INTERVIEW: Ellen Rutt on Debut Solo Exhibit, “This Must Be The Place” X Detroit Art Week

INTERVIEW: Ellen Rutt on Debut Solo Exhibit, “This Must Be The Place” X Detroit Art Week

This Must Be The Place, opening on Saturday, July 20th during Detroit Art Week calls attention to the interconnectivity of earth’s complex systems through a new series of “place paintings,” made by tracing elements and textures from the physical environment and allowing often overlooked aspects of architecture and landscape to dictate the composition by Detroit-based artist, Ellen Rutt. The exhibition will be on view through July 27th.

Through the physicality of this process-driven approach, making work outside in public spaces, this project is intimately interwoven with the urgency for climate action.

Foregrounding the urgency of climate change action, Rutt examines the politics of aestheticized landscapes that perpetuate the nature-culture divide, and confronts her own hypocrisy in order to more fully envision a future centered in social justice not just green capitalism.

Image credit, Jax Anderson.

Ellen Rutt makes bold mixed-media paintings, murals, installations and wearables. Her abstract vocabulary of layered shapes and primary colors is applied to a variety of media to facilitate a conversation between materials and movement, places and process.

She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of Michigan School of Art & Design. She has exhibited work at MOCAD, PLAYGROUND DETROIT, Red Bull Arts Detroit, Heron Arts, and has painted murals in Detroit, New York, Chicago, Canada and France.

As a multidisciplinary artist, her distinct style is recognized internationally through public murals and her studio work; however these facets of her artistic practice have remained separate.

When did you know you were/wanted to be an artist? 

Honestly, I always wanted to be an artist but it somehow felt like an impossible dream.

It wasn’t until I worked at a big agency in a windowless cubicle designing ads for shit that people don’t need and perpetuating a culture of needless consumption that I realized I would rather fail at being an artist than succeed in advertising.

That realization and discomfort gave me the motivation I needed to commit to my art practice. I wanted to quit right then and there but instead worked tirelessly during every hour spent outside of that cubical until I was able to support myself independently. 

Image credit, CJ Benninger.

Why is art a part of your life? 

Art feels like my whole life because through art I am able to envision a world that doesn’t yet exist. I’ll admit I am not great at the work/life balance and if an artist’s job is to notice, if you’re awake, you’re on the clock. (To summarize poet Angel Nafis)

What has the transition being a full-time artist been like for you? What are some of your greatest lessons learned so far? 

Being a full time artist was always my goal, so that achievement feels good but I am also aware that it could change at any moment. The economy could collapse, people could stop buying my art or commissioning murals or I might feel called to spend my time doing something completely different. It’s less of an “end goal” these days. I’m really appreciating the freedom it grants me but I’m also holding space for change. A lot of us forget that we can reinvent ourselves as many times as we choose. 

Image credit, CJ Benninger

Some things I’ve learned…

Get an accountant (they are cheaper than you think).

Learn how to be a person you like, in situations you hate.

The thing you dread most, is where the content comes from. 

Sobriety is helpful. 

Image credit, CJ Benninger

What concept, theme and medium (as a multi-faceted artist) are you most interested in currently?

For this show, I’ve been making a series of “place paintings,” exploring the interconnectivity of earth’s complex by tracing elements and textures from the physical environment and allowing often overlooked aspects of architecture and landscape to dictate the composition.  Through improvised movements and unconventional mark-making techniques, I’m examining how we interact with spaces, who has access to certain spaces, and confronting expectations about where art is traditionally made and viewed. (Maybe they’re really like dirty-post-abstract-expressionist-plein-air-action painting?) 

Because I made so much of this work outside in public, my new body of work has inadvertently and then intentionally become intimately interwoven with the urgency for climate action. It’s easy to feel isolated from one another and from this planet but I want my work to serve as a reminder that everything is connected . Similarly, I am interested in the role that visual culture plays in grappling with climate change and the opportunity that artists have to shift the cultural narrative about consumption. The chance to envision a future centered in social justice not just green capitalism.

Right now these ideas are translated through paint and collage but in the process of making the “place paintings” I used whatever was available on the ground – dirt, sand, rain, river water, mud, etc. 

Tell us about your “Place Paintings” where did that name come from and how did that begin?

During my residency in New York in December of 2018 I experienced  an existential crisis. I was burnt out from agreeing to too many commercial projects, numbed by the endless social media scrolling and desperately searching for a renewed sense of depth and authenticity in my work. 

In an effort to make sense of the place I was, both mentally and creatively, I started going on walks and collecting evidence with paint and a blank canvas.  Suddenly the curves of a park bench or subway grate, the lines of a crosswalk or construction piping became little pieces of textural data to bring back to my studio with me.  

 This evidence provided the background for my place paintings and from there I responded to the textures and linework, sometimes painting over large portions, sometimes leaving it mostly unaltered. 

Over the next few months I repeated this process wherever I went, particularly during my cross country road trip from LA to Detroit in March of 2019.

The name “place paintings” not only describes how the works were created but also speaks to my own journey towards finding my place and voice through my art.

Image credit, CJ Benninger

At what point did it feel important to bring climate change into the subject matter? 

Environmental issues have been present in my life for a long time, but I started making the place paintings just after the IPCC released their report in 2018 articulating that we have about 12 years until we reach catastrophic and irreparable levels of warming. All of a sudden, making this work felt like an opportunity to document environments that might not exist forever, remind myself and others why they are worth preserving.

Positioning my work within the context of climate change, calls me to consider the whole energy, ecology and waste system and envision a decolonized future that is lead by historically marginalized people who have been disproportionality impacted by the effects of climate change. Of course these are beyond what any one person or project can accomplish, but it feels important to address. 

What is it about working with/in various environments and surfaces that is of most interest to you?

Finding new ways to connect with unfamiliar environments with respect and integrity is one of the things that interests me the most. It’s easy for me to stay in my studio, to not connect, to remain isolated.

I am interested in how we interact with different spaces, and what that teaches us about our relationship to the planet, and by extension to climate change. The biggest challenge is examining and fully acknowledging the hypocrisies of my own practice. 

What would you like to do next with it? 

I’m super interested in doing these place paintings at sites of natural disasters, extraction sites or national parks.

I also want to create projects and that can only be experienced outside. 

What are some of the recent highlights of your commissions and experience throughout your career as a working artist?

One of my favorite projects was, “Nothing Is Separate, a Collaboration with Nature” which began as an experimental, traveling installation during the Temple Children Artist Residency in Hilo, Hawaii in 2017. By creating intuitive compositions of painted, repurposed wood shapes and costumes at several of the island’s distinct and isolated terrains, I explored the complex relationship humans have with both natural and constructed environments. I started this project a month after I got sober and it felt like a catapult into a new way of being and working. 

As you know, I recently curated a group of artists to have their work displayed on billboards throughout Detroit. That felt like an incredibly empowering way to elevate important voices and highlight artist who are dealing with relevant issues. Plus, as someone who spent three years at a big ad agency designing shitty Out of Home (OOH) content for companies that contributing to a problematic culture of needless consumption, it feels GREAT to subvert a medium reserved for advertisements. 

Jonah Welch Trans People Are Sacred, located at E. Seven Mile & Kempa St

Bucket list projects, ok lets see, my retrospective at the DIA will be great, whenever that happens I can’t wait to build an artist residency/research center and sculpture garden powered entirely by renewables that feeds into a decentralized power grid and is easily accessible from the carbon-free new light rail that runs all over the country. The space will be collectively owned and operated by LGBTQ and BIPOC (and other inclusive acronyms that we don’t have yet) who are working on cross-disciplinary experiential work because the traditional model of art-as-commodity has been disrupted. 

Can you tell us about the show title, “This Must Be The Place?

So far there hasn’t been a lot of reasoning behind choosing the specific places I paint, it’s guided by an impulse and I find myself thinking, “Oh shit! This is it! This must be the place!” 

On a broader scale, Earth is really the best home we’ve got. “Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there.” Lead singer, David Byrne said that it was the “most direct love lyrics [he] had ever written” and in many ways, it feels like this work is a love letter to this home, to the many homes, to the homes that are intangible feelings, and the ones that are physical. 

How is this body of work related to, or departure from your past projects? 

Visually the mark making and composition is more loose and textural. Conceptually the work is more political, more vulnerable and more urgent. It’s not ABOUT climate change explicitly, but cannot be divorced from the context in which it was created.

How does the process begin, and how long do your place-based paintings’ take to create from concept to execution? 

The process begins outside with nature, canvas and paint. It could take anywhere from ten minutes to ten weeks to finish a painting because the environment dictates the initial composition and my process of finishing the pieces happens in my studio in response to my experience outdoors. 

Image credit, Emily Steffen

What and/or who inspires you?

My inspirations and influences include Olafur Elliason, Octavia Butler, Franz Erhard Walther, adrienne maree brown, Donna Huanca, Peter Matthews, Aja Monet, Chris Engmen, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Rachel Hayes, Greta Thunberg, Sanja Marusic, Donna J Haraway.

Has the concept(s) or theme that your work revolves around evolved over time?

I use abstract shapes as a metaphor for different facets of our identity, and explore the way those facets impact our movement through physical, social, and cultural spaces. The shapes embody ideas (centeredness, mistakes, memory, fluidity) and qualities (soft, hard, rigid, loose, round, smooth, dense), and in composition they can act as symbols of broader structures. This has remained pretty consistent even as the mode of expression changes. 

Detail view of artwork in “This Must Be The Place”

Can you tell us more about your choice of colours?  

A few years ago I was spending so much time choosing colors it started feeling overwhelming, which is such a funny problem to have, like, TOO MANY COLORS NOT ENOUGH TIME! So I decided to step back, and return to the primaries: red, yellow and blue. Restricting my palette gave me the constraints I needed to unify the work. 

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?

It sounds boring, but regular exercise, lots of water, going to twelve step meetings, attending art openings, talks and community org gatherings keep me motivated. Also being motivated is critical to my process. 

What else are you working on or looking forward to in the near future?

I have a group show in San Francisco with three other women whose work I admire deeply, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m excited to start hosting regular discussions about climate change and the arts and be the best. I’m getting more involved with local environmental orgs. 

Does the city have any influence on your work or subject matter/style/approach?

It certainly influences my work. The opportunities, materials and space that I have access to here inherently shape the way and type of art I make. For example, when I first moved to Detroit in 2012 there were hardly any galleries, but there was plenty of exterior wall space, so painting murals felt like an obvious transition. 

Advice to other aspiring artists?

Just keep going. Keep making art. Even if you never make money from it. 

Image credit, Emily Steffen

Ask for help as often or more often than you offer it. Working with or assisting other artists is a powerful learning experience. 







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