Curator’s Eye: Bellevue Arts Museum

When Worlds Collide

Along with Dale Chihuly, Atlanta-born Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner helped create the Amer-ican glass art movement at the Pilchuck School in the ’80s. “Someone once introduced her as ‘a student of Dale Chihuly’s,’” says her dealer, John Braseth. “She said, ‘More like the other way around.’” Like Chihuly, she bounced back from a bad car wreck. Her 1991 crash put her in a coma for five weeks and a wheelchair for five years. She couldn’t speak, walk, work or remember her own aesthetic tastes, and double vision plagued her. Now that she’s back on her feet, driving cars and making world-class works, her art is preoccupied with the idea of doubleness and transformation.

Ginny Ruffner, Arboreal Mudra, 2007, stainless steel, bronze and glass, 57 x 35 x 39 inches

Her new Bellevue Arts Museum show about doubleness, Aesthetic Engineering, was inspired by food writer Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, with its wild-but-true tales of walrus DNA inserted into tomatoes to make them frost-proof, and DNA-coated .22 bullets fired into plants to pierce the double helix and cause mutations. The idea of animal-to-plant gene sharing in particular struck her imagination, making her work bloom in strange new ways. 

“She’s not trying to mimic cross-species pollination,” says BAM curator Stefano Catalani. “It’s more about flowers that bloom in the sky.” 

“What if a behavior or trait could be turned into something completely different?” asks Ruffner. “Say, photosynthesis became feather production?”

And what if you could cross glass with metal sculpture and add painting? Ruffner does it, with fifteen oddly blossoming sculptures, including a thirty-three-foot-tall double helix of anodized aluminum DNA. “Her bronze has a warm patina, very soft, smooth,” says Catalani. “It’s hard to see where the bronze ends and the air begins. It has a painterly quality, like Renaissance Venetian painting, where instead of delineating the outline of the body like in Florentine art, the Venetians blurred the line of the body. Her work is more about atmosphere.

“The glass flowers and tendrils look fragile and easily broken,” he concludes, “and the bronze is something that can be plied, and difficult to destroy.” Sounds like a metaphor for Ruffner’s verdant, indestructible imagination. •


Artists honored with 3-D Absolut Vodka ads: Ginny Ruffner and Andy Warhol

Number of major museums that collect Ruffner: 35

Celebrities she has collaborated with on visual artworks: Tom Robbins, Graham Nash

Tom Robbins novel she inspired: Still Life with Woodpecker

New movie about Ruffner: A Not So Still Life (winner of the Golden Space Needle Award at SIFF 2010)

Profession they trained her for in rehab: Grocery bagger

Sale price of a Ruffner artwork: $24,000–$150,000

How she defied doctors’ professional death sentence: “I’m a stubborn person.”

Bellevue Arts Museum
Through February 6, 2010