Small Block Hook
Article by Gloria Hickey

he hooked rug is a cultural icon in Newfoundland and Labrador. Traditionally made from recycled rags and burlap from food sacks they introduced colour and warmth to outport kitchens and parlors. Over generations, hooked rugs have come to represent the outport woman’s ingenuity and perseverance amid harsh economic circumstances and a climate to match. For collectors outside of the province, hooked mats made with silk stockings under the direction of the Grenfell Mission are best known (see Ornamentvm, fall 2006). In the hands of today’s textile artists, however, the hooked rug has become a potent metaphor for creative expression and a tool for aesthetic experimentation.

By the 1970s, few functional hooked rugs were being made for daily use in Newfoundland and Labrador. The mat makers who came of age before Confederation had stopped “hooking” and the twenty-somethings who would have been the new generation of mat makers were for the most part not interested. They had more choices for floor coverings – from linoleum to machine made carpets – and more disposable income. It was a time of changing lifestyles and hooked mats, along with outport furniture, were replaced with choices from the mainland. Divorced from necessity, it was inevitable that the hooked rug would evolve into an art form.

The hooked rug as an art medium is a logical outgrowth
from the “Newfoundland Renaissance” that took place in the
seventies and created a generation of artists such as Gerald
Squires, Don Wright, the comedy troupe Codco and musicians
like Ryan’s Fancy who celebrated their cultural identity.
Visual artists, musicians and other professionals
trained in mainland Canada returned home to discover
their own culture. Movies, research and popular journalism
documented the history and uniqueness of Newfoundland’s
traditional culture and lifestyles. Far more than a craft revival,
the hooked mat became a way for artists to reflect on where
they had come from and their aesthetic options.

Sister Ann Ameen was an unlikely champion of the
hooked rug as an art form. A reformed show girl originally
from Newfoundland, Sister Ann had promised God, from
her hospital bed in Florida, her service as a missionary in
exchange for her cure from cancer in 1958. She returned
to Bay Roberts, Newfoundland and made more than 1,000
hooked rugs that she sold to finance her ministry with
“troubled girls.” The mats were technicolor creations
emblazoned with bible quotes and Eden-like landscapes.
Often large and intended for the wall, they are among the
first content-driven hooked rugs.

Not surprisingly, several contemporary textile artists in the
province recall visiting Sister Ann Ameen; Kathleen Knowling
and Elizabeth Dillon Tucker are two notable cases. Knowling
is a visual artist who was searching for an art form that
“would be as indigenous to the Newfoundland culture as
shipbuilding” she says. Over the course of a career that spans
forty years, Knowling would go from painting the borders,
patterns and text of mats to actually hooking in wool. Her
art mats are hung in suites and deal with social issues such as
the decline of the fishery or the role of women. Instead of the
platitudes that were featured on traditional mats, Knowling’s
text is pithy wit and more in keeping with a protest sign.

Elizabeth Dillon Tucker stands out in the community of
Newfoundland textile artists because of the graphic impact
of her hooked rugs. She takes traditional subjects such as
birds or fish but executes them with contemporary design
savvy. Tucker has also taught and influenced many mat
makers who have come through the Anna Templeton
Centre’s Textile Studies program in the last ten years.

These have included emerging artists looking for a specialty
as well as established artists interested in experimenting
in other media – like painter and printmaker Christine Koch.
Portraiture, large-scale and mixed media approaches
have emerged in the province as significant trends in the
hooked art form. Portraiture for example is significant
because it dramatically signals the shift from the floor to
the wall – you wouldn’t want to walk on someone’s face.

Within portraiture there are at least two styles, which can
be described as the raw and the cooked. Margaret Forsey is a
young artist who creates portraits characterized by pixilated
images and bold colour combinations drawn from pop
cultures. Despite being very stylized, the uneven rows and
pronounced loops still convey recognizable features and
personality traits. In contrast to Forsey’s “raw” approach,
Catherine McCausland’s portraits are examples of control.

They are refined and precisely composed but often lighthearted.
McCausland describes herself as “a chronicler of
small details” such as the way her daughter’s braid falls
across her face when she is lost in a good book.
Large-scale hooked work is noteworthy because it signifies
the shift of the hooked mat out of the domestic sphere.

Artists are creating works that would be “at home” in the
corporate boardroom or the government lobby. Frances Ennis
and sister-in-law Maxine Ennis enlisted their daughters’ help
in producing a five by six foot mat depicting the fishing berth
of the family. Trained as a painter, daughter Sheila Coultas
introduced painted passages to the receding cliff faces in the
imposing landscape.

The fishery also dominates other large-scale works such as
Clifford’s Education Fund by Janet Davis. Standing four feet high
and measuring 8 by 10 feet, it is a hooked mat that depicts
drying cod laid head to tail on a fish flake. Davis wanted to
portray a whole schooner load of fish. Alder twigs are integrated
into the hooked burlap. The three dimensional display is in
effect a homegrown monument to a lost way of life.

Artist Heather Reeves regards the reassuring geometry
of traditional hooked mats and their colour and comfort as
women’s way of taming the harshness of a rugged life. She
says it is akin to the way men historically have used maps to
control and measure geography. Reeves combines the devices
of topographical map and the hooked line to compelling
effect in the large-scale Memory Mat, Gros Morne Relief. It
features hooking in aluminum screening, rather than burlap,
and dried plants embedded in beeswax. It functions as a
metaphor for how we accumulate meaning, memory and
a sense of place.

Wire and sheep’s fleece are two opposite approaches
within the mixed media trend in hooked mats. The lightreflecting
properties of metallic threads and fabrics have
long appealed to mat hookers and it is consistent that the
use of wire would be next adopted by those striving to
animate the mat. Wire also allows the extension of the mat
into space and holds its shape. Niki T. Holohan uses wire to
add arching pistils to her floral compositions while Wanita
Bates uses vintage jewellrey to similar effect in her gardens.

Carolyn Morgan has pushed the use of wire furthest, making
hooked mats completely out of household wiring, metal pot
scrubbers and perforated sheet steel. It is a contemporary
take on the recycling of household materials. Susan Stephen,
on the other hand, has inverted the process and instead of
recycling clothing has made a sturdy jacket with hooked
fleece rovings. And also in contrast to wire, hookers Laurie
Dempster and Trine Schioldan have used sheep’s fleece to
create sensuous cloud-like compositions.

Although none of the art mats currently made in
Newfoundland and Labrador are functional in the floordwelling
sense they do respect the spirit of the original
hooked mats. Outport mats were made for the satisfaction
and use of their creators not for export. It is not surprising
so many art mats make reference to the fishery, the
importance of family and friends and an enduring sense
of place.

Gloria Hickey is a freelance curator and writer. Her most recent
exhibition was “Traditions in Transition, Contemporary Hooked Rugs
of Newfoundland and Labrador” for the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College
Art Gallery and The Rooms Provincial Museum.

Image credit: Anita Singh.
Small Block Hook, 2006.
Traditional hooked rug. 67.3 x 81.3 cm