I had the recent pleasure of talking virtually to textile artist Laura Kenney about her incredible art work and gaining an insight into the inspiration behind her unique rugs. I am intrigued by the incredible images that she encapsulates within her rugs and was keen to find out more about her creative process. So, here it goes…
Hi Laura Kenney! Would you mind telling us a little about yourself and your background please?
My Dad was a pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces so our family moved around a lot, all across Canada and Germany. My Dad used to fly a fighter jet that was dubbed the “widow maker” so to cope my Mom sewed, crocheted, knitted and cross-stiched. All the women in my family kept their hands busy with crafts/art so it makes sense that I would become a rug hooker. Moving around a lot was a bit hard always being the new kid. I had to entertain myself so I drew and read. In my twenties , I read a lot: Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, and Carol Shields . All of these lovely Canadian writers portrayed strong female characters so I am sure that is where Judy came from.
And who is Judy?
She is a character that appeared in my rugs a few years ago. I see parts of myself in her, and my Mom. Judy is a like a superhero. She always wears a black dress because it’s slimming and so that she can be ready for a funeral in a moments notice. Her hair is red and she always wears red boots. She saves lighthouses in Nova Scotia, drinks wine to cope with housework and has a bossy cat. Judy wants to save the planet from climate change and to never have to make dinner again. The big and the small: she takes it on.
What inspires your work?
I’ll read about something that doesn’t seem quite right to me and that can start a series. When lighthouses were declared surplus by the government that concerned me so Judy came to the rescue. Nova Scotia is an underdog so “rescuing” the province will often come up in my rugs. We are a have-not province so it brings to question what is worth having or pursuing as a society. A couple of years ago I read For Folks Sake by Erin Morton and Heart on the Door by Lance Woolaver. That peaked my interest in Maud Lewis’s life and how she is portrayed and how her paintings are being com-modified. A series of rugs followed and were shown at Secord Gallery and Acadia University Art Gallery with painter Steven Rhude.
Can you tell about your creative process?
I’ll get an idea, often while having a shower or out for a walk or driving, and then make a small sketch and free-hand the image onto burlap and then hook. If I am feeling strongly about something the whole process flows pretty easily. I think everything is a rug… I just hope I can produce all the work I want to as apparently people don’t live forever! 😉
How do you go about selecting your colour combinations?
I take into consideration the mood of the piece. I like intense colours so I use a lot of dye and I like gold and red so that usually finds a place. I’ll have a rough colour plan but will often abandon the plan once I get hooking which makes it interesting. Colours can make it or break it!
Which other textile artists do you love? Are there any that inspire you, past or present?
Nancy Edell was an American-born Canadian artist, and her rug hooking pushed the boundaries between art and craft. Her work was rooted in feminism and drew inspiration from her dreams, religion, politics and later with her health struggles. It was so interesting to me to see these subjects being dealt with in rug hooking. I have a total hooker crush on Larry Weyland, @larrycweyand. She lives in Newfoundland and is one to watch as she making interesting sculptural hooked pieces. Larry deals with themes having to do with anxiety, stress and depression. Also, Michelle Sirois-Silver, @msiroissilver in BC is one of my favourites. She uses waste hosiery in her rugs and it really works.
What do you enjoy most about working with textiles?
I like that I have a blank piece of burlap to say what I want. In the late 1800’s rug hooking took a turn when patterns appeared. To me, it feels like women lost their voices and so I like that when I make a rug I feel I am reclaiming that voice. More rug hookers are using their own voice, telling their own stories and this is encouraging. Rug hooking about climate inaction or social injustices and trying to do it using humour is what makes sense for me so that is the direction I’m going to keep going in. And I love the wool and silk, the feel of the sari- ribbon is so nice and comforting and the colours are yummy. Rug hooking to me is like a nice bowl of macaroni and cheese, very comforting.
Have you ever experimented with any unconventional materials?
I was a participant at the Craft NS winter show in Halifax this year and met a textile designer from Quebec. She has scraps from her process and is aiming for a zero waste policy with her practice. She uses linen, bamboo and denim so I am going to being using those fabrics for the first time. For materials, I mostly use second-hand wool clothing and sari-ribbon which is silk left over from the sari making process. Just today I cut up some bubble wrap and hooked with that. It hooks up really nicely so will make a piece with that for an up-coming show. Basically anything that you can pull through the burlap will work and it is exciting for me to use materials that would ordinarily end up in a landfill.
Do you have a favourite piece you’ve created so far?
Morning Routine is one of my favourites. It seemed like a bit of an unconventional thing to hook but I did persevere. It ended up being purchased by the NS Art Bank for their permanent collection… so I guess the moral of the story is be brave and go for it.
What are you currently working on? Are you able to share any ‘in-progress’ photos?
I was fortunate to take part in a residency in the Cape Breton Highlands in June with Parks Canada and Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design. We hiked, attended artist talks, and had a chance to chat with fellow artists. We were asked to make a piece based on that experience so that is what I am working on now. The exhibition will be in the spring and will travel through the province. I tend to keep to myself so it was good for me to be around other artists and the process was very different in making this piece so it has been helpful.
What’s next for you in terms of textile projects?
I’m working towards an exhibit that will be in late 2021. I’m really excited about it as it will be in a public gallery so I can do some pieces that are a bit “out there”. Judy will be the star of the show and it’s a large gallery so that’s going to keep me busy for the next couple of years!
What advice would you give someone looking to get into the textile art industry?
Be patient, it is a long road.
Try to not get too discouraged if you don’t get a grant or into a show.
In Nova Scotia we are fortunate to have a strong Craft NS organization as well as The NS Folk Art Festival, Visual Arts Nova Scotia, and Arts NS. All these have been so helpful to me so reach out to places like these in your community as well as other artists.
We are trying to be a bit more eco friendly in 2020. Do you have any tips or tricks to be more environmentally friendly in our day to day lives?
I think as makers we have a responsibility to up-cycle materials rather than using new. We have to watch the packaging we use when selling our work. I have met a couple of artists that are aiming for or have a zero waste policy, so it can be done. As for everyday living: consume less, plant a tree, buy local, protest and remain hopeful.
Where can people find out more about you and your work Laura Kenney?
Thanks Laura Kenney, it’s been great getting to know you! 🙂
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As always, happy rag rugging!