Rugs elevate bygone Prairie symbol

An exhibit of exquisite hooked art rugs by the Heritage Rug Hookers of Saskatoon on six-community tour of Manitoba

An art exhibit of the gone-but-not-forgotten Prairie grain elevator is helping revive a once common craft of Prairie homemakers, too.

A collection of 40 hooked rugs, each depicting a grain elevator, is now on display in Carman.

The collection — which has been displayed at about 20 galleries in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and, most recently Virden since 2010 — is the brainchild of Rita Smith of the Heritage Rug Hookers of Saskatoon.

Although most of the iconic elevators that dotted the Prairies are gone, they continue to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of westerners, Smith said from her home in Borden, Sask.

“Every town had one. We were on this big, flat, old Prairie, but looming in the distance you’d see an elevator and it told you that there would be people and food and home and those wonderful, comforting things,” she said.

Likewise, every farmhouse once had hooked rugs. To make one was once “a craft of necessity,” says Smith, whereby frugal homemakers used remnants of no-longer-wearable clothes and other fabric to create these things of beauty and comfort for their homes.

Rug hooking might have gone the way of wooden grain elevators but is enjoying a revival as an art form, she said.

“There is a renewed interest. I think it has gone the same route as quilts,” said Smith. “Quilts were beautiful and functional, but then they became art quilts.”

art exhibitAlmost all the rugs on display were made expressly for the exhibit by contributors from the Prairie provinces as well as Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and B.C. Many live nowhere near the sites of the elevators they depict, yet included warm and personal recollections of them.

Two of the rugs in the exhibit are on loan from the family of the late Velma Daws whose rugs depict elevators at Oberon and Ingelow in the RM of North Cypress.

A rug depicting the former Manitoba Pool Elevator at Beausejour, was created by another Manitoban, Judy Trefry. It was still standing when Trefry was making her rug, describing how the Beausejour elevator was “visible miles away” and “in the evening you can see the sun gleaming off the silver walls.” The elevator, demolished in the fall of 2012, is one of thousands that have disappeared in the past two decades.

They may be gone but they’re not forgotten by visitors to the exhibit, said Brenda Major, director of the Golden Prairie Arts Council in Carman.

“People say, ‘I recognize that elevator,’ or, ‘I used to live in that town,’” said Major.

Another council board member, Carman-area artist Debbie Watt, said she appreciates not just the beauty of the rugs but the effort it took to create them.

Watt said she’s hooking a rug right now, but joked that “I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it.”

Their makers also designed the rugs.

“Some are adapted from photographs, but are original designs,” said Smith.

Hooked rugs of yesteryear were made from feedbags, scraps of clothing not good enough for quilting and burlap sacks. The rugs in this exhibit are made from mostly hand-dyed wool flannel, but rug hookers still use recycled materials, said Smith.

It’s an inexpensive hobby because all you need is a hook, material for backing, and virtually any type of fibre, she said.

“If you can cut it, you can use it,” she said, noting rugs are now made from strips of T-shirts, pantyhose and polar fleece.

The Rug Hookers of Saskatoon hosts an annual fall rug hooking school, and attendance is not only growing but attracting a wide range of ages — although only one gender.

“We’re a group of women. Unfortunately, no men,” said Smith.

“Grain Elevators: Vanishing Prairie Landmarks” will be on exhibit at the Carman Art Gallery until the end of April. In May, it will move to the Tiger Hills Arts Association Gallery at Holland, followed by visits to Neepawa in June (the Manawaka Gallery in the Viscount Cultural Centre for the Arts), McCreary in August (hosted by the Burrows Trail Arts Council at the local library), and in Boissevain (from November to January at the 1894 Arts Centre).

They thought the exhibit might wrap up after that, said Smith, but the Royal Alberta Gallery in Edmonton has requested it for display in the spring and summer of 2014.

The Rug Hookers have compiled a list of comments from those who have seen it and they’ve been really touched by them, said Smith.

“It means as much to men as it does to women,” she said. “It’s had a wonderful reception.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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