It’s official. Roz Chast, the beloved New Yorker cartoonist and author of a bunch of books, including her wonderful and hilarious cartoon anthology, “Theories of Everything” can be officially counted among the ranks of “traditional” rug hookers. Cartooning in her maximal drawing style, with a story to tell, Roz got used to being outside the mainstream art world while going to RISD during the height of the serious “minimalism” trend of the 1970’s. Roz has been hooking for several years now and is rarely without a piece in the works. It is exciting to see how an artist with a seemingly defined vocabulary can cross media and create a fresh take on a venerable craft.
As expected, Roz’s imagery is a delight. Everything a Roz Chast fan would hope to see is there: quirky folks, cozy interiors, animals (including her much loved pet birds, Marco and Eli), and a selection of consumer products, some inspired by her “unique” canned goods collection, all rendered in her very recognizable style. The words are there too, stylishly drawn. Roz says that in contrast to cartooning, there does not need to be a punch line in her rugs.
Roz and I had known each other peripherally for years, but when she called asking if I could teach her how to hook rugs it was a surprise. She had seen a piece of mine on the Internet and decided to take the plunge into a craft that she had apparently been interested in for some time. Strangely, the piece she admired was purely an abstract pattern and color. What did she, an illustrator and writer, find so compelling in the craft? Did she feel hooking could take her artistically beyond what she already did so well with pen, ink and watercolor on paper? Why glacially paced hooking with the specialized equipment and materials it requires? It turns out the aspects of hooking that most attract Roz are color, texture, limitation and, well, leisure.
A palette of spot-dyed wool is very different to work with, color-wise, compared to a palette of watercolor or any other kind of paint. This can be very daunting to first time hookers. All of those light, medium and dark patches of color on one swatch of wool is very exciting to look at but can create challenges when hooking a readable image. Instead of choosing a light or dark colored piece of wool, one chooses the hue and has to figure out how to separate tonal areas. Outlining is a great way to do this. For Roz, this plays to her great strength: drawing. She is able to keep her artistic identity clear while playing with the glorious variety of plaid, striped, psychedelic and even rich neutral colored wools that dyers have available.
Like so many of us, Roz loves the look and tactility of primitive rugs hooked with a wide-cut strip. The shadowing created by the loops and the texture that can be created by changing hooking direction (up and down, around and around) creates a unique, visually active surface. (The exact same image hooked by different people with the exact same wool can look completely different depending on how the strips are hooked.) Unlike her ink drawings, which Roz says flow as naturally as handwriting and where the tiniest details can be added to amplify the story, primitive hooking requires the paring down of details to essential design choices. She particularly enjoys the challenge of composing with bold shapes, borders, pattern and lettering that have to be legible using the equivalent of an extra-wide Magic Marker-width line.
This leads to the “limitations” feature of hooking that Roz likes so much. One can’t own wool in every color of the rainbow (though Roz admits that she would love to have “a bajillion colors of red”) or have and endless supply of any single color, so figuring out how to make the local color of any area in a rug is tricky. Color areas are ‘built rather than mixed. Roz likes to think of each loop as a pixel in a highly magnified computer image (or think pointillism close up). Bits of seemingly anomalous colors snuck into a color field, like a spot of turquoise or violet in an orange/magenta area can have a wildly energizing effect. She keeps a handy stash of orphan strips of random colors left over from other rugs to toss into the mix. Flat, boring simple color areas or a paint-by-numbers effect are to be avoided at all costs.
Finally, Roz actually enjoys the slowness and relaxing nature of rug hooking. She once did a cartoon mocking the “time squandering” nature of hooking before she made the big leap, forgetting all about drawing it. I believe the idea of hooking must have been percolating in some dusty corner of her mind all that time. It does take a long time to hook a rug, loop-by-loop, color decision after color decision. Then there is the process of un-hooking and re-hooking that has to happen to get it just right, and that’s all just fine with her. Her mind can drift to other things while making steady progress on the task at hand. The fact that she can watch movies (she says dialogue-heavy films are best- less watching), have a glass of wine and be social while she hooks is a plus. She can do none of that while doing the “serious” work of cartooning.
The historical tradition of rug hooking does not particularly interest Roz. She hooks because she enjoys making complicated things with her own unmistakable graphic twist. She also makes intricate pysanky eggs, a crazily detailed Ukrainian art, and elaborate, geometric origami structures. Embroidery might be next. Roz is pleased with the intersection of fine and applied art that is widely embraced today. She shows her rugs in gallery settings but is not averse to having them walked on. One of the best things about hooking she says is that it is not her “main thing.” There are no deadlines, no editors and, at the end of the (long) day, she loves the object she has made.