The work of Donna Ruff is reminiscent of 17th century images commissioned by the Church. Ruffs’ work is opulent in colour, fragile in its execution, unconventional in use of technique and contradictory in concept.
Her recent works use The New York Times front pages, usually carrying headlines and images of the continuous global daily atrocities. Taking inspiration from the sacred texts of the Torah and Qur’ran, she creates extraordinarily beautifully cut and sculpted patterns from them.
Her work with books and graphics may have been genetically determined, since her great-grandfather was a bookbinder in Russia and her grandparents were early recyclers of books and paper in Chicago.
In her own words
Would you please introduce yourself and explain how and why you chose to pursue a life in Art?
I currently live in Santa Fe, NM, which is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains, with layers of historical culture and a rich artistic presence. I was always an artist, from the time I was about six years old. I was good at drawing and was always asked to do the posters and the bulletin boards- I had an identity as an artist at school. I majored in art in college but as an adult I needed to support myself, so I did that by doing illustration in New York City for many years. We were paid well in those years and it was fun to get paid to draw. But around the time computers became more widely used for image-making, I decided to go back to graduate school and pursue my own work.
How did you move into cut paper? Do you ever use any other art discipline such as painting or printmaking?
I was accepted to grad school as a painter and when I was there I did a lot of printmaking and papermaking. I love paper as a medium, always have. I often mention that my grandparents were in the scrap paper business in Chicago. When I was very small I’d go to the warehouse and see all of the bales of shredded paper. We were given encyclopaedias that had been taped together by my grandmother. So I always had materials to draw on, and I was exposed to paper’s sculptural possibilities at a very early age. I still like to make prints, but I use printmaking to do works in series rather than editions of single images.
What artists and influences have driven your work and why?
I love all kinds of art and there’s no short answer to that question because at different times of my life I’ve been influenced by different artists. For instance, I love Annunciations and there is one by Fra Angelico that is transcendent. But closer to what I do now, Kiki Smith’s works on paper were very influential- she opened my eyes to the broader possibilities of printmaking. She also works in series quite often, and creates a large piece from a series of smaller ones, piecing together sheets of handmade paper, work that gets pinned to the wall and is very immediate, not precious behind glass. When I was at school Willie Cole came to work with the master papermaker and I was very taken with his patterning from burning the paper with irons, and the rich personal content of the work. I also love Leslie Dill’s work. Besides the obvious connection of using paper in a way that emphasizes its fragility and strength at the same time, I admire her exquisite design sense and her use of text. As for the imagery I’m currently working with, it’s very connected to books and to architecture, two interests that I have had all my life. Being from Chicago originally, I was surrounded by wonderful architecture: Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies, it’s a beautiful city.
How does a piece of work evolve from start to finish for you?
Different bodies of work develop differently, but for the most part I work with self-imposed systems, which might be based on geometry, on page design, on floor plans, or on grids. I do this for several reasons, one of which is that it gives me a place to start, and if I have a few hours in the studio I can immediately jump in to what I had been working on. In between start and finish are many decisions. Sometimes a mistake is made, or a piece is cut or burned too much. Most of the time I work slowly enough so I don’t have to fix something, but even if I make an error or something doesn’t work I often find a way to incorporate the mistake into the piece. That’s the lesson of printmaking, the so-called happy accident. For the cut paper pieces I do some of the work on the computer, in Photoshop or Illustrator, and use the print outs as a basis for the hand cutting.
What obstacles do you face in making and exhibiting your work?
I don’t really see things as obstacles, more like challenges. Like any artist, I sometimes have crises of confidence in my work, and have to push myself to get to the studio, putting aside other things that are demanding my time and attention. Exhibiting the work is not a problem. I’ve had many wonderful opportunities and the only issue I have now that I no longer live in New York is that it’s harder to get my work in front of people and to have it shipped for exhibitions elsewhere. But the internet has changed the way people get to know artists’ work significantly, and again I’m fortunate that I’ve had a lot of exposure online, without my making an effort to do so.
What concepts are you currently exploring and what will you embark on next?
After resisting using laser cutting, I’ve found a studio here that has a laser cutter and I’m experimenting with how I might use the laser as a kind of press, to cut things that might be part of other pieces, or might be a larger installation. This is still in the early stages. I like doing the cutting by hand, and all the little overcuts and lack of perfection that results from that. But seeing those perfect little cuts that the laser makes, it’s kind of mind-blowing and I’d like to figure out a way to take advantage of it. I’m also working with much looser imagery, using ink and Japanese paper, along with wood and enamel, to make dimensional works that don’t require such intense labour. It feels very freeing, like taking a vacation
Donna Ruff grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, and was an award-winning children’s book illustrator in New York before earning her MFA at Rutgers University in 2000.
All images courtesy of Donna Ruff | www.donnaruffart.com
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