On Exhibit: the artist and the damage done | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: the artist and the damage done 

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Visiting her parents in December 1991, glass sculptor and painter Ginny Ruffner had a car wreck. In a coma and on life support, she was not expected to recover--but over several weeks she began to "wake up." A head injury had caused the two halves of her brain "to kind of slide by each other. They were not severed, but some neural pathways were erased," she says. She had double vision, could barely move, and couldn't speak. "I knew that a part of my past was not there. I was so afraid that parts of me would not come back," she recalls. The only dream she remembers from the hospital was of a visit from "a Greek goddess with wings" who told her, "You came back for art."

Ruffner couldn't recall what she liked and disliked. A vegetarian, she longed for a burger. Fortunately she had a long history of pondering perception and understanding. Because she got very carsick on long childhood trips with her parents, she used to use her eyes "to play games--like trying to see everything that was red and ignoring everything else." In the hospital she gave herself exercises, asking, "Do you like this color? Do you like these two things together?" When her family bought her clothes, she'd focus on what she liked and why. Eventually, when she resumed making art, "It had a lot of similarities to my older work--you can tell it's by the same person."

Born in 1952, Ruffner grew up in Michigan and South Carolina, building forts and gathering bouquets: "I inundated my mother with weeds because I thought they were beautiful." She used to rearrange porch furniture--just as today she chooses "the positions of shapes and colors" in her sculptural arrangements of brightly painted glass fruits, figures, and rocket ships. She loved to examine her maternal grandmother's jewelry boxes and "drawers full of stuff--handkerchiefs, zippers, buttons, old perfume bottles." And she read a lot, an activity she describes as "looking at 26 very uninteresting squiggles in black on white--but by your cognition you can open up a whole huge universe of imagination."

While she was a student at the University of Georgia at Athens, she was "blown away" by a reproduction of Marcel Duchamp's famous Large Glass, a painting and construct on glass. "It was amazing how much meaning that material could convey by its fragility and transparency. I was trying to get more light into my paintings, and all of a sudden I realized, This is how." She decided to paint on glass but knew of no women working in glass and of only one glassblower in all of Georgia. So she had to teach herself. In 1985 she moved to Seattle, which has an active glassmaking community, and lives there today.

That year she also switched from abstract to representational imagery, explaining that "I had some very literal things I wanted to say in my work." She also felt that "recognizable forms" would help viewers "initiate some sort of relationship with the piece." In one current series, "Conceptual Narratives," Ruffner uses boxlike containers to frame assemblages of painted glass sculptures; in Outerspace, a delightful combination of rocket ships and planets, she was "trying to allow the viewer to make up a story." Ruffner was thinking about her own injury in The Hemispheres of the Brain, which arranges snaking, brightly colored glass strands in hemispheres, but also about "how things are stored in patterns. In order to repeat anything, you have to learn it."

Today, with some help from assistants, Ruffner works prolifically. She has limited use of her hands; her speech is intelligible but not smooth. Reading is "very hard," so she listens to books on tape. But she feels her art has improved since the accident. "Everything is more of an effort--communicating, reading, and seeing. But that means that in order to do a task there has to be a choice and a motivation, otherwise you wouldn't do it. In a sense I'm really in the work more."

Ginny Ruffner's art is on view at booth 220 in "Sculpture, Objects and Functional Art" (SOFA) through this weekend, Navy Pier's Festival Hall, 600 E. Grand, Friday and Saturday, 11 AM to 8 PM, and Sunday, noon to 6 PM. Admission is $10; call 800-561-7632 for information. Her work can also be seen through October 17 at R. Duane Reed Gallery, 215 W. Huron. Admission is free; call 312-932-9828.

--Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Finding Sources," "outerspace," and Ginny Ruffner photo by Doug Tucker.

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