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Memories in Rag

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Documenting the Farm is a series of eight scatter-sized hooked mats depicting the buildings and landscape of a family farm in New Brunswick. Joanna Close undertook the project, which occupied her for three years, to commemorate the place where her grandparents and subsequent generations had earned their livelihoods. The farm ceased to exist several years ago, when it was sold and became a gravel pit. Close’s pictorial mats are based on photographs.

Why would a highly educated practitioner of fibre and pictorial arts, such as Joanna Close, engage in a form of folk expression such as rug hooking?

As has been done since the mid-nineteenth century in Atlantic Canada and the north-eastern United States, Close hooks her mats on a frame, using strips of reclaimed woven wool (rag) pulled up through a burlap backing with a hooking tool. (Before 1870 the ‘hook’ would have been a nail.) Loosely woven of jute, and used in feed and grain sacks, burlap makes an ideal foundation for the hooking of wool rag, and was once a plentiful household item. As Jessie Turbayne puts it, “Rug hooking was a craft born of necessity. The technique of pulling up or ‘hooking’ rag strips and woollen yarns through a woven fabric base proved to be an economical and undemanding method of making floor coverings for drafty homes. The simplicity of the hooking process allowed rug makers the freedom to express their individual creativity. Hooked rugs were functional art, an art of need and poverty.” (Hooked Rugs: History and the Continuing Tradition. West Chester: Schiffer, 1991, page 11)

Thus, for Joanna Close, the pictorial technique best suited to the traditions of farm life evoked by her subject matter is the hooked rug or ‘mat,’ according to the local idiom. Pictorial mat making has historically been practiced either with commercially available patterns or from original designs representing persons, animals and buildings familiar to the mat maker. Working in the latter tradition, and like her self-taught nineteenth-century predecessors, Close tends to centre the principal motif–such as a sugar camp, barn or dwelling–and allows it to fill as much of the frame as possible. This approach to composition is typical of the six mats completed in 2012, in which the proportions of the buildings depicted influence the proportions of the finished mat.

The style of Close’s hooking is ‘random’, similar to the manner of the prominent Nova Scotian rug hooker Deanne Fitzpatrick, by whom Close has been employed to write on-line mat-making courses and conduct dye workshops. In the random style the hooker first outlines a shape and then fills it in with loops that follow no particular direction or contour. This style is often encountered (though not in Close’s work) together with untutored drawing and a lack of perspective, shading or detail. In contrast, hooked pictures by the late Nova Scotian artist Nancy Edell display a ‘directional’ technique whose stylized curves echo the vigorous movements of her expertly drawn, fanciful figures.

Because it is not noticeable as a pattern, the random distribution of loops in Close’s mats enhances the desired naturalistic effect. Compensated by the artist’s skill in drawing, the linear imprecision occasioned by the coarseness of the medium is further offset by a palette of hand-dyed, naturalistic colours. It is the colours and the carefully simplified rendition of characteristic details, including those of the landscape, that make her building portraits recognizable as such. In comparison with the photographic source images, the hooked mats display a pleasingly soft focus, and in this they mimic the vagaries of memory.

The most recent of Close’s hooked mats, The Hay Field 2014 and The Kitchen 2014, demonstrate a more sophisticated approach to pictorial composition than the six preceding building portraits. It is as though, having completed the most straightforwardly commemorative portion of her project, the artist turned away from the iconographic traditions of mat making and toward those of painting and photography.

In The Hay Field, the barn and Gram’s house, which are separately portrayed in the series, are reduced to architectural elements in a composition whose pictorial conventions derive from those of landscape painting. This is the only landscape subject in Documenting the Farm. Likewise, the domestic interior depicted in The Kitchen is the sole interior in the series. (The kitchen belongs to the white frame structure portrayed in Gram’s House 2012.) The last of the mats to be completed, The Kitchen depicts the farmhouse wood stove next to a view through an open door down a shadowy corridor. The kettle throws off a metallic gleam and a box of Sunlight soap balances on the edge of the kindling box. Subtle colours cede prominence to the artist’s handling of spatial recession, light and shadow. Representing the emotional heart of Documenting the Farm, The Kitchen is also the most fully realized picture in the series.

In connection with pictorial rug hooking, Jessie Turbayne refers to “sentimental rug makers who were often compelled to depict... the things in their lives that were near and dear...Family members became involved by voicing opinions on the artist’s portrayal of familiar faces and places...Many had contributed to make this special rug a true labour of love.” (Hooked Rugs, page.41). Documenting the Farm was conceived and completed in this spirit. While in progress the series was exhibited twice, in 2012 and 2013, at venues accessible to Close’s relatives who live in the Maritimes. These mats will never be tossed on the floor. They will be given by the artist to her relatives, each one matched with the individual to whom its subject matter is most relevant.

Ingrid Jenkner

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