Making Rugs That Are Unmistakably Art
Thirty years ago, I began using the word “studio.”
I remember when I first began saying “the studio.”
It felt like I might be faking it.
It felt so unfamiliar.
It was like a word that belonged to someone else.
I had grown up in rural Newfoundland, and there were no artists around that I knew. The idea of being an artist was an unfamiliar thing. I had never known, or even known of, anyone who made a living from making art.
By the time I started using the word, I had been hooking rugs for a couple of years. I knew I had found something that I always wanted to do. I knew that I made hooked rugs, but I was still not sure that I was an artist.
I thought I might be.
I knew I wanted to be.
I decided I was going to be.
And I knew an artist needed a studio.
And I wanted to make rugs that were unmistakably art.
I knew I was going to have to get comfortable with that word. I knew language was important. Calling it a studio instead of a back room or a summer kitchen would help to define who and what I was. I had just taken the summer kitchen that was falling off our then-150-year-old farmhouse and restored it.
I decided that if I wanted to be an artist, I needed to call it my studio. I needed to talk like an artist, and I needed to act like an artist. So, I did. I referred to that room as my studio even when it did not feel right, even when it felt a bit pretentious. I wanted to reach my goal of not only being an artist but thinking of myself as one.
It was there that I began my business, where I create one-of-a-kind hooked rugs, rug-hooking kits, patterns and supplies.
Now, when I look back on it, my first studio was a trunk and a rug-hooking frame in my living room — before I ever thought of taking over the new space. It grew to include an armoire that I could open the doors to before it took over the summer kitchen. Wherever I make is where my studio is.
That beautiful space that I claimed was my studio for nearly 15 years, and the loft of it remains my home studio. Since then, my studio has grown a few times.
When my children got older, it was difficult to have a home-based studio business, so I found a small space in downtown Amherst, Nova Scotia, that I was able to rent. I kept the loft space at home so I could work there as well and be home after school.
My downtown studio has grown, too, over the years. It now occupies five beautiful rooms in two old downtown buildings that have grown together. About seven years ago, we chipped through two brick walls to marry the spaces. One part of it is about 100 years old, and the “new” part is about 70 years old.
When you arrive at my place, there is an old, covered terrazzo patio that I fill with cast-iron planters of geraniums in the summer. In the winter, we warm it up with pine boughs and branches. Once you step inside, you are welcomed by thousands of colourful skeins of wool and bundles of hand-dyed cloth. These are the materials I use to make my rugs.
Four of us work full time in the studio, and there are six to eight part-time people who help us dye wool, make kits and ship. We ship rugs, kits and wool all over North America every day of the week. And we do it with joy.
People come to the studio from all over the world to soak up the atmosphere and colour. Before the pandemic, we held several in-studio workshops and classes — and I expect to again in the future. In the last two years, we have taught thousands of people on our online courses on rug hooking, art and creativity. We even have a free beginner course on my website and do a free live video there every Thursday at 2 p.m. AST.
So, I have the retail studio where people are welcome to come and bask in the colour, hang out, play with wool, try hooking and get advice on their rugs. You go round the corner, through the opening of the two buildings, and pass through the tea kitchen, and I have a small space filled with warm light that is just for me. It is my artist’s studio, and every time I walk in there, I feel gratitude. I often think: How did I go from a young woman who was embarrassed to call her back room a studio to this 56-year-old grown woman who has this space full of books and bits of paper and wool and rugs that is a room of her own?
It took me a long time to claim a beautiful space for myself. For years and years, I used a narrow room in the middle of all the action in the front of retail space to make my rugs. I was easily interrupted, and I was always in the heart of everything.
You know, it seemed fine at the time. I was grateful for it then. When I look back on it, though, I can see that my work did not deepen and grow in that space as it has since I claimed a larger, more private and well-lit space for myself. Honestly, it is like I gave myself room to grow, room to be more, room to be better.
When I claimed that space, it was like I was reclaiming the artist inside me again. I was less of a manager and more of a maker. My job became more about creating than it did about fixing small issues that arose in the day-to-day business operations. I have great people who work with me who are good at that.
Taking myself away from the middle of things helped me find my centre. That, in turn, helped me grow both my art and my business.
Five Things I Have Learned About Being An Artist
- Claiming space can start small. For me, it began with an antique trunk and rug-hooking frame under a window in the living room. Leaving your work out where it is available and easy to access is the first step to creating a studio. It is about having a place to go where you can make.
- Don’t be afraid to call yourself an artist even if you are not sure you are one yet. Start acting like an artist, keep making what you make, and you will become an artist.
- Language is important. It helps us define who and what we are. Words like “artist” and “studio” help us become who we want to be.
- Use your studio as a wonderland. A place for you to play and take time out from work as well as a workspace, and you’ll love it even more.
- Give yourself the gift of focus when you are in the studio. Take blocks of time and put your phone on silent in another room, avoid checking your email and let yourself be present.
For me, my personal studio at my business is not just the place where I make my rugs. It is the space where I sort myself out. It is the quiet space where I can be on my own and make. I use it to do research, to learn, to meet with other creatives online. I read there. I have written all my books there. It is also the place where I just hang out and find my way. It is more than a work space, it is also a play space.
When I am at home at night, I’ll often retreat to my loft home studio, after sharing supper with my husband, and catch a show or read a novel or paint my nails.
An artist’s studio is not just a place to work because part of our work as artists is to play and renew, and I use my studio for that, too. It is my go-to place. As soon as I get there, I feel like it is a prayer that has been answered, and I feel like this day after day.
When I travel, I am often homesick for it. I miss my wool, my frame, my sketchbooks, my bits of paper, twigs and rocks, pictures and all the bits of inspiration I have around it.
Part of being an artist is claiming space. We have to claim space within ourselves to bring to our art. We have to claim space within our day to make. And we have to claim space within our homes to work.
Claiming this space, and the word it is called, “studio,” has helped me become an artist. More importantly, it has fed and sustained me as an artist because I have been able to retreat and reemerge time and time again renewed and blessed.
As an artist, sometimes there are things we need that are functional but not particularly beautiful. One day I was walking by the washer and dryer, and I thought: How can I make them more creative? I simply took out my Sharpie marker and started drawing all over it. It was like this little artist date with myself. There was no reason to do it, but there was every reason to do it. I just let my mind wander and my hands followed. It was just another step in making my studio my own wonderland.
Some playful things I like to do in my studio
Every once in a while, I will invite my three good friends over and feed them in my workspace. Once, I turned my desk into a table and set it beautifully and fed them a candlelit dinner. Another time, I invited them for happy hour and ordered pizza, and we all worked on a painting. Just telling you this makes me want to invite them again.
I store my old sketchbooks under the cupboard. Sometimes, I like to randomly pull them out, grab a cup of tea, and look through them for ideas that I never used. They inspire me.
I keep all my gift wrap, and a few beautiful things that I like to give as gifts, in my studio. I love giving gifts. It is the place where I wrap all my Christmas presents and the special gifts I give throughout the year.
This one might be funny! I keep all my little hand spa things, like my nail polish, beautiful hand creams and my hand massager, in the studio so I can treat myself really nice there. Sometimes, I have a little hand spa there for myself.