Hooked on rugs



In the sunny window of her Bass Harbor home, Mary Hays works on a new rug.  ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

In the sunny window of her Bass Harbor home, Mary Hays works on a new rug.
ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

TREMONT — There are countless painters and photographers who have attempted with varying success to capture the beauty of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

Its dramatic coastline is battered by foam-flecked waves; its meandering salt marshes are crowned with morning mist. The still lakes reflect a fringe of forest and the mountains beyond. The island’s velvety night sky shows off its scattering stars and the luminous swirl of the Milky Way. All are ample inspiration for anyone with a camera or paintbrush.

But a rug hook?

Well, about four years ago, Bass Harbor resident Mary Hays got it into her head that she’d like to try to capture the MDI scenes she loves with strips of dyed wool poked through a stiff backing with a little metal hook.

“Actually, I got inspired at a memorial service for rug hooker Patti Wharton at the Southwest Harbor Library,” said Hays. “They had a beautiful collection of her rugs on display. I was amazed by the depth and the detail she managed to capture.”

Although the walls of her home are full of fine artwork and a handsome stained glass panel of a seascape, attesting to her good eye for such things, Hays does not consider herself an artist, nor, despite some quilting in her past, particularly crafty. Nevertheless, something about the traditional “womanly art” of rug hooking appealed to her, and when she left the library that day, she was determined to give it a try.

Mount Desert Island’s night sky with the Milky Way was yet another inspiration for Mary Hays’ hooked rugs.  PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

Mount Desert Island’s night sky with the Milky Way was yet another inspiration for Mary Hays’ hooked rugs.
PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

“I figured ‘what did I have to lose?’” she said. “A few bucks, a little time and effort, and the worst that could happen would be an ugly or unfinished rug.”

She didn’t have to go far to find the subject for her first attempt. She and her husband Mike live in a condo complex on a hill above the old Underwood Sardine Factory, with a near panoramic view of Bass Harbor from their living room windows and front porch. She also happens to have a very photogenic German shepherd named Ella.

So sitting in that sunny window, morning after morning, her first rug, entitled “Ella’s Porch,” emerged.

Looking at that first attempt, Hays narrowed her eyes. “Oh don’t take a picture of that one,” she exclaimed. “It’s really crude, and I got the scale all wrong.”

But that somewhat “primitive” perspective is part of the charm of this piece. One sees the harbor with its little boats bobbing on a sparkly sea and the Bernard shore beyond, as if from Ella’s viewpoint as she gazes out from her favorite spot on the porch.

Since that first piece, one can see the progression of Hays’ skill in about a dozen or so rugs she has created since. One sees the symmetry of her compositions and the careful shading of her colors – even her fair weather clouds are a created from at least half a dozen pale shades of blue, gray and lavender that all blend together when viewed at a distance. For the little wisps of mist and fog, she uses mohair. She cuts the wool strips for her rugs fairly thin so she can get the kind of detail and nuance she is looking for.

Mary Hays even manages to capture the shimmer of the water and the wispiness of morning mist on Bass Harbor Marsh. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

Mary Hays even manages to capture the shimmer of the water and the wispiness of morning mist on Bass Harbor Marsh.
ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

“It’s really pointillism,” she said, referring to a 19th century impressionist painting style most notably employed by George Seurat. “So now when I look at a particularly lovely scene or sunset, I see it, uh, maybe pixilated is the right word? I try to figure out what little points of color I would need to create that effect.”

A couple of her rugs eloquently demonstrate her success. One in particular has brilliant, reds, oranges and purples against a black silhouette of forest with the reflection of a setting sun burning a hole in the sea.

Hays said the process of creating her pieces – it’s hard to call them “rugs” as it’s doubtful they will ever serve that function –is just as satisfying as completing them.

When she’s at home, she sits in the same sunny spot in her living room overlooking the harbor, and she listens to music. Aside from a simple outline she sketches onto the cotton warp backing, most of her designs are unplanned, so they don’t have a paint-by-numbers look.

“Yes, it’s all very Zen-like” she said. “I just kind of get into a zone where I don’t even have to think about what I’m doing or the choices I’m making. It just seems to happen.”

This is not to say that she doesn’t occasionally hit a roadblock or take a wrong turn from time to time.

“The great thing, though, is if I make a mistake, I can just pull it all out and do it over,” she said. “And when I get stuck, I find if I just leave it alone for a while, the answer will come, sometimes even in my sleep.”

Hooking also has become a social outlet for her. As a member of The Hook & I, a club of around a dozen women rug hookers who meet Thursdays, usually at the Southwest Harbor Library, she gets to share ideas, give and get encouragement and critiques, and just enjoy the company of other women who share a similar interest.

She also has participated in rug hooking shows in Vermont where she gets to see the work of hundreds of other rug hookers’ from all over New England and where she gets to be seen.

“It is absolutely jaw dropping and humbling to see what people are doing – scenics, abstracts, art reproductions, you name it – in all manner of fabrics. Some people work entirely in silk,” Hays said.

Because the rugs are so personal and labor intensive – she estimates about 100 hours go into each of her rugs – she has sold only one thus far. “I’d have to charge so much to make selling them worthwhile,” she said. “And I still kind of miss the one I did sell.”

She does, however, like to show her work. She participates in the rug show at the library every May, and lately her husband has been looking for a venue where she might launch her own exhibition one day.

She also has submitted photos of her work to “Rug Hooking Magazine” in the hopes that one of her pieces will make their annual special edition some day.

“I know it’s a long shot. Still, it would be such a hoot to see one of my rugs pictured there.”

Hays encourages anyone who is interested in giving it a try to come by the library some Thursday afternoon., but they should call ahead to be sure that someone is there to help them get started.

“But be careful,” she cautions, “You might get hooked.”

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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