PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
As a visual artist, Antoinette Karuna, an award-winning filmmaker and freelance writer, has always been a storyteller. Now, she’s found a new passion for expression in an old tradition—in rug hooking.
The Antigonish, NS woman, who’s spent parts of her life living in London, England, Montreal, and Berlin, recently turned to fibre arts, finding inspiration, success, and creative communication in a series of autobiographical hooked rug wall hangings.
“I’ve only done three works, but they’ve taken me quite far,” says Ms. Karuna, who along with her art, works as a freelance writer, editor, and translator in her business Karuna Communications, and teaches filmmaking in St. Francis Xavier University’s Art Department and Continuing Education Department.
The richly detailed hooked rugs, a time-consuming process done by hand, are made from recycled fabrics and Atlantic Canadian yarns and feature both punch needle (a flat punch of the yarn down) and traditional rug hooking techniques, a unique combination one doesn’t see often. One rug she describes as a self-portrait, evoking the story of her biracial identity, Sri Lankan Tamil on her dad’s side, and French Canadian through her mom. The two others explore the spiritual aspects of erotic love.
The three pieces were an integral part of her successful application to Memorial University’s Master of Fine Arts in the visual arts program, which she starts in May 2022. She’ll remain based in Antigonish, completing an in-person summer residency and fall and winter terms online.
Additionally, in summer 2021, her pieces were spotlighted in a group show, TOIL HERE: Works from rural Mi’kma’ki, at the Khyber Centre of the Arts in Halifax, one of the Maritimes leading art centres. The show, intended to subvert what people think of when they think of a rural Nova Scotia artist, generated quite a bit of visibility for her, including inclusion in a Chatelaine magazine article on how a new generation of Nova Scotia fibre artists are reinvigorating the province’s rug hooking tradition.
The article detailed how this new generation is reclaiming the medium.
“I really like it. There’s a lot of creative freedom and expression through this medium,” says Ms. Karuna who in her MFA plans to complete a body of large-scale hooked rugs, sculptural textile works, and a short animation film exploring the theme of her biracial identity.
“Being biracial is an important part of my identity. Being mixed race is not something discussed a lot in society,” she says.
While the experience of being biracial is different for everyone, she says one constant is that biracial people “usually feel ‘other,’ because you don’t fully belong in either.
“There is so much to explore on that topic. I’m doing an autoethnographic exploration of what that means to me.”
Ms. Karuna will research scholarly materials on topics such as how identity is formed, developing a sense of belonging, the biracial experience in society, and how you situate yourself in your family when you don’t look like either parent. She’ll then dig deeper into those themes as she crafts five to six large-scale hooked rugs.
“I’m looking forward to taking a profound exploration of that theme and then making art from my lived experience and from my research.
“I feel like I have a rich inner landscape of themes that I need to sort of understand and that comes out in my creations. I’m looking for meaning in the themes.”
The medium, she says, feels freer than filmmaking to explore these ideas.
“I feel I can tell a story, but in a way that doesn’t have to be cohesive and linear, that’s evocative and felt,” adds Karuna.
She’s excited to start the MFA.
“Taking that time out is thrilling, to have time to rug hook, experiment in different media, and learn animation techniques. I’m so looking forward to being totally immersed in my creative work,” she says.
Her journey into rug hooking came about in a roundabout way.
“I’m a filmmaker, I was trained as a filmmaker, and I was very focused on that,” says Ms. Karuna, who holds a BA in communication studies, with a specialization in film production and a minor in creative writing, from Concordia University.
“I needed to take a break from filmmaking to focus on making a living,” she says.
She was in her early 30s, and living in Berlin at the time, and says it was just a difficult phase in her filmmaking journey.
She paused her filmmaking practice and started her writing, editing, and translation business. A couple of years later, needing a creative outlet, she turned to painting, and then she started experimenting with textiles, doing some felting with a friend, and then weaving. “It was fun,” she says. Eventually, she started rug hooking, liking it too.
During this period, she was spending time in Nova Scotia in the summers, where her father has worked since the 1990s as a professor at StFX in Antigonish, a town where she completed her Grade 12 year. She moved back in 2019.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she began concentrating more on rug hooking.
“Since we were in lockdown, I’m said I’m going to finish this rug.”
The more she worked, the more it appealed.
“Sometimes, you just connect with a medium,” she says. “Rug hooking is so simple and so inexpensive.
“I like that it has a low environmental mark.”
She often asks family and friends to pass along any old sheets, socks, or clothes they’re no longer using, which she’ll cut up to recycle and use, along with local Atlantic yarns.
Ms. Karuna usually does a rough sketch, and then starts hooking, working in different textures, with a punch needle and a hook, two different tools.
She says it’s freeing—if you don’t like something, you can just take it out. Also appealing is how accessible it is. You can do textiles from home, on the couch, working alone, while expressing your creativity.
“I think I have an experimental approach,” she says. “It’s figurative, but also verging on the abstract.”