Unravelling Strands, Reweaving History: An Interview with Ingrid Ruthig

by Anastasia Hare, Communications & Development Manager

Station Gallery’s upcoming exhibition of Ingrid Ruthig’s work, Re|Visions brings together text and image in thoughtful and thought-provoking ways. It includes a series of 120 works about historic women creators, each woven out of paper, and including one part portrait and one part biography. The portrait images and biographies are at once present and absent: they invite a long reading, woven from strands of pages that have been cut into strips equally hidden as they are exposed. Or rather, these works create impressions that reveal themselves through time, alike the many legacies of the historic women depicted in Ingrid’s work. These diptychs are complemented by sculptural works, what Ingrid refers to as book-objects, that open up the artist’s process, revealing some of her source materials and notes left in the margins. Ingrid shares what’s at the core of Re|Visions and how it all started.

AH: I’d love to know what led to your project. How did it develop?

IR: A number of things come together to set an art project in motion, just as they do with writing a book, or with designing a building – it’s as if ideas and circumstances are dominos that tumble into each other and lead you somewhere other than where you started.

The first domino for this body of work toppled about a decade ago, when a painter friend and I talked about collaborating – I’d produce the text and he’d pair it with paintings. Before long though, I began to imagine how I might lift the blocks of text from the page and visually represent them in the same format as the paintings. It culminated in 24 paper-on-wood panels with dismantled and reassembled text running throughout – some of it what I called “ghost text”, and some of it inked-in.

It was my first experiment in fusing text with image, and it altered how I saw the printed word. It also fuelled the work that has followed. I have sketches and notes going back several years that essentially ask: “What would happen if I removed pages from books, separated and manipulated them? How would we perceive the text?” Our instinct is to receive text, especially in a book, as authoritative: “It’s in a book, so it must be true!”

AH: That’s true. If only people questioned from whose perspective they were written. Similarly, questioning the credibility of online sources.

IR: Exactly. Too many of us don’t stop to think or question… at least, not enough. And as we’re finding out pretty fast, not everything we hear and read is fact or truth. Some of it isn’t even close!

A part of me is the bookworm who loves libraries. There’s comfort in being surrounded by books – full of ideas, experiences, worlds, knowledge, wisdom, and entertainment – and you’ll never be alone as long as they are there. However, we now exist in an era in which we should question much of what we read. No one living now can say, “I’ve read all the books”, as someone might have been able to do before Gutenberg came along and changed all that with his printing press.

To be sure, there’s often a kernel of truth in what’s written – something that reveals who we are as humans, simply because it’s founded on our limited range of emotion and experience. But much of it is massaged fiction to suit an agenda. When it comes to the canon, whether literary or visual art, the same is true. I got tired of seeing how the men are always supported and the women dismissed. One could easily come to the conclusion that there simply weren’t very many women creating art. Or as some would have it: “Well, there was this one painter, but her husband did most of the work” or “her father let her dabble….” Many women were determined to create and achieved much, yet were swept under the carpet, shoved from the room, shelved on the top shelf in the library, if they made it to the library at all. At the very least, this is an inaccurate and damaging assessment.

Curator Olex Wlasenko and Artist Ingrid Ruthig

It’s important to revisit then re-examine history, textual and otherwise. Books signify how we document and preserve a sense of ourselves in any era. Sadly, the more books there are, the harder it is to separate the forest from the trees – in this case, the creative legacy’s ‘big picture’ from the individuals upon whose works it is built. I’m still working on a few more altered books for the show. One that’s already completed is an out-dated encyclopedia of world literature. It’s not easy to find older books that mention (let alone discuss) women writers of earlier eras, and while I dislike ‘abusing’ books, I went ahead with this one! I located all the entries dedicated to women writers, then freed those thin strips (except for the front edge) from the page and folded them outward. One by one, scrawny as each entry is, they construct a thick fringe representing women writers and poets believed important enough to mention. And it reveals just how many there are, though that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More are hidden away, more than any of us probably know.

This series of book-objects is called Footnotes. At the very bottom of the one I’ve just mentioned is a small strip inserted into the rest: “Look again. We’re here.” That’s the key to this whole body of work. Women have been makers for centuries; we just weren’t paying attention. It wasn’t documented, time passed, nobody knew.

Through this series of text and image portraits, Ingrid brings our attention to women creators and their impacts on our culture. She reminds us to think deeper about whose accounts we’ve inherited and whose may have been lost, overlooked or unrecognized in history. Here we begin to reweave the uncovered strands that have been unravelled and to find new patterns.

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