Artist Spotlight: Ruthle$$
By | Jacque Garcia
On a chilly but sunny January day, Ruth Linford and I sat on plastic adirondack chairs in the backyard. I began the interview, asking Ruth when she first considered herself an artist.
“Oof, that’s a tough one,” she replied.
“I think when I was a kid, and I forgot in college. I tried to take a few classes and I realized I didn’t know much about the world. I’d grown up in Utah as a Mormon, and there was a lot of love, but it wasn't like the kind of love that makes you last a long time- it kind of cuts short.
So, I was like, I need to see the world, and I switched my major to international studies and English, and kind of forgot about the whole visual arts part. And then when I was in my senior year the economy crashed, and there were no jobs anywhere for anybody that year, so I joined Teach for America.
They placed me in the Mississippi Delta teaching art, and suddenly I was back in this subject that I had forgotten about and was supposed to teach it.
I spent the next 4 or 5 years studying art and how to teach art, and I got my masters and finally realized again that I was an artist. To teach art means you have to own it.
We started an artist residency program in the city that I taught in, and I returned there to participate in that program. It was the first time I was paid to be an artist. I always thought I wanted to do film, but I ended up doing installation instead. I wanted to move people around.”
What did your installation entail?
“I brought in a lot of dirt from the community garden, which had been sort of a failed experiment in that community. I took over the community center named after a woman named Bessie Hunt, who was actually the first person I met when I moved to Mississippi.
She ended up being the oldest, longest working black woman with Teach for America.
We turned the front of the building into a classroom with dirt everywhere and put up these projections people could move that were archives from my life in that region, like manuals and pictures of Oreos.
That was my first big work, and the work from the show at the MARC played with that theme, too.
But with less dirt.
I’d still like to bring a bunch of red dirt in somewhere, though.
I’m interested in how a room that’s a community space like the MARC becomes something different. And how subtle you have to be, or not, to do that. I wanted people to be swallowed into the spiral. It was a spiral back into Utah, symbolically, for me.”
Interesting- kind of a shift of a frame of reference. How long have you been back in Utah?
“A year and a half now- almost two years.”
Would you say that installation is your first big installation here?
“Yeah, for sure. First show as an artist for sure. Teaching and art have always gone hand in hand for me. It always felt like teaching is an art. There was never a big difference between me as a teacher and the student as an artist- we’re both artists. We’re just coming from different perspectives and meeting in the middle.
But as a solo show, it was my first.
I’ve had to spiral back into Utah, literally. I tried once, and left and had to swing back in. I think I’m here for a good while, but I’ll always spiral with my concept of it as a female who grew up Mormon in this state.
That work was interesting too, because I had cut up 20 years of my journals and burned half of them, and put them on these propane bottles that at that time I was using to heat my camper trailer. I was literally living off these propane bottles, which was a sort of self-imposed residency. I had decided that if I was coming back to Utah, I was going to be an artist and I was going to make it work.
Those bottles were not only a representation of how I was heating my house, but how I was heating my soul. What are the words we tell ourselves about where we come from? Do they need to be cut up? Do they have to go away?
Your life is so present in your art. Would you say that’s always been the case?
“Yes, it’s always something I’ve tried to put words to. I always thought: I really want to have a conversation about what it means to be an ex-Mormon in Utah. But what I found was that if you just create a space for that, those conversations just happen. That whole night, all of these people in my life were connecting to this concept in a way that was way more powerful than anything I could have had a coffee over.
I think a lot of people who live in Moab identify with it in a way that is not centered in Utah, without recognizing an underbelly of toxicity which I’m pretty upfront about. I love Mormons, but for me, it was a bit of a brainwashing against individuality. It was difficult to get to know yourself.
So for me, getting to know yourself has always been a privilege. My art has always been a fight for that. So this last show was a very personal work.
To be an artist is already a pretty political act. And to be a Utah artist is an extremely political act. So why would it not be about me and my life? That’s kind of the point.
The piano in this installation was a big part of that. I used to get up every morning at 5:15 am to play the piano. Recently, I thought I’d take it up again, so I bought a piano. But it was too closely linked with a desire to be a good Mormon girl who plays the piano that I couldn't take it anymore, and I burned the f*ck out of it, down to the metal frame.
And the projections allowed people to be able to put up their stories as a response. There just aren’t always a lot of openings for people who want to tell their stories about growing up here. A lot of people leave. So I wanted to provide that opening.
Some of the stories people wrote down and put on the wall that night were so personal. And they shared them there. That was so powerful.”
Tell me a bit about your current project, Art of Farm.
“Art of Farm is a female-run project right now, as a side note. I want people to come and be a part of the art. Let’s make art a bit more accessible in a space where people are coming to eat. Even if someone doesn't know how to incorporate art into their own life, they can come to eat and share this food and be inspired by it. It’s an intersection of accessibility and creative expression that questions who gets to make art.
I’ve also never been in a more creative space personally than when I’m living on farms. Maybe I’ve got a thing with dirt, or burning things, but I’m always very inspired when on farms.”
Your projects are doubled and tripled and just exponentially more impactful through the fact that other people can participate in them.
“My big dream is to have a giant interactive art exhibit where we’re throwing food at each other. A food fight.”