes time to mend, takes time to mourn.” And how much more true might that sentiment be now, when the time of all is prized so highly and doled out so sparingly?

In Eaton’s work, a simultaneous and generous repetition of motifs, especially female figures, stands in for generational or sequential motifs, the things that get passed down from woman to woman in families. Rather than offering a movement through time or a sense of chronological development, the paintings and rugs freeze time, honouring Eaton’s grandmother not simply as an ancestor (her importance derived from her identity as the source of the artist’s identity) but as having a full and complete life in herself (her importance derived as separate from the artist’s identity). Yet the frequent grouping of three or four of the figures is suggestive of the number of generations of women that often co-exist (grandmother, mother, child, and beyond). And different phases in the life of a woman are illustrated in purposeful movement, particularly striding and dancing, as Sara Brinkhurst notes in her introduction to the exhibition at Sunbury Shores (Alexandrya Eaton. [2019]. Becoming [Exhibition Catalogue]. St. Andrews, NB: Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre).

Image description: Six square panels of art, alternating between paintings and rug hooked pieces.

I would add that this movement is collective, not isolated. The woman, as gendered by self or by external force, and women who resemble her are moving together, but repetition does not strip the image of its authenticity. Rather, this repetition opens up the possibility that many women were (and are) moving in the same direction during certain phases in our lives.

A fundamental irony exists in the use of time-intensive rug hand-hooking techniques to render repetitive pop-art stencil, silkscreen-style images. This is as revolutionary for pop art as much as it is for hooked rugs, I imagine. That irony is disruptive: The compositions and colours solicit a sense of speed and motion while the textural interruptions and depth prevent slick, superficial understanding.

Image description: Close-up photo of rug hooked artwork showing textured yarn detail.

Viewers do not register mass-production or commodification or celebrity; they register the joyful and lingering celebration of an individual yet representative woman. The installation demands three-dimensional movement to view it, and it is significant that when the piece was shown at Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2018, it was installed in a passageway, while at St. Andrews’s Sunbury Shores it was installed on two parallel walls. Visitors moved through the story.

Image description: Broad gallery corridor or room with shiny wood floors and grids of artwork on opposite walls to the left and right.

The exhibition installed at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Photo credit John Leroux.

For Eaton, taking time to practice slow fibre art that pulls together diverse threads and reestablishes pattern and use, is taking time to honour, taking time to mourn. If we mend something, we value it sufficiently to make it whole. Not perfect, but whole. Sorrow becomes tactile, soft. The pop appeal transforms into a poignant and thoughtful response to the presence and absence of female influence, and, in doing so, these works invite wisdom, true power, and the dignity of humanity.

Image description: Gallery wall hung with square pieces of colourful artworks.
Image description: Gallery wall hung with square pieces of colourful artworks.

All images credit Nadine Flagel unless otherwise indicated.

Correction (February 17, 2022): The photo from Beaverbrook Art Gallery was incorrectly captioned as Sunbury Shores, and photo credit was not provided. The caption has been corrected and photo credit given to John Leroux.

Copyright © Nadine Flagel except as indicated.

About Nadine Flagel

Nadine Flagel is a self-taught textile and fibre artist whose mission is making art out of “making do.” She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Dalhousie University and teaches literature and composition. She is interested in the repurposing of both texts and textiles. Both practices rely on cutting up existing text(ile)s, on aesthetic and sensual appeal, on thrift, and on putting old things into new combinations, thereby intensifying and multiplying meanings. Flagel has recently held her first solo exhibition at the Craft Council of BC, has written about textile art, has created textile art for public art commission, and has received grants to make art with youth. She is also a member of CARFAC, and the Craft Council of British Columbia. As a settler, she is grateful to live and work on unceded land of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, səl̓ilwətaɁɬ, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm peoples.

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