When Gladys Rauh moved to a 19th century Baltimore County farmhouse some 42 years ago, its bare pine floors begged for cover. In a common bond with the rural homemakers who have preceded her, Mrs. Rauh gave warmth and color to her home by creating hooked rugs, considered by some scholars to be America's one indigenous folk art.
After learning the basics herself, Mrs. Rauh later found a series of instructors who taught her the intricacies of dying wool,
selecting colors, and understanding the compositional fine points of hooked rugs. Today, at 83, she is known as one of the Baltimore region's most skilled hooked rug artisans.
"I'm hooked on hooking," she says.
Mrs. Rauh is among the thousands of participants who annually enter their home works of art in the Maryland State Fair, which opens today and runs through Sept. 2. Home arts competitions take place within 11 divisions at the fair, including fine arts and photography, food preservation, candy making and baking, spinning and weaving, knitting and crocheting, quilts and embroidery and clothing. Within these and related divisions there are 1,034 classes of entries, according to Anna Troyer, chairman of the State Fair's home arts department.
Attempting to view all entries exhibited in the Home Arts/4-H building during a single visit to the fair is a little like trying to see the entire holdings of the Smithsonian Institution in a day.
The quantity and quality of entries are proof that the competitive spirit is "alive here in Maryland," Mrs. Troyer says. And though some contests promise "hefty" cash prizes for winners, "they really vie for that ribbon," she says of competitors.
The competition -- often fierce -- is a way of preserving and promoting crafts that might other-wise become extinct in a time when there is no pervasive economic need to hook, can or weave.
The fair is also a forum for spreading ideas and inspiration, Mrs. Troyer says. "I want . . . people to walk in the building and pick up a few ideas before they leave. You just can't walk around and not absorb something." Mrs. Troyer hopes that children will be especially receptive to the home arts exhibits, including the spinning and weaving display. "Parents love this opportunity to let a child come in and get a hand on the spool and just feel that," she says.
The State Fair is a bellwether as well for determining what crafts are having a renaissance and what others have receded in favor among artisans.
"Hooked rugs are making a comeback" at the fair and elsewhere, Mrs. Troyer says. "If you would visit any of the antiques malls or shops, the little hooked rugs cost $300 and $400. I'm really astounded. . . . It's the charm of the [currently popular] country look," she explains.
For several decades, Mrs. Rauh has exhibited her work at the Maryland State Fair, where she has won a bounty of ribbons and a frequent Best in Show. After a two-year hiatus, during which she was slowed by illness, Mrs. Rauh -- urged by the regional hooking guild she belongs to in an effort to preserve the art -- returns to the fair this year with three new rugs and a hooked footstool.
(Last year, 24 hooked articles were entered in competition, far more than any other class in the rugs and hooking department. But it is difficult to say how many will be entered this year until they arrive, according to Nancy Ackler, rugs and hooking department superintendent.)
Mrs. Rauh "is a magnificent rug hooker," Mrs. Troyer says. "You have to have that eye for color, texture, composition. She does such a beautiful job."
Mrs. Rauh's traditional depictions of cabbage rose clusters, irises and tulips enveloped by lush, unfurling scrolls, as well as her original interpretations of subjects such as a straight furrow log cabin quilt pattern, an ancient, hexagonal Japanese plate and her beloved farm, catch the eye and don't let go.
Shortly after her husband died 13 years ago, Mrs. Rauh moved to a Cockeysville apartment, bringing bits and pieces of the farm with her, including the rugs and hooked wall hangings that portray the farm and its sturdy stone house. Some of Mrs. Rauh's work is displayed, but there is not room for it all.
"Everybody teases me," she says. "They say I have rugs rolled under my bed, but I don't." Though she has occasionally sold a rug, Mrs. Rauh says she also gives them as gifts, and has saved several choice pieces for her grandchildren.
Her work has also been exhibited at the restored community of Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Two years ago, the work of Mrs. Rauh and another rug hooker were featured at a retrospective at the National 4-H Council in Chevy Chase.