At the tail end of 2022 I sat down with Laura Kenney, a rug hooking artist based in Nova Scotia. I joined in on my laptop, she on an ancient iPod, and we laughed at this difference, cracking jokes about the folk artist as a likely technophobe. As a cartoonist I was interested in this sense of humour of Kenney’s and how it manifests in her work. Some of her rugs have an almost New Yorker cartoon quality in terms of how the text (the title) relates to the image. In a series of rugs about Maud Lewis, one scene captures a snowy day with the grey siding of the Marshalltown Alms House peeking out from the left and Maud’s colourful painted house on the right, a puddle of blood pooling on the snow in between them. “The Day Ev Shot the Dog,” reads the title, which provides the image with a caption, context, and brings a deeply dark quality to this deceptively simple composition. These qualities felt familiar to me: dark humour and approachable images, relationship between text and image in storytelling, and a streamlining of visual details that happens in both the making of comics and rug hooking. I felt right at home in Laura Kenney’s world. And I was of course interested in how Judy – Kenney’s recurring, red-booted heroine – is literally woven through these many rugs/panels like the star of her own disjointed woolly comic strip (and every bit as funny).
Mollie Cronin: There’s a recurring character in your rugs by the name of Judy. Can you tell me more about her? What is her role in your work, what kind of things does she get up to?
Laura Kenney: So Judy popped onto the burlap almost ten years ago, and before that I’d just been rug hooking random stuff. My kids were little, my brain was fried, I couldn’t really handle much, so I did this one rug of this one woman, you know, black dress, I think she had red hair… red boots… and then I was like “huh! Who’s this?” And then I did another one, another one, and it was kind of this lightbulb/eureka moment. As for who she is… a lot of people say “well, is she your alter ego?” And I don’t know. It’s almost like if I think about it or dwell on it or go into therapy over it I’m basically going to scare her away. I’m superstitious that way. Can you relate?
M: Yeah! I really can. What were the kinds of things that felt so frantic about Judy when you first started working with her?
L: Let’s see, it was in 2000 and something when Harper decided that lighthouses were declared surplus and they were gonna be like blown up or torn down or whatever. And I was like, that’s not right, so Judy was starting to save lighthouses.
M: Anxiety is also quite present in these pieces, from climate change to the loss of lighthouses. Judy (always the mom) tries to solve the world’s problems with tactics like hauling the earth in a red wagon or finding some room for it in the fridge in an attempt to “cool it down.” It seems like quite a feminist approach to climate anxiety, as if Judy is worried about the earth woman-to-woman, mother-to-mother.
L: You mentioned that it was the mother coming out in her, protecting the lighthouse, and it’s part mothering I guess, but I sometimes use her as a superhero. And she does crazy stuff, like pushing the earth into the fridge. She sees something that doesn’t seem right to her and says “I’m gonna fix that” in the most practical way she can think of. She’s not a real grey person, she’s very black and white and quick. Practical I guess.
M: Or like the piece “Bringing it back to Marshalltown” where Judy pulls Maud Lewis’ house in a little red wagon. Maud Lewis is another figure who features heavily in your work. What drew you to her?
L: Learning about an artist you learn through their artwork. Well, just looking at her work she [seems] happy. Was she though? Judy felt like wanting to protect Maud. Like the lighthouse, but instead it was Maud, and the same with the climate action, protect the earth. Earth, Maud, Lighthouses, it’s all trying to protect.
M: Judy in her wonder woman red boots saving all these people.
L: The red boots are ‘cause she’s sassy, but you’re right they’re kind of superhero boots. [She] wears black because she wants to be ready for a funeral at a moment’s notice (which is a little dark), and then red hair, I don’t know, it’s always a bad hair day, she’s always got it in a bun.
M: Oh yeah! [I point to my hair, worn in a bun much like Judy’s]
L: [laughs, and points to her own updo]
M: Maud Lewis was also an artist who used a lot of repetition in her work, returning to the same images or “characters” over and over again. That idea seems prominent in your work with Judy popping up in all of these different situations, don’t you think?
L: I hadn’t until you pointed it out. I was thinking of the comparison of a chef who’s trying different variations on a recipe. It’s like, “well what would that look like? I’ve seen that before, but what would this…” We’re kind of an obsessive bunch, I think, artists. People will say, well don’t you get bored of Judy, and I’m like, “no” I don’t! It seems endless. With the bluenose patterns… the pattern thing, I could go on and on!
M: I’d love to talk about that! In your exhibition at the CBU gallery you showed these rugs that were made using commercial rug hooking patterns, like a three bears scene or a Bluenose scene, with Judy spicing it up by playing Goldilocks or the boat’s sail. What’s going on there?
L: There’s a book out about the Bluenose patterns. They were introduced in the 1800s and I often wonder if they hadn’t been introduced how different would rug hooking be now? They’re still being used! Rug hooking, it’s a very social thing, and if you go to a hook-in today like 99% are still using patterns. I got in trouble because I was saying “let’s get off the patterns.” I’m strongly encouraging people to say what’s on your mind! You’ve got a piece of burlap, say it!
M: You think sometimes other rug hookers too restrictive in relying on patterns?
L: Yeah honestly, like a paint by number, right?
M: Hook by numbers, totally. So why was it rug hooking that was so compelling for you?
L: I think it was all the women, both sides of the family, they were into crochet, knitting, quilting. My maternal grandmother was a rug hooker, which I found out after I started, my mum was like “oh my god” and she got out all of my grandmother’s rugs, which was great. Of course they were all Bluenose patterns, too! I have the catalogue that she used, she’s got notes in it, it was just kind of fascinating my mum kept that. I was working at Dal at the immunology department as a chemist and I hated it. So when we moved to Truro I thought “I’m gonna find out what I want to do with the rest of my life.” I went to a rug hooking show and I was like “I gotta try that” and that was it, I was done.
M: I remember at the CBU show there was some work around Covid, which makes even more sense if you worked as an immunologist
L: When I was getting ready for this show—I think I started making these rugs in 2020—I couldn’t not talk about how to cope with stuff because I was freaking out because of the pandemic. That’s when [Judy] gets into alcohol and cake… there’s a series on coping.
M: There’s a particular kind of humour associated with that kind of coping, you see it in cartoons like “Cathy” or in decorations moms have in their kitchen about “needing wine” etc. When I was looking at your work, I was thinking a lot about “mom jokes.” We all know what someone means when they describe something as a “dad joke,” but I feel like we could identify “mom jokes” as jokes that tend to be focused on the stresses of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. Topics like being underappreciated as a partner or parent, the never-ending tasks of maintaining a home (the bulk of this labour falling on the wife/mother’s shoulders), and the coping mechanisms (wine, chocolate) used to manage and find humour in these stresses.
Does any of this resonate with the kind of humour you bring to your work? I’m thinking specifically about the kinds of jokes you make about household chores like doing the dishes, stocking the fridge, and of course the ever-present wine bottle.
L: Yeah with dinner, that one [where Judy holds up a sign that reads] “I don’t know what’s for dinner,” people really related to that one—mostly women—and they were like yeah “what IS for dinner??” There was this one I had a few years ago where Judy’s just got her head on this table and she just can’t deal with dinner again. But you’re right, they are mom jokes, I like that term. That intensity of being a stay-at-home mom does come through. It’s a huge chunk of my life. Even though [my kids] are 18 and 22 now, you never stop caring for them and caring FOR them, but yeah it can be frustrating being a mom. If I’m frustrated with something I make a rug about it and it’s like “whew! Got that off my chest” it’s a relief.
I think I was frustrated, and I felt invisible. There was a piece at the CBU show, “Moms Getting Medals.” They should get medals! It’s so hard! I just wanted to talk about that and using rug hooking to do it is an extra kind of… reclaiming it. I’m not gonna do the three cutie bears, I’m gonna talk about this. It’s very liberating. I feel like a rebel. I don’t think it gets talked about enough, I seriously think moms should get medals, I really do.
The exhibition “Judy” will be shown this winter at the Acadia University Art Gallery and this coming fall at STFX, 2023.