Always drawn to art and the artistic process, Rebecca discovered hooked rugs when the youngest of her six children was in kindergarten. In the years since then, she has produced a large collection of rugs that reflect her spiritual searchings, her love for her children and family, and the joy she finds in creating something that inspires thoughtful contemplation in her audience.
How and when did you begin creating?
It was just something inside of me. As a child, I just knew that I was really good with my hands. I liked to make things. I would get old clothes and undo them and redo them so that they would fit me. I remember getting praised for that. I was surprised at the praise because as a child you often assume everyone is just like you. I knew I was good with my hands but as far as being exposed to art by my family there wasn’t a lot of material or creativity to work with at home. We just had pencils and paper. I had a mother who loved to balance her checkbook so she was much more practical and task oriented than I was. Things had to be done at a certain time; for example, my job was to pour the milk in the glasses for dinner at 5:55 everyday. I grew up in that atmosphere mainly because she ran the household and did a very good job at it. My father was a very creative person but his presence wasn’t as apparent as my mother’s because he was gone a lot as a dean at Brigham Young University. I think my dad always wanted to be an artist but was much too practical, since he grew up during the Depression. He used his creativity by his innovative ideas in his position at BYU.
When I was a senior in high school, I became friends with a girl who was really creative. She had a big influence on me. My husband Kurt was also a really big influence on me. We moved next door to each other when I was 15. We were good friends and did a lot of creative things together. I was so intrigued by his creativity. He was one of those people who thought in a creative way. I was drawn to him and his ability to look at life differently.
I went to BYU for college and registered as an English major. That first semester I took some art classes, and I never got back to English. The art classes swept me away. I was so intrigued. I ended up majoring in graphic design, but graphic design is a hard world. The commercial part of art brings with it a lot of pressure. I didn’t like having to focus my work for a specific audience. I wanted to do my own thing. There was also a problem with majoring in graphic design in the 1970s: computers were on the horizon, and everything I learned, other than the basic design techniques, was of no use. I worked for a year with a graphic designer before Kurt and I got married and started having babies but I never really used it after that. I just kind of drifted away from that world of commercial art.
How did you get involved with textiles?
That didn’t come about until we moved back to Provo from New Mexico in 1990. I had 6 kids in 8 years so mothering was pretty much all I did. By the time we moved to Provo the youngest was in kindergarten, and I had a lot more free time.
Hooked rugs were starting to surface at this time. People had them stuffed away in their closets, but now they were becoming valuable commodities. The rugs were mainly from the East Coast and created years ago by people who had wood floors and no carpet. When carpets became popular, it just wasn’t cool to have a hooked rug so they were thrown away or stuffed away. Some of them survived and some of them didn’t. I was just fascinated with the process of how these rugs were made. I’ve always loved fabric. I love the tactile part of fabric. Seeing it. Holding it. The texture it creates. I just love that.
I couldn’t find anybody in Utah who knew how to hook rugs so I taught myself. My very first rug, Why Should I Desire More?, is probably one of my favorites and is about my great grandmother. I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes it’s good not to know. Sometimes it’s good not to have training. Sometimes training makes you scared. I wasn’t smart enough to be scared. I just knew what I wanted to do, and I thought, “Surely, I can figure it out.” I started exhibiting my rugs and through my shows found people who knew how to hook rugs. I met mainly older women who hooked very finely detailed rugs. Mine were not like that. At the time, there weren’t any people my age–I was in my 30s then–who were actually hooking rugs. So, I taught myself.
A few years later, I went to graduate school at BYU and got my MFA. I felt like that was a turning point for me. I had a hard time getting my professors to understand what I wanted to do with my work. At first, all my advisers were male, and it was truly difficult for me to feel like they valued what I was doing with textiles. To be fair to them, they knew little about textiles and the process I used. It was a turning point for me to finally not care what they thought but to produce something that was really meaningful to me. At that point it just seemed to come together.
What themes do you keep coming back to in your art?
I keep coming back to family and my experience with my children. I just can’t seem to escape how deeply my children have affected me. Not that I want to escape it, but it just keeps reoccurring. When my children were younger, I made a rug for each of them as part of the Prayer Rug Series. I had always done great big rugs, so I decided to do these small rugs which were portraits of our children. I took their patriarchal blessings and symbolically represented the messages of their blessings in those rugs. It was really a spiritual experience. I didn’t use any wording from the blessings but I did use scriptures. I took concepts and specific promises from the blessings and tried to represent those pictorially. Now my children are grown. Long Armed Woman depicts my arms up with my grown-up children on my head. This rug in part represents how I feel now as a mother with grown children. It’s a different role that keeps reoccurring. Each stage in your life as a mother is different.
I also keep coming back to gospel principles. My view of the gospel has had a huge affect on how I do my artwork. Reading the scriptures themselves and interpreting the scriptures is very much right-brained activity. If we are too left brained we miss it. We miss what God is trying to tell us. The scriptures are so amazing: the imagery, the concepts, the paradoxes. One of my favorite scriptures is in Moses when it talks about all things being touched by Christ–all things in the earth, above the earth, and under the earth. Reading this scripture, I thought, “This whole life is symbolic. We live on another plane, and we let this symbolism pass us by day after day after day. If we watch, listen, and feel carefully we start to see how everything testifies of the Savior.” I will often become obsessed with a concept that I’m thinking about or studying about in the scriptures. One of these concepts is the law of restoration where we learn that everything you give–whether it’s good or bad–comes back to you again. I became obsessed with that concept and studied everything I could about it. It never seemed complete until I had tried to represent it visually in the rug Restoration. At that point I could let it go.
Art making is a form of spiritual learning for me. Kurt and my daughter Ashley and I participated in a show at the BYU Museum of Art called Metaphorically Speaking. The show featured work that was spiritual but wasn’t didactic or representative of something specifically religious. At the time I was really struggling with the idea of sacrifice and what that meant. I studied and studied and studied. I ended up doing a triptych titled Sacrifice Triptych. The man has his arms up in the air, and the woman is holding some milk and some bread. The middle image of the lamb represents the Savior. It was a really big learning experience for me to go through that process of studying this idea of sacrifice and then translating it into a piece of artwork. I think art making is a process of bearing witness of the truth. If you explore gospel principles sincerely, God blesses you with insight. He also blesses the artist with the ability to translate it visually.
What challenges and surprises do you experience during the creative process?
I think the great torment of being an artist is my own insecurity about creating. I was listening to someone speak about the terror of the blank page and the terror of the blank canvas. That to me is so real. You have to have courage to create. I really admire people who are willing to do that because for me it really takes a lot of energy to say, “I’m going to do this” and then do it. There is a huge vulnerability as you create. It’s really hard work. It doesn’t come that easily to me. It’s emotionally exhausting. I know what I have in my head but to somehow make that tangible is really good discipline. I have a tendency to think abstractly. To have to put it down physically and symbolically is really exhausting for some reason. But the challenge of communicating visually is a good challenge.
When you create, you almost become separate from what you do. As the artist, you decide, “Well, this represents this and this represents this.” Then you put it up on the wall, you have people come to see it, and they bring such different ideas to what you’ve produced. I was really surprised by that, especially with the Metaphorically Speaking exhibition. I went through the exhibition with different groups and talked about my artwork. It was interesting to hear people share, “I thought you did this because of this” or, “This is why I thought you did this.” Their ideas were not what I had intended but it was kind of wonderful that my art work had a life of its own. It was providing other experiences for people. That’s the miracle of it.
How did you apply your creativity to raising your family?
It seemed like our family life was so hectic when the kids were young. Of course as a mother you never feel like you’ve done enough, but actually we did a lot to encourage creativity. We exposed them to different ways of looking at the world, which I think is one of the most important things. We tried to expose them to people who were really good at what they did. Probably because I didn’t have any art making tools as a child, I made sure we had all of the tools my children wanted. When we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we had this big laundry room with lots of cupboards and a big table. I never called it the laundry room–I always called it the drawing room–because I wanted them to think of it as a place where they could go and create and leave things sitting out.
If I were to support any crusade, it would be for children and art. When we were in Albuquerque I taught art in the grade schools as a classroom volunteer. One time we did a wire sculpture, and I talked about Alexander Calder. I had pictures of his wire sculptures and gave all of the kids wire to work with. After we were through, their sculptures were so fantastic. This was probably 4th grade, just at the age where they’re thinking that maybe they don’t have any artistic capabilities. The teacher said to me, “Can you pick out 4 or 5 wire sculptures that you think are they best, and we’ll hang them up?” I said, “Absolutely not! You have to hang all of them. I’ll help you hang all of them. You can’t tell them that one is better than the other, especially at this age.” They were all so marvelous in their own way. I think children have such an ability to create, and it’s devastating to see that destroyed. Children need to find their own confidence and their own voice. I think I’m still working on that with myself, too!
What compels you to keep creating?
I am so compelled by materials whether it’s fabric, metals, glass, thread or yarns and using these materials to create something unexpected. Kurt and I love to go up and down the isles of hardware stores to see what might jump out at us to use in a project.
I think something else that compels me to do art is that it has to do with the greater thoughts and events of life. Somehow I need to express that. Art provides that for me. It’s not like you can just plop down by somebody and start having these really deep conversations. That’s the value of doing artwork. It helps initiate those conversations I would like to have with other people.
I wish I could inspire more people to create. I think the ability is inside of everybody. There are some who have the gift naturally, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be developed in all of us. If someone could learn to create and feel joy because of me, that would make me really happy. I’m hoping that someone who wants to create will read this interview and have the courage to do so. It changes your life to create something that never existed or never would have existed without you. That’s pretty exciting. To create is as close to the divine as we get.
At A Glance
Location: Durham, North Carolina
Marital status: married to Kurt W Knudsen
Children: Six (33, 32,31, 29, 26, 25)
Schools Attended: BYU BA, BYU MFA
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Oh, May My Soul Commune With Thee”
Interview by Krisanne Hastings. Photographs used with permission.