Published in Rug Hooking Magazine, December 2020.
In 2018 I saw Alexandrya Eaton’s Becoming, a contemporary 30-piece hooked rug and painting exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB. I was enthralled! The work is alive with vibrant colour and texture; with delightful playfulness; with tenderness, strength and emotion. It speaks to the empowerment of modern women, through the pop art constructs of repetitive motifs and figurative and symbolic representations, both personal and universal.
Added to that is the daring notion of presenting what had hitherto been considered women’s craft (within male-dominated fine art circles) in a prestigious gallery. “I was told,” says Eaton, “that this was the first show of hooked rugs the Beaverbrook had ever done. It has taken a long time, but I do see textiles rising in their importance and acceptance as an art form.”
Indeed, Eaton who graduated 30 years ago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, where such icons of Canadian art as Alex Colville and Mary Pratt studied, says fibre art was never mentioned, although that has changed recently. Still, for an artist of Eaton’s stature, who built a professional painting career and exhibited nationally, it was risky to take five years to create Becoming, an truly ambitious project comprised of 15 hooked pieces and 15 paintings, all in a 30-inch square format.
“I still am a painter,” says Eaton. “It’s been 30 years that I have been a full-time artist in New Brunswick as a painter, but I have been rug-hooking for about half that time.” It began she says when she walked into Deanne Fitzpatrick’s yarn studio in Amherst, NS, and was struck by the wall of colour, the same vibrant, happy colours she uses in her paintings. “ Deanne gave me a 30-second lesson and I went home that day with a bag full of my paint palette in yarn and thought I’d just practice, drawn to the texture, the softness and the chunkiness of the yarn.”
Alexandrya is the mother of two. “I couldn’t always get to my painting studio. Rug hooking was something I could do at home, but I didn’t consider it part of my art practice. Instead it was a creative outlet. I was teaching myself, but I didn’t consider it seriously. I thought my painting was more legitimate, but I kept practicing, because I could do it with the kids around or when I had an hour in the evening.”
While the materials and tools used for painting and rug hooking are obviously different, Eaton says her approach is similar in the way she builds an image. “Colours are always being added, whether you’re knitting or quilting or painting and rug hooking is like that, so I approach it in a painterly manner. But the difference with painting is that I can mix any colour I want, and work quickly and intuitively, whereas with hooking I have to plan it. If I’ve done the painting first, I will know that I want a red area, for example, so I have to prepare a hundred different reds, because I don’t use a solid red. So, I find the way I think about it is similar. I will always be a painter, but I think the rug-hooking has made my painting stronger, it changes the way you look at it and the same with my hooking. Because I am a painter, I approach rug hooking as a painter. One informs the other.”
“When I’m doing blue, there are probably fifty different hues in there, different thicknesses and widths, silk, wool, cotton, acrylics. I love little pops of neon. When I paint, I put on an undercoating of fluorescent colour, so little bits show through and I do that on my rugs too, with small bits of fluorescent fibre.”
Most recently, Eaton has been investigating weaving as an art form. “I am obsessed with it,” she says. “I love the underlying structure of the warp and the weft which is like a grid, which I tend to use in my works anyway. I love the strength of the fabric and the history of cloth and women making cloth, which goes back thousands of years.”
Prior to the Beaverbrook, Eaton had shown one or two hooked pieces in group textile exhibitions, “but 2018 was the first time I was saying ‘This is what I’m doing now’ and it was a big deal for me. It took five years and a big commitment to say I’m going to allow myself time away from my paintings, which is how I make my living, because I have galleries that are expecting work on a regular basis. But at the time I was really grieving my grandmother after she passed away. I needed to do something to help myself through that process and I decided to do it by hooking rugs, which is a meditative process.”
“Art has always been an emotional outlet for me, including painting, but I paint quickly. It’s energetic, it’s on the floor, and it’s a very physical process that I go though. I knew to get myself through that dark period, I needed to spend more time with my thoughts and my stories about my grandmother, because we shared so much, and we’d travelled together. She was always a huge part of my life and an enormous influence. I couldn’t imagine her not always being here, even though I was a grown woman and had my own family.”
Eaton’s grandmother, Dr. E. C. (Corrie) Eaton was indeed a remarkable and strong woman who I had the honour of interviewing just before she turned 103. (PrimeTime, July 2013). Born in Wales, she graduated from London University with degrees in medicine and surgery in 1935; practiced medicine both in England and Canada until she was 68; was the mother of six; celebrated her 95th birthday in Venice while on a Mediterranean cruise; drove until she was in her late 90’s; played golf until she was 101, and was adored by her grandchildren. When I met her, her sight had begun to fail, but she was still reading medical journals and newspapers with the assistance of a video magnification machine.
“I decided to do a series of hooked rugs, based on the stories and wisdom I learned from her,” Eaton continues. “When I started in 2013 her health had began to fail and I knew it was going to be a difficult time for me. It was a very private, personal and meditative project and I had no intention of showing anyone. But through the process and over the years, the paintings and the rugs came together in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The paintings were studies for the rugs, so I would work out my compositions and colours in paintings before I started the rugs, but then the rugs became studies for paintings and there was a real back and forth interplay between the two.”
Following Becoming’s three-month long Beaverbrook debut in 2018, it was remounted in 2019 at Sunbury Shores Art Gallery in St, Andrew’s NB and will be exhibited at the Saint John Art Centre in 2021, with the addition of three woven pieces. In the meantime, Eaton has become a sought-after rug mentor and this year will lead two rug hooking retreats in Ontario.
Story and Photographs by Margaret Patricia Eaton