June 2011: Hooked rugs by the Group of Seven (and friends)
Header image: Hooked rugs by the Group of Seven (and friends)

Featured Artist: Group of Seven Rug Hookers

Last updated: June 10, 2011

Judy Colein and Kyung Hatfield hooking in Alberta House

Judy Colein and Kyung Hatfield hooking in Alberta House

This is the first time we’ve featured a group as opposed to a single artist. It’s an exception—especially since many of the artists involved have also been featured individually. In a sense, that’s why we’re profiling this group, because the rug hooking work of these artists is often entirely different from their work in other media. In addition, there’s something about the craft, and perhaps about the group itself, that evokes a burst of enthusiasm that is almost kinetic. And the term “burst” is correct only in that it describe the onset of the craze. It doesn’t convey the duration, which seems to be permanent. The Group of Seven represents a phenomenon that contains all the very best qualities that art embodies—creativity, energy, beauty, satisfaction, and joy plus a large helping of camaraderie and sharing.

Hooking hovers between two and three dimensions. It is composition, texture, color and subtle shading all rolled into a single package that is often tied together with threads of humor and tradition. It can be folksy or cosmopolitan; both a tribute, when it celebrates another’s painting or design, and a record, when it depicts an event or location. Some of the artists in the group were already versed in needlework, had tried rug hooking, and came back to it when they had time. Others took a class rather reluctantly, and got ambushed.

The sparkplug for this movable feast is Joan Muckelbauer, the group’s founder. As we explained last month, it all began when she offered a rug hooking workshop that she tried, unsuccessfully, to limit to six participants. What began as a workshop continued as a group of friends meeting twice a month in Alberta House to practice an art they all love. Joan is still the inspiration and mentor—the rug guru, as it were. An important part of every year for her is attending a rug hooking workshop somewhere. This year she and Judy Colein traveled to India to attend a fiber workshop.

For Joan every rug is a new adventure. Her favorite is always the one she’s working on—but when she’s finished, she’s on to the next one without mourning the one that’s been sold or given away. She loves the primitive style (as in How to Hold a Fish below), but enjoys a challenge as well. One of her most challenging rugs was a copy of a painting by the original Group of Seven’s Frank Carmichael. Joan’s philosophy is that when she is recreating another’s painting in wool she should be faithful to his vision; that when she finished Frank Carmichael’s painting in wool she should be able to show it to him and ask, “Did I capture your vision? Is it okay?” This particular rug was a struggle. She began it four years ago, but after working on it for months wasn’t satisfied with it. When this happens she puts the rug away and comes back to it later. She finally finished Carmichael’s rug a year ago. It was in the Group of Seven’s May exhibit.

Joan was one of the reluctant ones who got hooked. She took her first class in 1995 from Betty Currie, after she had retired and could no longer resist Sandra Poffenbarger’s urging. The class was what she calls “a defining moment”, the discovery of her “creative home”, for which she’d been searching for some time. She just didn’t expect to find it in rug hooking.

One of the most interesting things about this group is the people one finds in it. A year ago Phyllis Bigelow was our Featured Artist and when we ask her if she would agree to that we were thinking of the stained glass for which she is well know. It was only when interviewing her for that article that we learned of the outstanding work she was doing in rug hooking. Many of her rugs reflect her interest in architecture (another thing we didn’t know about). Many are scenes of places she has visited and loves—European castles, among other things—and she says she revisits them as she works. Her rugs develop a life of their own as work progresses, acquiring depth and subtle shading. She finds the process fascinating and sometimes picks up a rug, intending to spend only a few minutes with it, and becomes totally engrossed. In that state she “works on it relentlessly” and “enjoys every minute”. The craft’s portability is a plus for her as it is for most of the group. It’s easy to pick up and carry and one can do it anywhere. She also finds it relaxing.

Marsha Page was drawn to rug hooking by her love of anything vintage, and her favorite type of rug is the primitive. Another of her loves is the hunt—in thrift stores, auctions, rummage sales and antique shops—and this includes the hunt for wool. Although she hadn’t tried hooking rugs before joining the group, it was a craft she’d wanted to learn for some time. She says she enjoys the camaraderie of the group, but hooking is fun on many levels—especially design, color and procuring and dying the wool. Marsha is known for her ethnic dolls (her dolls were in the “Blues” juried exhibit and in last year’s sculpture exhibit). She also makes baskets and weaves.

Judy Colein tried rug hooking many years ago but marriage, children, her own education and a teaching career intervened. Retirement and Joan’s second class provided her an opportunity to get out her hooks and get back to it. In addition to rug hooking, Judy paints in oil and watercolors, works with photography, makes jewelry and soap and body products. She loves the idea of painting with wool. One thing she likes to do is to use the same image in a number of different mediums. The bear image in her painting Up a Tree was repeated in a hooked rug shown in last month’s exhibit. Like Phyllis, Judy can become engrossed in a project and work for hours. And like Phyllis, she appreciates the portability of the craft.

Kyung Hatfield is primarily a painter, but she is also a weaver so she had experience with textiles before taking up rug hooking. She has made six rugs to date and lays out a hooking design the same way she lays out a painting. She hooks mainly while with the group, so the camaraderie is an important aspect for her.

Carolyn Person is a stone carver who also does needlepoint and crewel, and to her, rug hooking is just another needlework experience. She is still employed, unlike many of the group who are retired, and doesn’t consider herself a serious rug hooker. (We find it interesting that the members of the group who are most passionate about the craft are the ones who were ambushed by it, as opposed to those for whom it was a natural extension of other interests.)

Ginny Johnson is a retired art teacher who is accomplished in a variety of media but is probably best know for her ceramics, many of which are really sculptures in clay. When this was written, she was at a jazz and heritage festival in New Orleans and visiting family, but had taken her latest rug hooking project (a Group of Seven look-alike rug) along to work on when time permitted. Ginny says rug hooking has given her a real shot of adrenalin and adds, “Joan is so generous to share her skills with us and seeing the progress of each other’s projects is just thrilling. How wonderful it is to share a few hours of art and life and go home excited about this ‘adventure’ of making art from wool. I hope to make a rug or wall piece for each of my family and friends as an heirloom. Wouldn't they feel the love and friendship when they get out of the shower and step onto something created especially for them.”

A note: Most of the creations of the “Group of Seven” not only contain recycled material; they serve a practical purpose as rugs, chair mats, ottoman covers and pillows, creating a problem for many of us who would never want to actually walk on such a creation. Ginny mentioned making rugs for people to step on when they get out of the shower. Phyllis sent a photo of her cat reclining on one of her creations (below). The craft was created to use up otherwise unusable materials in a practical way . . . and just look at what these artists have done with it!

Another artist who is accomplished in a wide variety of media is Janet Couch. Usually she exhibits paintings or weaving. She moved into rug hooking by steps, before joining the group, and the practical aspect of using left over materials added to her enjoyment. Her journey is best described in her own words: I began by weaving wool rugs on my loom and also rag rugs. A few years ago I began to do locker hook rugs using fabric strips . . . I feel so virtuous using leftover fabric from my quilt making! Then I decided to try using wool roving from my LARGE stash of spinning supplies. These rugs have become my favorite to make with this method.

I have been a painter (and art teacher) for most of my life - all media. Being an art therapist, I spent much of my career helping others explore their concerns through art. After moving to the Soo I have been able to spend time rediscovering my own artistic journey. I began quilting when I was young and have designed many quilts - however I am now totally obsessed with rug making. Although I still do some weaving, I am primarily a spinner and knitter. Spinning is totally satisfying for me. Currently I am learning to work with luxury fibers to spin lace weight yarn which I knit into shawls - to keep my aging brain active!). I also raise angora rabbits (three bunnies) to spin their lovely wool.

Like Kyung, Janet lays out her design as she would a painting. I want it to 'work' as a painting of sorts, have balance, etc... But it needs to be visually pleasing and something I want to live with. The traditional naive or primitive look of rugs is also pleasing. She adds a sentiment that most of the group have expressed: Probably the best part of being in this group is the camaraderie and joy of sharing our hooking and our lives. It enriches all of us and it is simply a gift to be part of the Group of Seven.

Another for whom retirement presented an opportunity to return to pursuits she had tried but didn’t have time to continue is Ginny Lockhart. Ginny took a rug hooking workshop from Betty Currie years ago, finished the project and then put it away. Now she has time to go back to this craft. She also latch hooks and paints (especially old furniture). Making something new, useful and beautiful from old materials is a big part of the appeal for her. Her most challenging piece and her favorite is a rug based on a painting by Group of Seven Artist Tom Thompson, titled “Spring” (below).

Maureen Mousley (Moe) was introduced to rug hooking by Joan Muckelbauer when she took the class that resulted in the “Group of Seven”. Moe has taught in the Sault and Brimley school systems, and now teaches art at Lake State. She also finds time to volunteer in Alberta House, where she is in charge of display in the Alberta House Shop, is the Chairman of the Olive Craig Gallery Board and is on the Board of the Sault Area Arts Council.

Moe is an accomplished artist in a variety of media and was already a prize winner for her baskets when she began to concentrate fully on her oil painting. She has been collecting “Best of Show” awards with absolute regularity, first for her baskets, then for her oil paintings and last year, in the Folk Art Juried Show, for her rug hooking (rug below). She comments about rug hooking, that I love every phase from hunting for the wool, through dying and cutting strips, designing patterns, and finally hooking the rug itself. It combines the same principles of design and color that painting does for me but adds another tactile dimension as a hands-on art form that I really enjoy. She says she owes everything she knows about the craft to Joan, “the Grand Exalted Rug Hooker”.

So there you have it—a group of (more than) seven, pursuing and, most of all, enjoying the arts. More than the finished product, they all extol the process of creating, from designing the original pattern to searching for and dying the wool, to the actual hooking, which they almost all describe as relaxing and truly enjoyable. Another important element here is the sharing—of ideas, of wool, of experience, of opinions and of friendship. In a discussion a couple of months ago, Karen Hughes spoke of how much she loved working with others to mount a production. Earlier, Marian MacLeod had spoken of how she loved singing and playing her violin with others. What are the arts if not to share? Imagine a painter without an exhibit, an actor without a stage, a writer with no readers, a singer without an audience—how sterile! The Group of Seven embodies all the best aspects of the arts and adds practicality, utility and recycling to the mix. Who could ask for anything more?

Works by the Group of Seven
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

How to Hold a Fish, by Joan Muckelbauer

How to Hold a Fish, by Joan Muckelbauer

Joan Muckelbauer’s rendition of Frank Carmichael’s Upper Ottawa

Joan Muckelbauer’s rendition of Frank Carmichael’s Upper Ottawa

Rug by Ginny Johnson

Rug by Ginny Johnson

Rug by Phyllis Bigelow (with cat)

Rug by Phyllis Bigelow (with cat)

Rug by Janet Couch

Rug by Janet Couch

Rug by Maureen Mousley

Rug by Maureen Mousley

Ginny Lockhart's rendition of Tom Thompson's “Spring”

Ginny Lockhart's rendition of Tom Thompson's “Spring”

Janet Couch with visiting grandchildren

Coasters by Janet Couch's grandchildren

Janet Couch brought two visiting grandchildren to a Group of Seven meeting where they designed and completed coasters.

Sault Area Arts Council Home Page 217 Ferris Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
e-mail: saac@saultarts.org Phone: (906) 635-1312