Ruth Adler: Exploring memory, mark-making and the music of colour
A little before last year came to an end, I stopped by Artscape - an old high school building repurposed by a non-profit arts & urban development organization - to visit Ruth Adler at one of their many artist spaces; where hundreds of drawings grace the crisp studio walls, reminiscent of rainbow-coloured crayon boxes, kindergarten art classes and Henri Matisse. We sat down over coffee and travelled through Toronto to Tel Aviv to New York and back, as Ruth discusses her evolution of process in relation to art, design and music. From playing the harmonica to trusting her memories, Ruth strives to break the boundaries of analytical mark-making and surprise herself every time. Read our full interview below!
What’s your first memory related to artmaking?
In pre-kindergarten, I was almost the best drawer after this other girl who was absolutely fantastic. I once made a drawing better than her and she twisted my arm. (laughs)
Tell us a bit about your background. I understand you’ve lived in Tel Aviv and then gravitated back towards Toronto and New York?
I was about twelve when we visited Tel Aviv with my family and I just fell in love with the city. I ended up moving there for university but not many people went to study art in those days, so as long as I studied something ‘professional’, I could stay. I did a prep year for biology and ended up in art anyway. (laughs) I began in design, but it didn’t really work for me because I couldn’t follow instructions. Also, you’re always working for a company, so your time belongs to them and I had a problem with that.
There’s always been a somewhat blurry line dividing art from design (and vice versa). Where would you mark the difference between the two?
I would say it’s personal. I’ve discovered that when I design something, I have something in mind, something particular that I’m working towards. I can see it, feel it and am trying to get to it. But when I’m making a painting or a drawing, I’m exploring. I have no idea where I’m going.
Do you feel a sense of immediacy or finished results being unnecessarily prioritized?
I really do. My focus lies on a different part of the process. Everyone has it in them, they just need to find it… and that takes time.
Where does your focus lie when you’re painting?
Well, it’s always different. I'm always inspired by artworks that have made me stop and ask: How did they get there? I look at things. I’ve been looking at things forever. So I’m not really thinking about the spectator when I paint… I’m trusting my own fifty year visual memory bank.
How do you tend to approach your art-making process?
I work on various series at the same time and really try to not over think when I'm creating. I don’t think I can get where I want to go if I think too much… I prefer to trust that it’s going in the direction it needs to. It’s funny, because it’s actually been playing the harmonica which has taught me to break out of the way I used to work.
How has playing the harmonica inspired you to create in a different way?
When you jam with other musicians, you’re playing off of what everyone else is doing and all of a sudden you can find yourself somewhere else entirely; with no idea where you’re going. I often feel like I don’t know where that sensation is coming from and it’s very exciting. It’s the same with my artmaking process: I’m putting down marks and reacting to them. I don’t want to make pretty sounds with the harmonica. I want to bend them and make them raspy and harsh… I work similarly when I paint by choosing colours that I'm not drawn to.
Are you looking for any result in particular?
I’m really trying to surprise myself, to push my own boundaries. When I make something I dislike, I think it’s horrible and it’s not until then that I can draw this intense freedom to bring it around. I do hundreds of drawings, so I often like something and then move on. Sometimes I work large, but I love painting small papers. Water-based paints, markers, pinned to the wall… there’s a real simplicity to them which I enjoy.
What role does history play in your art making?
It’s interesting because I find that reading about other artists that work (or have worked) in abstraction is such an exciting part of what I’m doing. People say that all that can be done with painting has been done, but abstract art is still in its infancy. There’s so much to do still. We have to honour our memories. If you’re true to yourself, there’s a lot to discover and express.