Artist Kathy Ruttenberg lives at the end of a long road up a mountain, and at dusk it’s easy to miss the small sign off the main road. By the time I find her place, it’s dark, and all that are visible are the lit doorways of two adjacent buildings, each painted to resemble a jungle of blooming flowers, framing a glass door, as dark as a fish tank, over which snake gnarly branches. In the shadows I can make out a giant-head planter, sculpted animal heads positioned like trophies atop the expansive wooden fence and a couple of nearly life-size figures lounging on the ground near the house, in a frozen tableau of a summer picnic. Ruttenberg’s black Russian terrier, Roulette, barks behind the glass door on the left, and in a minute the artist opens the door.
We go into the studio, an immense white brightly lit space as big as a barn. Thousands of ceramic pieces are cluttered on tables, shelves and stools of all heights and sizes. Two flat, textured rabbits, a sculpture of a stag head, watercolors of mushrooms and figures cavorting in the forest, large paintings of figures and faces, close-up photographs of bugs and a relief of a greenish oak tree, with a thick cluster of branches and leaves, hang on the walls. Wandering among the tables, one sees ceramic fragments resolve themselves like startling visions: a miniature pair of standing legs; the recumbent top half of a woman with a thick cornucopia of hair and graceful, beckoning arms, like the figurehead of a ship; a face-down reclining nude, hair and shoe-clad feet pointed upwards, as if pulled by tidal currents; glazed faces, both animal and human, in dozens of colors and sizes; a sitting dog; a cluster of spiky branched thick-trunked trees, which seem to lean toward the light; and a man-size yellow daisy face, framed by giant white petals, gracefully dangling from a long, spiky green stem. It is equal parts Santa’s workshop, Alice in Wonderland, the Brothers Grimm, Peter Pan’s Neverland and Fantasia, a magical world whose myriad creatures are strangely still and mute, as if bewitched.
“I’m obsessed with the forest floor,” said Ruttenberg, pointing to a flat piece covered with mushrooms, acorns, leaves, a bird and other detritus, from which protrude a pair of female legs in pointy shoes, recalling the dead stockinged legs of the witch in The Wizard of Oz. “My trees start small, and before you know it I need scaffolding to finish them.”
Ruttenberg points out several pieces that she’s working on simultaneously: a maquette of a miniature forest in which a courtly figure with a stag head kneels; an enormous hollow female head with an opening in the back, revealing a Mattalike landscape in relief on the interior concave walls, where the artist plans to insert a monitor showing an animated film; a large frame, whose surface resembles lichen-encrusted bark, for one of her graphite drawings of forest creatures; a still-headless-and-armless four-foot-high female figure in lingerie and small high-heeled shoes leaning against a tree; and a full-size, perfectly balanced acrobat, reminiscent of Picasso’s harlequins and Edie Nadelman’s delicately proportioned folk figures, bent over in a large U, with a flat plate on the small of his back designed to spin. There’s a small upright nude, as erect as a Greek caryatid, with a cracked patina like an antique doll and a fountainlike spray of peacock feathers atop her head; and two small female figures, one with a stag, the other with a snail on her head, who embrace the trees and animals projecting from the surface of their full skirts; clothing surfaces open up to forest scenes, suggesting an infinitude of worlds, from macro to micro, an unfolding metamorphosis.
The most ambitious piece consists of a large tree trunk, whose multihued, rough-textured surface resembles birchbark, with a hole cut in the middle to reveal a video of a Daddy longlegs climbing over green leaves; Ruttenberg plans to transform the film into an animation by drawing over the leaves. A reclining female figure fabricated from clear plastic will perch atop the branches, illuminated by colored lights positioned inside the hollowed trunk and perhaps twirling around by some kind of mechanism. Her pieces tend to develop new parts and technologies organically, growing in size and sophistication.
Her palette consists of tiny glazed square test tiles, dozens of which are arranged on high shelves along the left back wall; she uses them to experiment with new combinations and firings of different glazes, creating earthy greens and browns or misty blues with a gorgeous cracked patina, as nuanced as Nature herself. After experimenting with the tiles, Ruttenberg will apply the complicated array of glazes to a sculpture to suggest flesh, bark, foliage, clothing, fur or the forest floor, which serves as the base of many pieces and is increasingly becoming molten and abstract.
As we pass into the anteroom, two floating white dresses, made of papier-mâché, are suspended from the ceiling, ruffled by a perpetual imaginary breeze, and crazily stacked vintage lampshades, also hanging from the ceiling, form a shabby-chic candelabra. More chandeliers hang in the house, including one in the living room in which the white dresses of a quintet of girls, each holding a flower, are transformed into glowing lampshades. Ruttenberg also designs rugs, wallpaper, bags, dishtowels and other items onto which her whimsical language of nature and figures naturally flow. She designed the 2011 poster for the Woodstock Film Festival and created the animated trailer in conjunction with Curious Pictures.
Her 2013 solo exhibition at the Stux Gallery, in Chelsea, received a favorable review by Roberta Smith in The New York Times, and her property was used for a fashion shoot in the Italian Elle issue of October 2013, with her art serving as whimsical props. This year, Ruttenberg’s pieces will be represented in half a dozen shows, including the ongoing winter group exhibition at the Elena Zang Gallery, in Shady; “Made for You: New Directions in Contemporary Design,” which opened at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz on February 6; and “SHE: Deconstructing Female Identity,” which opens March 5 at Arts Westchester. She will be exhibiting in a group show in London’s Sladmore Contemporary Gallery in May and will have a solo show at STUX + Haller Gallery, on 57th Street in New York City. The Italian edition of Elle magazine is also planning a second shoot at her property and studio for the April issue.
We step outside her studio, under a big sky with brilliant stars, the faint yellow glow of Kingston visible over the dark shadow of mountains to the east, and follow the pinpoint of light from her flashlight to the specially designed wooden huts housing her Nigerian dwarf, pygora and African pygmy goats. A shed with indoor/outdoor runs for the rabbits and a “pig palace” extend down the walkway, all of them decorated with artworks and securely protected from coyotes by latched wooden doors. Ruttenberg keeps miniature horses, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, peacocks and rabbits: a menagerie that requires her daily love and attention and feeds her inspiration. She spends a couple of hours each day tromping through the woods exercising the horses, pigs, goats or rabbits (the particular species changes from day to day), always accompanied by her dogs.
On the other side of the house is the horse barn, lit by star-shaped lamps, as if it had fallen to earth from the starry sky. More critters reside within her art-filled house: A pig sleeps on a blanket in a corner of the hall; parakeets and finches flit in two large cages in the window-lined breakfast room, observed by an ancient gray/brown rescue cat; and two terriers, adept at stealing the much-larger black Russian terrier’s bone, trot around the kitchen. Several angora rabbits are housed in hutches crafted from twigs, with Victorian furniture and her ceramic heads in the bedroom, which is a veritable lair for a forest queen, with its art-covered walls, hanging papier-mâché sculptures of human-faced dragonflies, clustered animal figurines on the floor and shelves, charming wallpaper (designed by Ruttenberg) of delicately drawn animals, powder-blue animal stairs, fanciful chandelier and wall sconces and floral-patterned chairs and footstools.
The daughter of a businessman and his artist wife, Janet Ruttenberg, Kathy always made art while growing up in New York City, although the process was fraught with tension: “I tried so hard not to like my mother’s art,” she said, noting that now she is very much a fan. (Both artists are currently showing their work at the Dubuque Museum of Art, in Janet’s hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.) “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re an artist just like your mother,’ and I’d say ‘no, I’m not like my mother at all.’” In 2013, New York Magazine profiled Janet’s and Kathy’s different painting and living styles (Upper East Side versus Catskills country house), which revealed a similar taste for the whimsical and theatrical. “We share a passion for visual experience,” said Kathy. “I want to grow up just like her, after trying to be different all these years.”
Ruttenberg loved riding horses, and her life took an unexpected turn at age 19 after she tumbled off a horse, fell into a coma and experienced months of amnesia. “I went from being a horse girl to a cool kid,” she said. She attended the School of Visual Arts, making animated films. After graduating she showed her small clay sculptures and paintings in nightclub bathrooms and East Village galleries. It was the 1980s, and she hung out with many of the luminaries of the downtown scene: Anton Fier, the drummer of the Lounge Lizards, was a roommate, and Jean Michel Basquiat gave her a drawing that he made at her loft one day. Patricia Fields was also a friend and fan of her work.
“My work was always figurative and biographical, and I was making these little constructions of cityscapes in boxes or drawers I’d find on the street.” She started a gallery in TriBeCa with some artist friends, whose renovation was paid for by Merchant/Ivory Productions and its distributor, Tri-Star. (The film company used the gallery to publicize the opening of its film Slaves of New York. The screenplay was by Tama Janowitz and the film featured Ruttenberg’s work.)
Years later, her life took another turn when she got a dog after breaking up with her Spanish boyfriend (“I picked up the puppy in New Jersey in a snowstorm driving my 1950s Cadillac; men would leave me love notes on the car”) and decided to leave the City. “The dog connected me to who I was before the accident. All of a sudden I was no longer the cool kid but the dog lady…I was at the dog run on Houston Street and a lady said, ‘Go to Woodstock.’” She bought her mountaintop property, a foreclosure, 24 years ago; at the time, real estate prices were depressed and it seemed like a risky purchase, but Ruttenberg knew in her heart that this is where she wanted to be.
At first she came up only on weekends, but after the painful breakup of her marriage, she moved to the Catskills full-time, finding healing in the connection to nature and her art. “You need your heart broken. It cracks you open. I was in a very dark place and had to pull myself out of it.”
Meanwhile, around 2000 she took a ceramics course in the City. “My paintings were very flat, and I was searching for something that would give my story more intensity,” she said. She bought a kiln from Bailey Pottery, in Kingston, and started improvising. “As soon as I touch clay I’m channeling the Earth. Things are coming out of me I don’t recognize. I became obsessed.”
Ruttenberg’s passion and generosity extend to conservation issues. She has donated her designs, products and artworks to benefit Green Chimneys (a Brewster-based nonprofit that uses animals to help special-needs children), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the Lemur Conservation Foundation and the Woodstock Land Conservancy.
She has traveled extensively, often in conjunction with WCS and the American Canine Association, visiting the Arctic, Antarctica, Peru, Rwanda and Uganda, Bhutan and India, filling notebooks with her sketches of wildlife from each place and connecting with the wildlife, even if it meant “sitting on the jungle floor in Peru and having your ass eaten alive by grubs.” However, the pull to be at home in her studio and beloved mountaintop is just as strong: the desire to “stay in one place and go deeper. I’ve been watching how white fungi is growing out of this one branch that was covered with green lichen. I have this crazy hair, and sometimes a branch will grab my hair as if to say, ‘Hey, you’re walking too fast.’”
Ruttenberg doesn’t find the isolation the least bit oppressive. “I want to live with my rabbits, and I’m not sure a male Homo sapiens would fit into that landscape,” she said. She can’t wait to wake up every morning and get into the studio. “My language is developing more and more. I feel like I have more characters showing up in my work, such as the goat man, the dog man and the bird lady. It’s part of my theater and it’s all related to my life. New doors are opening in my heart. If you’re very serious and you stick with something long enough, you’ll become a success.
“A dear family friend, Gloria Vanderbilt, suggests that to keep a youthful attitude, ‘You have to fall in love every day, whether it’s with color or a man.’ I am in love with my animal family, both wild and domestic. I feel inspired by all my new media and the animation I am experimenting with. I’m also having deepening relationships with both long-term friends and new acquaintances, feeling more at peace with myself.
“This place has been both the source of bountiful and endless creativity and my prison. I love it so much I find it hard to leave. It’s about me and my animals. I’m living the life of a nine-year-old, and every nine-year-old who comes here says, ‘I want to live just like her.’”
Ruttenberg’s work can currently be seen in the winter group show at the Elena Zang Gallery (3671 Route 212, Shady); in the group exhibition “Made for You: New Directions in Contemporary Design,” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz, through July 10; and with her mother’s work, in “Janet Ruttenberg: Figure in the Landscape/Kathy Ruttenberg: Landscape in the Figure” at the Dubuque Museum of Art, Dubuque, Iowa. Her monumental sculpture, which depicts a ceramic female figure crowned with mushrooms holding a brown, rootlike penis plant, is featured in “SHE: Deconstructing Female Identity,” which opens March 5 at Arts Westchester. She also will be included in a group show of ceramic sculptures at London’s Sladmore Contemporary Gallery May 5 to 30 and is having a solo show at STUX + Haller Gallery, 24 West 57th Street in New York City, in the fall, to be followed by a solo show in May 2017 at the Sladmore.