Editor's note: The following 2003 essay is rekeyed and reprinted with permission of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in connection with the exhibit Creativity: The Flowering Tornado, Art by Ginny Ruffner. RLM expresses appreciation to Amanda Smith of MMFA and Ellen Woodoff of the Columbia Museum of Art for their cooperation and efforts toward RLM's publication of the essay. If you have questions or comments regarding this essay which appears in the illustrated brochure of the exhibit, or wish to obtain a copy of the brochure, please contact the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Ginny Ruffner Unlimited

by Vicki Halper

 

Anyone reading about Ginny Ruffner for the first time may not know about the car accident in 1991 that almost ended her life at age thirty-nine. These days, references to the wreck are usually tucked midway through articles about the artist. After all, Ruffner was famous before the crash, can now walk and talk again, however haltingly, and her art, once resumed, never signaled a break in either her vision or spirit. This art was and is exuberant, inclusive, fearless, and thought-provoking.  It is an art unhindered by the supposed limitations of a difficult medium, glass, the traumatic event of the crash, or the frustrations of physical handicap.

"I'm big on turning lemons into lemonade," Ruffner remarks rather lightly for someone who has recently discarded her wheelchair.[1] If we ignore the accident for the moment, the lemons the artist alludes to might be the restrictions of her traditional Southern upbringing ("a smart-aleck female had to leave," Ruffner once remarked)[2]; several misguided marriages and relationships; the macho world of glassblowers; or the abysmal status of lampworked glass -- the technique she wrestled from demonstrators at county fairs, with their diminutive menageries. By adopting a glass formula used to make scientific instruments, Ruffner was able to create ribbons and planes of glass and increase the scale of her work. In the mid-1980s, when she taught lampworking in summer classes at Pilchuck, one of the nation's foremost workshops for glass, she forbade students to make the swans and ships usually associated with cotton candy and corn dogs.[3]

Not that Ruffner is a snob. Her capacity for delight seems boundless, and it is this appetite that she wishes to share. You can see her enthusiasm in her home, with its collections of Mixmasters, faux grapes, and metal trays; you can see it in her city garden, with its tree ferns, honeysuckle vines, hummingbirds, and oversize terra cotta ruins; and you can see it in her work, where fruits and pencils, wings and Martians, hearts and trolleys seem barely contained by limits of either medium or reason. For Ruffner, all of this is beautiful, and because it is the mind that perceives and values such plentitude, and it is the mind that turns this plentitude into art, it is the mind that is the most beautiful of all.

It was not initially clear whether Ruffner's keen and treasured mind had been saved in the crash. She couldn't talk, and double vision prevented her from correctly indicating letters on a spelling board. The doctors had no hope. "I had to learn to speak so I could tell them to drop dead.  No one encouraged me except me," Ruffner states. Her friend Steve Kursh later brought her books containing illustrations of her own works of art so she could learn who she had been. Ruffner found her work vaguely familiar and appealing, and she would later make many of the same choices of material, subject matter, and presentation when she returned to her studio.

Ruffner lived with Kursh, a New York artist, during two years of intense rehabilitation, and he worked with her on a couple of exhibitions after her return to the art world in 1993. The collaborations combined austere structures of bent steel rods-vessels, chains, gigantic traps-with seductive blown-glass balls. The Beauty Trap, an installation at Bellevue Art Museum in 1994, suggested that danger is a partner to art and infatuation alike. Ruffner's role was conceptual, as it had been before the accident, when she headed an atelier with up to seven assistants who followed her directions in forming lampwork sculptures and decorating their surfaces with paint, pencil, and pastel. The work with Kursh had a coolness and restraint that was new, however, whether a result of the collaboration or of Ruffner's own need for more control after the crash. When she was again on her own, living back in Seattle, Ruffner's work recaptured its giddy edge.  She returned to the catalog of images she had begun to use in the mid-1980s, when she abandoned abstraction, started painting on glass, and began to use specific objects from home and garden as symbols for her ideas about love, art, and beauty.

Once we know Ruffner's visual vocabulary, we can almost construct sentences out of her sculptures. For example, pencils stand for art, wings for transcendence, hearts for feeling, tornadoes for creativity, fruit for bounty, webs for interconnectedness, and the Old Masters for inspiration. A headless and armless winged figure, taken from Greek sculpture, is Ruffner's embodiment of Beauty, an active force as well as a quality residing in objects. In Balance Series: Coping with the Fountain of Youth, 1995, a well-dressed Martian appeared post-crash, personifying Ruffner's perceived treatment as an alien while in her wheelchair. The creature doesn't take this sitting down, literally, and grapples with all physical and mental tests of balance with Ruffner-like panache.

In Brain Brakes, 1998, the brain, a transparent tangle of glass, is at the head of a vehicle that may be speeding toward a foolish romance. It's a good thing the brain is chained to the fly-away heart, which in turn is linked to a hand (the artist's hand, in Ruffner's lexicon). The brain brings the vehicle to a screeching halt that sets the brakes afire. That is the artist's take on the sculpture ("I was lecturing myself at the time"), but she doesn't want to be doctrinaire. If, for example, we'd rather see hand, heart, brain, and nature linked and speeding toward the great goal of art, she won't object, so long as the brain is in charge.

The Art Game, 1999, is a stable pyramidal edifice on a base of cards and dice.  The lucky hand dealt is full of kings and queens. A calm domestic scene that opens onto a flowering garden suggests the tranquility, isolation, and nourishment from nature needed for creation. A fence of colorful paintbrushes suggests protection by art. A large clock, usually an image indicating urgency or fatality, reads 2:30 because 23 is Ruffner's lucky number, the year that Marcel Duchamp completed his great, enigmatic painting on glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Duchamp's work was central to Ruffner's realization that light could be integral to a work of art, and that glass had the potential to be a conceptual medium expressing more that its innate transparency and fragility. The pyramid is buttressed by chains-an intrinsically dualistic object that possesses both strength and flexibility when made of metal, and that also binds but does not obscure. A rigid glass chain forsakes the tool shed for the domain of art, where its implausibility is embraced. Linking, in this work, means connection more than it means restraint.

Ruffner's recent use of stainless steel and bronze is as flashy as her older use of steel rods was reserved.  Since 1998, she has used sheets of metal in her work. Following her sketches and directions, assistants fabricate (hammer, weld, grind, polish) the metal into fantastic organic shapes that suggest abundant vegetal growth. The metal retains the evidence of intensive handwork, and its shiny, irregular surface is brazenly flamboyant. Cradled within each of the sculptures is a cornucopia of clear blown-glass shapes, perhaps seeds that when loosed will generate new art.

Philosophical About Unpredictabilities (The Big Shrug), 2002, is like a seven-foot-high Shiva whose multiple arms mimic the circular movement of a shrug. A basket of glass tendrils crowns the piece. ("The glass is choosing to be in the container," Ruffner says. "I believe that objects have souls.") She suggests that uncertainty need not be paralyzing. Like a plant whose pattern of growth cannot be predicted, uncertainty generates a beauty of its own; a shrug becomes a dance.

Despite all the artist's protestations, a certain didactic edge to her art seems to have gained urgency after the crash. Ruffner has learned a lot about attitude and willpower in the last decade, and in Creativity: The Flowering Tornado, 2003, an installation and book of the same name, she tells us what she believes without beating around the bush.

If the art seems puzzling, we can turn to the book, where each segment of the installation is represented in glorious pop-up format and paired with a straightforward rule of life. "I tried not to be bossy," Ruffner states. "There's no 'you must' or 'should.' Here's something to think about." The installation consists of six huge gold frames on easels that are ideally arranged symmetrically, three to a side, in the gallery. Each frame is intertwined with different, clearly identifiable sculptural forms. The corridor between the frames leads to a massive metal tornado (read: the overwhelming force of creativity) that seems to emerge through the gallery's wall and floor, flanked by a pair of gigantic filigreed wings (read: transcendence, a spiritual state unconfined by matter). These forces, larger than life itself, might denote the source and aim of art. The artist wants to help us tap into those powers.  The framed images suggest how.

Ruffner has used frames consistently in her work to tell the viewer to stop thinking about, say, dinner, and start thinking about art. Her command is to focus and stretch the mind.  One frame in the installation, for example, is almost obscured by a large flower and triplet of leaves; a nose is at the center of the bloom. (As we open the corresponding page in the pop-up book, the nose seems to inhale.) Ruffner writes an aphorism for this image: Be aware of beauty. She is suggesting that we can put anything, everything, within a frame-in her home she has suspended an empty frame in front of a potted plant-and our sharpened awareness will be the basis of creativity, a life-enhancing state.

The other picture frames also correlate with the artist's precepts for life and art.  A chained frame indicates Don't get tied up in the small stuff. A woman's profile with a devil's horns and an angel's halo accompanies Avoid self judgment.  An animal trap enclosing a light bulb demonstrates Avoid the trap of fear. A heart with a tornado shows Have courage with your imagination. The sixth image, a huge arrow entering and exiting a frame, illustrates Put your will in action. We might not take such advice from a lesser soul, but here's a woman whose strength of will has delivered her from a mute life in bed.

The Flowering Tornado is topped by a suspended ceiling of snipped steel flowers and leaves. This bower acts as a frame to the whole installation and signals that we have left the mundane for the sacred space of art. Like a church, this space has its framed icons and central altar and asks more of its attendees than the simple admiration of its grandeur and beauty. "For me, paying attention and thinking are wonderful and affirming. You know you are alive. I want to share that experience," Ruffner says.  Here she is directing our thoughts towards the powers enabling creativity. These powers are in our heads, not our hands. In the words of artist Marvin Lipofsky, who once said about a narrower topic, "There are no  restrictions currently, except in the mind."[4]

Endnotes:

1    All quotations are from interviews with the artist in March and April 2003 unless otherwise stated.

2    Quoted in Why Not? The Art of Ginny Ruffner, 1995, p.14.

3    Reported in Tina Oldknow, "Glass and the Muse: The Art of Ginny Ruffner." Vetro, September 2001.

4     Quoted in Ginny Ruffner, " Speaking of Glass." American Craft, October 1988.

© 2003. Courtesy of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama.

Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy Creativity: The Flowering Tornado, Art by Ginny Ruffner (12/11/03)


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