- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

In one federal courthouse, the rugs don't just lie on the floor. They hang on the walls.

Thirty fuzzy rectangles not functional rugs but pieces of art depicting slice-of-life scenes adorn the cavernous hallways of the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md.

It's all part of an effort to spruce up the staid building while giving 14 mostly elderly artists a place to show and sell an unheralded art form called "rug hooking."

For six years, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte and the Prince George's Arts Council have teamed up to bring revolving art exhibits to the walls of justice. This one lasts through April; a public reception is scheduled for April 5.

"We've never had rugs," Judge Messitte said. "We've had quilts before."

The rugs a medium not typically seen in museums and galleries have caught the eye of lawyers, staff and visitors.

"I'm still fascinated," one courthouse employee said. "I can't imagine having the patience to do it."

Rug hooking used to serve a more practical purpose: Popular in New England in the mid-1800s, it was a means for covering bare floors. Nowadays, it is a time-consuming hobby and art form, though works rarely become part of permanent exhibits in major cities.

"It's hard to find places that want to show this kind of art," said Roslyn Logsdon, a hooking instructor at the Phelps Senior Center in Laurel, Md., and curator of the exhibit.

"We kind of fall in the crack" between art and craft, she said. "Part of having the exhibit is to educate. People are always amazed and delighted to see these things."

Rugs on display in the Greenbelt courthouse all about the size of a small throw rug depict stained glass, a wedding day, even a "Maine Moose." Most are original creations made without a pattern.

The pieces are made on burlap, cotton and linen backings. Artists use a tool resembling a crochet hook with a handle to loop woolen material that's been cut into strips.

Berta Murray, part of the Phelps rug-hooking class, is one of these "fiber artists." Her idea for her works "Homestead" and "Bon Voyage" came from her husband's love of ships and an old family photograph.

Sarah Province, another artist from the class, has been at it for 30 years. She started hooking rugs for the floor, then moved to more creative wall hangings.

Both women, like most of the artists represented in the exhibit, have given a dollar value to their rugs but refuse to sell them.

"I see why it's hard for the artists to part with them," said Ethel Lewis, assistant director of the Prince George's Arts Council. "They're absolutely beautiful."

Ms. Logsdon is selling four pieces by way of the arts council, including the $2,000 "Jolly Caffe," a scene of a chic woman in a long reddish overcoat holding a cigarette at an outdoor cafe.

In addition to providing a vast and very public viewing space, the court also donates money to the arts council.

Judge Messitte said the concept of using local artists to fill a federal courthouse is almost unique, but the idea may spread to the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"I don't think it's happening in too many places around the country," he said.

When the courthouse, with its white walls, opened in the mid-1990s, it resembled the layout of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the judge said.

"We thought we should make some use of this place," he said, noting that art from other counties has been used, and even some from Brazil. "It gives a nice, warm, much more human feel to a courthouse."

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