Who is Ellen Sullivan?

It’s never good when you look forward to an activity you need to travel to and are greeted by a driveway of ice and nasty rain. That’s what happened for many of our members on Jan. 11th. For those that could travel through the resulting messy roads they enjoyed a look into the life of Ellen Sullivan through her primitive rugs and the genuine personal stories told by artist John Neville. DSC04113Elaine Eskesen accompanied John to share how Ellen’s work has inspired her journey into rug hooking.

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First, presenters usually bring their work to share, but it’s been awhile since I’ve walked into a meeting and seen so many tables covered with the rugs of one artist. (just a sample)DSC04098 DSC04097 DSC04099  DSC04096 DSC04102  DSC04084 DSC04088


On closer inspection the wonder increased. Most of the works were not hooked in wool (yarn included). DSC04090

The binding was misc. pieces of fabric hand stitched in place. DSC04103 Foundation also seemed to be mostly burlap, but a woven red looked like it might be red long johns. John said “Ellen had tried linen, but preferred burlap for hooking on”.

Then you got beyond the fabric to really looking at the designs. Ellen Sullivan drew what she had to have been seeing in her daily life. Would one say she had a talent for drawing, not necessarily, but she definitely fits into a great folk artist.

Next comes the colors. Looking forward to hearing about the why they are what they are. Being one who hooks primarily with recycled wool think I have an idea about this.

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Born in 1907, Ellen spent most of her life in the Black Rock, Halls Harbour area of Nova Scotia.  Growing up in a remote area without close neighbors or electricity her rugs depict images from her daily life. Ellen learned hooking from her mother and maintained at least one lesson from her throughout her years of hooking. “Using green for the eyes will make them stand out.”DSC04100

Ellen’s rugs were made for a utilitarian reason. They were drawn free hand with carpenter’s chalk directly onto the foundation. They were hooked from whatever material was on hand and much of it was material passed along by neighbors/friends within the community. As John told it, “Ellen would cut apart the clothing, laying it out, cutting and tearing it into strips.” This use of repurposed fabric explains the colors for many of the pieces – she used what she had available, no dyed wools. Looking at the backgrounds you could see how she hooked/worked until a material ran out and then started another. self portrait

Ellen’s rugs also often had 2 birds within her rugs. DSC04095 The story passed on was that this comes from a poem: “One for Sorrow”. John remembered it was “One for sorrow, Two for joy, but was not sure of the others verses. Ellen included the images of 2 to represent “Joy” within her hooking.

“One for Sorrow” is a traditional children’s nursery rhyme about magpies. According to an old superstition, the number of magpies one sees determines if one will have bad luck or not. Here is the most common version – One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told.

Ellen’s father was a carpenter who was born at sea on the ship his father was captain of. Ellen lived near the ocean in a salt-marsh farmhouse for much of her life. She also had a brother who drowned at sea. So it wasn’t surprising to see ships in many of her pieces. What caught many’s attention were the works with what appeared to be swimming sailors around the ships.

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Ellen wasn’t afraid to hook in the natural state either here or in her Adam and Eve/Tree of Life rugs. DSC04085

DSC04083 John recalls this rug as being inside the door of Ellen’s home. The family used their rugs throughout the house, but also hooked over the winters to have rugs to trade for linoleum mats/rugs. Interesting how they saw more value in the linoleum than their hand-made pieces.

Ellen sounded very self sufficient – growing her own food, raising food animals  DSC04089 (2 cows with those green eyes), and bartering rugs. John had a pencil drawing showing Ellen chopping her own wood. Ellen started selling her rugs when she found herself a widow caring for her two grandsons.  She also did some commissioned work. John told us that The Tree of Life was a design Ellen hooked many times with many of them being commissioned. DSC04086 John had a gallery/shop that sold some of her work (never taking a consignment fee). When asked about her prices John responded “It depended on who you were.” Ellen would barter for goods with friends or charge money with strangers. 

Ellen did some pieces which included herself within her community. DSC04091 As one would expect with this primitive folk art style the figures are not in proportion. Ellen’s use of outlining with black was also interesting. There were times that it appeared she ran out of black, because the outlining just stopped.

Ellen hooked into her eighties passing at age 87. Most of her pieces were not signed. John had one with an “ES” in the lower corner. John remembered her hooking on a frame made of four wooden boards and C-clamps rested against the kitchen table or the edge of the couch in the kitchen room. DSC04116 I got to try one of her hooks with aged metal shaft and well-worn wooden handle.  Hooking a #8 strip it worked just fine. Ellen also knit (find some gloves knit for John in a photo above – clue look for the cat and eagle). In talking with John afterwards about Ellen’s creativity he told me she had crocheted her own wedding gown. She truly sounded like an interesting and many talented lady.

Her work has been included in museum/gallery exhibitions in Canada and Internationally, but she is not very well known. John is very willing to share his knowledge of Ellen’s life and the collection of her rugs he has. DSC04094 Upon getting a check for $500 from a museum Ellen asked John for help. She did not understand what the check was for as she had gotten her rugs back, nothing sold. She asked John what to do. He helped her cash the check as she had no bank account. 

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After meeting John at an event around Art Inspired Knits, Elaine Eskesen, author of “Dyeing To Knit” and owner of Pine Tree Yarns opened in 1990 in Damariscotta, Maine (now added Wool for Knitters and Hookers Rughooking Supplies), became inspired to try rug hooking seeing Ellen’s work.  After becoming involved with rug hooking communities in Canada, studying under different teachers and following her love of color Elaine has taken her original inspiration point and is creating …

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It was fun to hear how she cannot draw. She paints out her design and then John has been drawing them on the foundation. Elaine is highly allergic to burlap, so hooks on linen. A TP suggested for her to try painting directly onto the foundation and then just hooking. Elaine found that interesting. She has been primarily hooking #8 but is starting to work smaller. Having been initially taught in Canada she worked in yarn, but is now enjoying working with wool strips. Fun story on her “Dog” rug. Her daughter who lives in New York was having apartment trouble because of her dog. To help, Elaine suggested the dog come to stay in Maine over the summer. Without seeing the dog, she designed what she expected. She joked that dog is still in Maine.

(* please note that “quotes” attributed to John may not be perfectly word for word. They are quoted here, so it is understood they are part of the story John told us about Ellen. – Debbie A.)

One Reply to “Who is Ellen Sullivan?”

  1. A very interesting article and pictures. This is a Rug Hooking magazine article which would be enjoyed by many and think it should be submitted. Thank you and John for teaching us about her and her works.


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