Saturday, April 6, 2013

Carving Out Relationships

The Art of Ruth Waters

The longer I look at the sculptures of Ruth Waters, the more they amaze me. Just how is it possible to make wood stretch like pulled taffy or flow like water? How can anyone get such wide shapes out of a log, which is vertical and narrow by nature? How can a solid log have so many graceful interior spaces? How can tall, swooping forms keep their balance as free-standing structures? All in all, it boggles the mind.

Photo by Dan L. Smith
iPad snapshot by Jan
To Ruth's credit, when I first looked at her sculptures, I was most concerned with the forms themselves and where they came from. I asked her whether she started with an idea or with the wood. In general, she emphasized the importance of the theme she was exploring, but when she talked about particular sculptures, I could tell that there is a necessary interplay between what can be done with the wood and the way she feels and thinks.

Next I wanted to know whether her process was deliberate or intuitive. Some sculptors talk about an exploratory approach, finding the sculpture that already exists in the stone, or just following their carving impulse spontaneously. "There's nothing spontaneous about it," Ruth declared of her own work. "Every move has to be thought out and planned in advance, because once it's cut, it's gone. There are no second chances." During the long time a log is curing and while she is stripping the bark, Ruth studies it carefully, looking for problems and advantages, and planning the form she wants to make; then she chalks guidelines on the wood. Using mainly the traditional tools of mallet and chisel in a labor-intensive process, she removes the excess wood, gradually approaching the shape she envisions; after  much planing (a plane shaves wood off in peels), comes endless hours of sanding; finally the piece receives multiple rub-downs with linseed oil to bring out the wood's natural glow.

Ruth's workroom doubles as a classroom.
Photo by Dan L. Smith
A natural log and the latest piece in the Intimacy series
awaiting the final touches.
iPad snapshot by Jan
One of the thrills of visiting Ruth's studio is that she allows touching. In all the years I've been studying sculpture, I never touched one, because in museums, touching is strictly forbidden. Your eyes cannot appreciate the shape or the texture of the wood the way your fingertips can; you cannot see the beautiful spaces Ruth discovered within the log as well as you can sense them with your lightly grazing fingers. From touching, I understood that one compensation of tedious sanding is the tactile pleasure; Ruth adds that seeing the grain and character of the wood emerge is also satisfying.

Several of Ruth's works have been cast in bronze in limited editions, but she points out that casting from a wood model is even more complicated and expensive than using a wax or clay model. Occasionally she works in marble, but she seems to have more affinity for wood.

Floating Figure
iPad snapshot by Jan
Even though her work is technically challenging, Ruth is not driven by the quest to try new techniques. What drives her is the desire to communicate her feelings and ideas about relationships. Warm and supportive human interaction is her main theme, but sometimes she is concerned with the relationship between humans and the spiritual world, and other times her personal relationship with nature inspires her forms.

An example of her human themes is a series of sculptures on the subject of Intimacy. It is commonplace to sink into sentimentality or sexuality when treating this subject, but Ruth's forms are too abstract for that; the sculptures are not about the specifics of romance so much as how people's thoughts and feelings wrap around each other; her forms are metaphors for two beings becoming one. A spiritual relationships is implied by a work called Transcendence, while her sensitivity to nature is expressed with works such as Mistral, a hardwood metaphor for a cold, dry wind.

Photos of the Intimacy series
iPad snapshot by Jan
Ruth's concern for other types relationships has pushed her to invent new art forms. Motivated by the relationship between the individual and the spiritual world, she has built several sculptural structures. These are free-standing, self-supporting enclosures made of redwood timbers that are large enough to stand in or walk through. Most of them have been disassembled and stored away at present, but one is installed in her studio. It is a small, roofless chapel constructed of vertical redwood timbers; the interior is decorated by marble figures representing forms of life. It is a place to get spiritually recharged.

The Chapel
Photo by Dan L. Smith
A desire to express her relationship with the natural world, and a craving for color, caused Ruth to turn to painting, but not your regular brush-and-pigment type. In an effort to recreate the sky in certain light conditions, she has turned to applying iridescent and interference pigments to polycarbonate or aluminum sheets with airbrush and other techniques. In order to simulate light effects changing with movement, she bows the aluminum slightly outward, then rivets it to a rigid, glossy black Plexiglas backing, thus giving the whole piece a sculptural effect. Happily, her paintings form the perfect backdrop for her sculptures, and together they create a strong spiritual statement.

Sea Change
Photo by Dan L. Smith
Interaction V with September Sunset
Photo from Ruth's website
The paradox about Ruth is that she has become an exceptionally talented and accomplished artist with virtually no formal art education, something I wouldn't have deemed possible. Every other artist I've known personally, and most of the famous artists that I have read about, had knowledge of themselves as artists at an early age and received extensive training, usually in high school and college, and probably numerous workshops as well. Not Ruth. Her bachelor's degree from Stanford is in journalism, and she was building a successful career as a writer of technical material for various firms, when she started working with wood. The one question that Ruth could not answer in two interviews is how she got into sculpting. She just looked at me blankly, as if I'd asked how she got into something as basic as walking or talking. It's like she started sculpting because she was a sculptor; what else could she do?

Ruth Waters in her showroom, 2013
Photo by Dan L. Smith
Yet she is exceptionally well informed about art history. This is my area of expertise, and I had just finished a short summary of the history of women sculptors, so I pelted her with every sculptor I could think of; she knew every name, and had seen work by many of them in person. Not only that, but she keeps up with art news both in the Bay Area and at the national level. In my estimation, her familiarity with the larger world of sculpture gives her work strength and authority. Several of Ruth's pieces would fit right in with work by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Constantine Brancusi, and Jean Arp, no questions asked. Moreover, she has developed forms like theirs to new levels by adding the qualities of fluidity and complexity.

To be frank, you're not going to buy one of Ruth's pieces on an impulse, or because you need a little something to freshen your decor. Prices are in the thousands of dollars because each sculpture takes six to nine months of intense labor. Moreover, not many homes have space for large sculpture—or small, either. Nevertheless, if you ever get a chance to see Ruth's work, take it—just to expand your idea of what is possible in wood sculpture; just to expand your idea of what one woman can achieve.

Though it may be out of reach for the average art lover, Ruth's work does sell. She has placed pieces with a long list of private and corporate collectors, and even with museums, such as the Crocker in Sacramento, and the prestigious National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. She has also been recognized by important listings, such as Who's Who of American Women.

If there is anything more impressive than Ruth's sculpture, it is her talent as a community organizer. Almost as soon as Ruth taught herself to use a chisel, she began building an arts community around her. She did this by establishing and managing studio spaces for artists. This culminated recently with the establishment of her own museum, the Peninsula Museum of Art. It is virtually unprecedented for a private individual to establish an art museum, unless they are mega-bucks types like Norton Simon or Henry Clay Frick. Nor is the museum a private little vanity project. It has a board trustees, composed mainly of successful artists, a permanent collection, and a handsome exhibit space. Moreover, the museum oversees an art institute which provides studio space for twenty-eight professional artists - Ruth's community. Nothing brings out Ruth's enthusiasm like introducing the artists in their studios. My next post will cover the museum and institute.

Eye of the Storm
Photo by Dan L. Smith
Solar Flare
Photo by Dan L. Smith

For more images of her work, go to Ruth's website.

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