Ingrid Ruthig – Curiosity and the Ordinary
What/who inspires you?
It depends on the definition applied to “inspires.” As someone who makes, I tend to default to “stimulates” or “motivates.” But it could simply mean how something affects or changes you. Often, timing is key, and whether or not you’re receptive. You might not even realize, until further down the path, that you’ve been altered, that something’s been set in motion.
Not by choice, I filter out very little, so my senses play a big role. Sounds that inspire: rain, waves, thunder, music, birdsong, my daughters’ laughter. These days, I seem to crave silence a lot. Inspiring sights: expanses of sky, water, fields, vibrant colours – I once saw an Oriental lily so enormous and gorgeous, I couldn’t tear myself away, and finally challenged myself to ‘paint’ it in a poem. Other things: the feel, smell, and look of old leather-bound books – I’ve realized I’m drawn to their earthy colour palette, and over time I’ve subconsciously surrounded myself with it. Inspiration is also found in exacting writing, intriguing ideas, stimulating conversation, an engaging story – for the past three years, I’ve been riveted by the truncated, oft-hidden stories of women creators I’ve discovered through research for my current artwork series.
Curiosity and the ordinary can inspire, even in the midst of routine. I might be reading a biography about a long-ago artist, pause and glance at the bowl of cherries on the table, a piece of music pops into my head… and suddenly they’re unrelated ‘dots’ that nevertheless seem linked, so I have to draw lines between them to see what happens. It’s maybe the most intense kind of motivation.
How has the process of seeking beauty changed you?
Some of us, as children, were lucky enough to learn to recognize and appreciate aesthetic pleasure – of nature, music, art, literature, architecture, etc. And the attendant awe or wonder we were also developing was nurtured. What’s more, we weren’t told to ditch it as we entered adulthood. For me, it’s less a “process of seeking beauty” than it is an openness to wonder. It’s not a conscious action, but something hard-wired. I live this way. I’ve encouraged my children to live this way – to be aware, to notice and take in experiences, ordinary and extraordinary alike, that offer up wonder. It settles. It reminds us of our smallness, and in that, I find a sense of belonging to the universal.
“Beauty,” however we define it, grounds us. It can hold off the chaos pounding at the door, ready to storm in and take over. In times of destruction and reversion, staying open to beauty is a way of staying hopeful. Our need for it is at a critical level, yet increasingly hard to fulfill. The drive to build rather than destroy, to make some sort of order from disorder keeps me doing what I do, trying to do it better each time. If someone finds the results engaging, there’s satisfaction in that.
Describe a moment in your life when you were in the presence of beauty.
Can’t stop at one moment. I guess I’ve been lucky. When I’m travelling, it’s in new vistas, faces, experiences. It’s there, each time I lean in to sniff lilac blooms, or watch honeybees in the oregano patch. It’s there, each time I’ve had the chance to view in-person the thickly pigmented brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night over the Rhone”. Each time I hear Widor’s Toccata build to its glorious, spine-shivery final chord, there it is – when I was young, my mum, a musician, practiced this piece on a massive Casavant pipe organ, and I’d stretch out on a pew in the church sanctuary and, hidden from view, let the resonance carry me off. Here’s another – one spring, during a particularly busy migration of birds along Lake Ontario’s north shore, our eldest daughter called us to a window overlooking our backyard. We tallied two pairs of scarlet tanagers, several orioles, goldfinches, bluejays, and a single, rarely seen indigo bunting, all gathered around the birdbath. A jaw-dropping rainbow, one very likely never to be repeated.
Where do you locate the beauty in the things that you make?
All I can do is trust it’s there, waiting to show up somewhere near the end of the process, in the colours, textures, even in the dislocation of perceptions or expectations. In poems, I hope it’s there in words that draw together in unexpected ways. I begin with an idea or question, a methodology, a sense of wanting to use (in the case of visual art) colour, paper, line, structure, and (in the case of poetry) words. I set out, knowing full well that the results may not be anything like what I’d envisioned. But I’ve come to anticipate those surprises, and to welcome them. They’re the ‘big reveal’ for me, when the process of making lets me in on something that was hidden before. While aesthetic pleasure is worth finding in the visual or the aural, there’s an even greater impact in revelation.
How did you find your subject matter?
My preoccupations hover near the surface always, and I mine them frequently. I also stay open to new ideas, to current events, other artists' work, etc. And I read a lot, to learn about my predecessors, their own preoccupations and work. In the case of my current art practice, the subject matter has been a culmination of revisiting my feminist roots, of my experience and perspective as a woman learning and working for 20 years in a male-dominated profession (architecture), my interest in history and how truth is manipulated, and my fondness for all kinds of paper and things made of paper, like books. What I make is an extension of what I’ve always been curious about, interested in, and felt strongly about.
What are some things you do to keep beauty in your life?
I read poetry. Listen to music. Contemplate art. Walk along the lake and watch it change. I garden. A garden, being alive, also changes with the seasons and needs tending, as we all need tending. At times it’s overgrown, lush with colour, or a restful green, or merely pregnant with potential. It draws birds, animals. By growing things and having my hands in the soil, I reconnect to family roots, to the basics, to earth and universe. It keeps me grounded, as well as reminding me how fast the natural disordered state takes over.
I like having objects around me with visual appeal, with texture, colour, form, structure to satisfy my architect’s eye, and even better, with intriguing stories behind them. Oh, and books, always lots of books to rest the eyes on – arranged on shelves, stacked on a table, open on my lap, or lined up behind glass in the antique legal bookcase inherited from my grandmother. There’s comfort in having a private library and a certain thrill in knowing all those stories, lives, and ideas are within reach. I’ll never be bored or alone as long as they’re nearby.
In my work, I try to create something that is layered, aesthetically pleasing or intriguing, even disturbing in the way it looks, or in the way words come together and sound in a poem. If I find it interesting to contemplate, I hope someone else will too.
What is beauty?
A passage in the novella, Duet, by David Helwig, comes to mind. One of the main characters, a junk shop owner, notes in one scene, “The sun was shining in the back window and making a pattern on the set of kitchen chairs, shapes of light falling on the red paint. Beautiful, you said, and then wondered how a thing got to be beautiful.”
I think it remains for the beholder to determine. It surfaces unexpected in an arrangement of elements, tangible and intangible, that we take in with one or more of our senses. It stops us in our tracks, takes our breath away (my poem “Ten Mile Point” references this), settles and calms, stirs us to motion and emotion, reveals an essential truth we’d been ignoring or bypassing, nudges us to look again, to be quiet and open to the moment, offers us something more stirring about existence than what kind of gadget we should buy. Beauty is something to strive for, to build toward. We might at times fail to produce it, but we should always receive it. It takes us out of ourselves.
Tell me a bit about the things you’re making now and those that you want to make in the future.
I’m slowly writing and gathering new poems for my next book. And I’m finishing a body of visual works to be exhibited at Whitby’s Station Gallery from October 14 to December 10, 2017. Both modes of creative work contain threads of my current preoccupation with the unreliability of textual authority – in particular, how creative women and their achievements are portrayed in image and text throughout history. For three years I’ve been researching our female predecessors, trying to clarify my sense of them and, thus, of myself as individual and creator – to bring them out of the shadows and into the light, while acknowledging my perspective will be as skewed as any other. Which is the whole point, really – we can never know the full story about anything or anyone. Still, it’s important to work at piecing the fragments together, at re-examining the picture or story, and at remembering their legacy.
I have no idea where any of this will lead. Hopefully, to another book, maybe another element to explore in terms of my visual art. I’m content with just being here, letting the current take me where it will. Discovery is, after all, in the journey.
Ingrid Ruthig is a writer, poet, editor, visual artist, and former architect, whose most recent book, This Being (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), won the League of Canadian Poets’ 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her writing has appeared widely, and other books include, as author, Slipstream (2011), Synesthete II (chapbook, 2005), and as editor, The Essential Anne Wilkinson (2014), Richard Outram: Essays on His Works (2011), and the forthcoming David Helwig: Essays on His Works (Guernica Editions, 2018). Her award-winning visual works will be exhibited in the solo show, Re|Visions, from October 14 to December 10, 2017 at Whitby’s Station Gallery. She lives near Toronto.