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Ginny Ruffner's Flowering Tornado

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by Regina Hackett

When 39-year-old artist Ginny Ruffner was in a coma from a car crash in North Carolina that should have killed her, doctors tried to prepare her friends and family for the worst. She might not wake up at all. Should she wake, she wasn't going to be able to walk, talk or take care of herself.

As far as making art was concerned, it was over. Nobody survives a head injury as massive as hers without brain damage, and the damage could easily be permanent.

In a similar situation, most people lose hope. The people surrounding Ruffner, however, weren't most people. Her mother and father, Carolyn and Al Martin, of Fort Mill, S.C., were by Ginny's bedside at the hospital in Charlotte, N.C. every day. "My parents were wonderful," says Ginny, "and so were my brother Al and my sisters Kay and Melinda." Her wide circle of friends, particularly those from the Pacific Northwest, visited often. Still, the doctors had little confidence that she would be able to create art again.

Five months after the uninsured teenage driver lost control of her car and plowed head-on into her lane, Ruffner opened her eyes She was back. As an artist of international standing in the contemporary glass movement, she had thousands of people around the world cheering her on. After the relief, however, doubt set in. How much of the original person could be left after such an accident? Where is spirit stored, and can a head injury kill creativity?

The answer wasn't long in coming. Although she couldn't speak, see clearly or move the left side of her body, she gestured to an alphabet board. By pointing at the letters she delivered a message to the doctor who had ordered her restrained at night to keep her from rolling out of bed. "Untie me," she spelled out, "or I'm calling the AMA." When informed that her studio had been dismantled in Seattle, she used the spelling board again, "I need my studio." Her brother, Greenville, S.C. lawyer, Al Martin Jr. and his wife Laura, made the long trip to Seattle and found her former studio was still for rent. They moved everything back in there for her.

Inside her damaged body, her intelligence, humor, courage and imagination were intact. The artist was still there too. She'd need it all to recover. Today, at 53, she can walk, talk and leave women half her age trailing behind her in workouts at the gym. Her lovely Southern voice remains a brittle shadow of itself, but it's getting stronger each year. "Thank God I wasn't an opera singer," she says.

In her view, she was lifted off the ground by a tornado of a disaster, but she pulled herself out of it, found her feet as a person and artist, and continues to be delighted by the world. "I'm a lemonade from lemons kind of person," she likes to say. She also likes to say that her glass is never less than half full.

Remember that tornado? She not only accepted it, she made it bloom. On June 25, "Creativity: The Flowering Tornado, Art by Ginny Ruffner" opens at Tacoma's Museum of Glass. The exhibit that debuted in 2003 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts features a pop-up book full of illustrated, self-help adages. Instead of a one-off eccentricity, the book represents the heart of Ruffner's aesthetic.

Clichés aren't corny to her and never were. She began her career, after all, as a lampwork artist. Lampwork is the back door to the glass revolution. Hobbyists are usually the ones who heat rods of glass with a small torch, making paperweights, necklaces and those cute little glass baubles of horses, angels, pets, hearts and flowers, the kind of thing found standing on doilies in homey display cases.

Ruffner was trained at the University of Georgia as a painter, graduating with an M.F.A. in 1975. Glass was just gaining ground as a contemporary movement, and it drew her almost immediately. Glass blowers were the big deal, and they were nearly all men.

Following her instincts, she sidestepped the men and focused on the humble form of lampwork. When she began, she was the only serious artist concentrating on it. Thanks to her, lampwork is now common and unchallenged in art circles.

Her gift is the ability to consider a corny thing through the radiant prism of her imagination. In her hands, what is stale becomes animate and full of complication. She doesn't bring high art and low kitsch together. She simply doesn't think in those terms. For her, Picasso and somebody's cookie-baking great grandmother can be inspirations on the same level.

In her sculptures, pop-psychology insights share illustrated pride of place with Juan Mirņ's black and red patterning, Paul Klee's wandering lines, Picasso's heads and all manner of circus toys. Lowbrow has many highbrow adherents these days, but Ruffner's samplings are entirely devoid of irony. In her aesthetic, any x can equal any y, and the jet stream of creativity courses through both the rare and the commonplace.

At dinner at Dale Chihuly's in the late 1980s, he pointed out that she was the first to claim Seattle had become the "Manhattan of glass art." People pounced on the phrase and used it without attribution. "That's fine," she replied. "They like it, they can have it. You don't need the water when you've got the well."

That confidence still marks everything she does.

Ginny Ruffner

Glass artist Ginny Ruffner. Photo: Doug Tucker

Ginny Ruffner: Having An Idea

Ginny Ruffner, Having an Idea, 2001

Ginny Ruffner: Brain Brakes

Ginny Ruffner: Brain Brakes, 1998

Ginny Ruffner: Coping with the Fountain of Youth

Ginny Ruffner: Coping with the Fountain of Youth, 1995

Ginny Ruffner: Finding Sources

Ginny Ruffner: Finding Sources, 1995

Ruffner's sculptures in glass are the visual equivalent of break dancing. They have a clattery rhythm, a blooming garden sense of color and a fantastic kind of Mobius-strip fluidity. Interconnected webs of multicolored tubes curl and cave in on themselves, drunk on their own high spirits and sprouting appendages: apples, peaches pumpkin pies; hands, eyes, hearts, flower petals and leaves; wine bottles, chunks of cheese and flying fish.

After her accident, she began to produce stage sets for her sculptures, and then the sculptures became stage sets. Today, glass is just one tool in her box. Recent sculptures are sometimes bronze. They have a sense of animal life about them, like overgrown dogs with glass tongues lolling out. She also uses steel, as in, steel jaws ready to snap. There are rose petals that really are rose petals, and outer space flowers that really are glass.

Art historian Vicki Halper noted that once Ruffner's visual vocabulary becomes familiar, "we can almost construct sentences out of her sculptures." Pencils, said Halper, "stand for art, wings for transcendence, hearts for feeling, tornadoes for creativity, fruit for bounty, webs for interconnectedness, and the Old Masters for inspiration."

Ruffner's work is down home and sophisticated. Even after decades of postmodern high / low conjunctions, her lack of snobbery makes her rare. It can still raises hackles, especially in those of critics who remain appalled by her lack of irony. About her "Mind Garden" installation at the Seattle Art Museum in 2000, one critic wrote that it was "flat-footed and literal."

Never flat-footed. No one is so light in her use of allusions. What Tom Robbins once wrote about angels is true of Ruffner, that they can fly because they take themselves lightly. Her art invites us to do the same. We can leave out prejudices against the literal at the door, because she brings blooming physicality to the literal and gives it abundant new life.

In Seattle, Ruffner's work can be seen at the Woodside/Braseth Gallery, 2101 Ninth Avenue.

Regina Hackett is the Art Critic for The Seattle P.I.


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