“I think it’s the reason I’m here”
a conversation with Salt Lake City’s best kept secret (not for long) artist DAVID RUHLMAN. We spoke while walking around his flat and looking at his work. For reference, go tohttp://www.davidruhlman.com
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I’m kinda curious. You’re artwork seems like it has stories- there’s a deliberateness that really struck my eye when I first saw it. There’s a placement of everything, but yet it’s really not obvious-to me-what it’s about. It’s some kind of universe that has a language & pattern & way things run….but what is it? Where is it from? It’s almost like an invitation.
I think they- especially the more colorful ones & the children & the animal ones- came very naturally, but from a very specific place. They started with a book I made of tiny, plant mechanical beings in their own little realm. But then the children started coming and then the animals.
I was really interested when I saw the Andre Tchaikovsky movie THE MIRROR, which dealt with the “Kinder Transport,” where German children during World War II were taken and put in England or America, away from their families so they could be safe. And I had this idea that the children would cross over into this other world and they would turn into these other beings, like a lamb. So this painting (Children Have Small Ghosts) is kind of an inbetween realm where these children were taken, where they died or were left- where they transformed into other entities.
How much do you feel you want your art to be something that’s very readable right off the bat to anyone, or do you like to have them work for it?
Only the last year or two have I really shown art. I’ve always done art. It’s always been a very private matter. I don’t think someone’s gonna see it. A lot is just my own little world that I’m making with little stories and things.
You don’t have a sense of the audience while you’re making stuff?
Right. And I know it’s probably very hard to get into. It’s not a clear- here’s A, here’s B, here’s C…here’s what you should feel
I think it’s easier than a lot of surreal art, though. There’s a certain amount of surrealism and fantasy to it, but there’s these very recognizable and sane looking figures-it feels very sound and strong and deliberate. I definitely feel there’s some kind of a code- the very patterns and cycles of nature itself, a strong elemental basis for what you’re creating.
Your work has incredible detailed depictions of different fish and animal heads, detailed beyond the call of duty. It doesn’t seem you take short cuts.
I’m mainly doing them for myself, and I’m going to have to look at them everyday so there’s no need to fudge something or take the lazy way out. The things I really find joy from are all encompassing things. At work I think about it, I come home and work on it, work on it. You have this connection to it that you can’t leave when you go somewhere else. I’m always thinking of what I should change in it.
So when you’re working on a piece, it’s really with you until it’s done.
Usually, I’ll start a painting and not do anything else until that painting is done.
Do you mean, not starting any other paintings or not doing anything else in life…shopping and laundry..?
That’s one of my big problems. Having other people included in my life. Interaction has always been a difficult balancing act I try to do. For a very very long time, art has been the number one. I think it’s the reason I’m here, the thing I really find joy from.
It gives you your cosmic placement.
Yeah! And something I find joy and satisfaction in…also anger (laughs)…frustration. It wasn’t until I started painting that I felt I wasn’t copying anymore. For a long time I did the pen and inks and they were influenced by the surrealists, like Max Ernst.
Were you doing collage?
Uh huh- pen and ink, collage…just a lot of different things. I was putting myself out there, but with these (points to color paintings) it felt more of who I am, finding my own voice.
– instead of it just being your inspirations.
I think that is one of the early stages of doing art- following your influences. You try to learn what it is about these influences that inspire you…’why am I being led down this pathway?’ It’s almost like seeking a voice, a vision.
-and when it comes to you, it’s really different from the stage of following influences. You know when it has arrived.
And it came quickly. Everything you see in this room was done in a 2 1/2 year ‘poof!’
I get the feeling you’re really prolific. How often do you paint?
Not every day, unless I’m working on something. Almost every day.
What is an average of hours per week?
If I’m painting something…2 or 3 hours?
Yeah, but I paint kinda quickly, I guess.
I ask this question of myself at times- do you feel like you are actualizing/documenting a world that exists beyond yourself or do you feel it’s something that you’ve created?
I think it’s something that I want to see. I want to see the mystery again in life. I want to see that strangeness of things.
Yeah, I feel the same with music.
Like this world…(refers to painting) You know, I would love to live there, walking down the hills, see these things. Just having this.
Do you feel that’s in our world?
When I’m out hiking and things I definitely do, or at times just walking…the sun, everything’s perfect. You say, ‘this is life and life is good.’ I just want to trap that, I guess.
What’s the feeling of that painting there where there’s all the animals…are they carcasses? Is that Jesus down there?
That one is called ‘If our souls were frozen, the Earth would be covered as a starfish.’ I had this vision that our souls when they go up would just freeze and so you would have layers of souls and they would be like the touch of a starfish, these brittle things. Kinda similar to this other one…the title here is ‘Each Animal Buries Itself.’ It’s how the Earth is just layers and layers of fossils.
Yeah, that’s all it is.
So that’s kinda like carcasses.
I wouldn’t say carcasses, but they are animals that have passed on.
-they’re within the earth, they’re in the ground-
I became really, really interested in that idea.
What’s Jesus’ place in that one?
I’d been trying to figure out the role of Christ in my paintings, because I know he’s definitely in there, no question. I think I like the idea, the myth, the thought…what he represents.
Just seeing him there makes sense to me. He’s carrying a kind of weight, a burden.
He’s like…’I’ll carry that weight’ Are those branches there?
Yes, but not really coming off of him. It’s more aesthetical than coming out of him.
Are your paintings…are they happy? Like up here…
Definitely. That one Lincoln Lysager and I did together. It brings back good memories, one of those places you’d like to be. These kind of houses and green grass and this kind of playfulness of things. I think some of mine have darker undertones, but there are very few…I don’t feel myself as an angry or spiteful person-
You’re not tortured-
No, I don’t feel I’m tortured in any sense.
What about these cat ones..?
A friend had a picture of a cat-a small one with these round, blue eyes- and I also saw in the city library downtown this photo exhibit of The Children of Chernobyl, which had just horrible horrible pictures. A few weeks later I kinda saw all these injured cats, and the title of the theme was ‘Catastrophe.’ I didn’t really want to do children, cause that’s a little too obvious.
It’s really striking, because the cats do have an innocence, but they also look scared. There’s something about the combination of the kind of maiming in those paintings, but then the fact that they’re cats with this pureness.
The chalkboards that the cat images are painted upon are actually old children’s chalkboards from the thrift store.
That’s perfect. I’m curious as to what you believe in – do you have an actual set spirituality? You were raised Mormon, right?
When did you question that?
16-ish…the teen years.
Is that a pretty common age-
I think with anyone, when you’re trying to find yourself…and your parents are teaching you, the society is teaching you…
Have you kept anything of the Mormon belief system?
I would have to think so.
Nothing that strikes you consciously?
I know it’s in there, because of course you’re raised and that’s who you are.
It’s not something you’re consciously choosing or consciously aware of right now?
What’s it like to be doing your art in a town that is such a Mormon headquarters?
I’ve lived here in Salt Lake City for about 6 years and before that my dad was in the military, and so we moved all over. So I didn’t have-like Kyrbir (of ‘Purr Bats’) and others-that domination of religion from everyone in my life growing up. We moved all the time. I was born in Germany, lived in Kansas twice, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas…all over. So there wasn’t judgement from everyone around me for being different.
I’m very curious about a town that isn’t one of the big art meccas like NYC or Los Angeles, the Bay Area. I’m intrigued with towns that have properness and strong, religious order and the art that comes out of those towns. It’s been my general observation with Salt Lake City artists that all of you seem to have an interesting pantheon of what the universe and the Earth are about. I feel I can give credit to the Mormons and their wild belief system for giving that basic structure. It seems to have made some really interesting innovative thinkers. How has the environment here affected the Salt Lake City artists?
It definitely has an effect. With anything very strict, you’re going to have the deviance of it. When I moved here and met Lincoln and Mattson McFarland and Kyrbir- people that liked strange music, books, films-we bonded and stuck together, because there’s not a community for that here. You understand you’re all outsiders.
Have you found an audience for the work you do in Salt Lake City?
Yes. I’ve done pretty well. There’s quite a few people that like my stuff, much better than I would’ve thought.
Has there been any strong opposition from the Mormons?
Oh no, none. The four paintings with the upside down Christs- I think that’s not done in a blasphemous way. It’s not saying Christ is a killer.
So back to the question I was asking before, I’m looking at your artwork now…what DO you sense, what DO you believe in?
Maybe some of that pagan thing…the beauty of nature, of animals, and the connectedness we all have. This Tibetan was asked ‘What is life?’ There was a big waterfall and a river. He said, more or less…’At the beginning of our lives we are in that river. We’re all connected as one entity, one consciousness. At the waterfall, everything breaks apart into these little sections…individuals. At the top is life, at the bottom is death. And then we’re back in that river as one consciousness, as all one entity.’ So that makes sense to me more than any kind of dogma or belief system. Just this interconnectedness of everything, of the plants, the trees, the animals, us.
Looking at your artwork, you seem to find interest in all kinds of little things- like those boxes you made with the bees and soil and clumps of hair and little panels of color. You put a lot of time into making simple, little, humble flowers in your paintings. It is someone who finds things very interesting and studies them with a scientific eye, and delights, too- there’s a kind of brightness in your work. Even the injured cats…there’s still a bright quality in your use of color.
I think a kind of humor, also.
At the show, I was happy because people would come in, look at the cats and just laugh. Like the Stigmata cat, or the siamese cat or the blind or the cat with no legs…I just get a chuckle out of them.
It depends on what you feel about the relationship of the body and physical injury. Some people are more aghast or afraid, and others have a more light relationship to holding onto the body. Well cool, David, thank you.
Oh thank YOU.
(check out David Ruhlman’s website and see the paintings discussed in this interview, at http://www.davidruhlman.com)