This week I had the privilege of touring artist Ford Ruthling's house, studio, and garden with the Friends of the Folk Art Museum. Mr. Ruthling sat and chatted with folks in his courtyard, welcomed them throughout his home (including bedroom and bath--no secrets here!), answered questions from all, talked about the art he's currently working on, and encouraged us to explore his two and a half acres of gardens in a secluded area of old Santa Fe.
It's hard to know where to begin! The house is an old adobe built in 1907, and occupied by Ruthling for the past 38 years. He told us that the woman who lived there before him was a recluse who lived there for 50 years, and it was in a fairly advanced state of disrepair when he acquired it. (For example, there was only one electric fuse for the entire house!) FR did everything to the house that he wanted done, and now says there is "very little that hasn't been done to satisfy my needs." The house is L-shaped, with terraced gardens and the entrance to a conservatory occupying the third and fourth sides to make a courtyard.
The house is chock full of old folk art, collected by Ruthling since his childhood. The gardens are masses of flowers, which bloom riotously outdoors, and fill silver loving cups indoors. Various outbuildings are nestled around the grounds forming little vignettes, and surprises at the ends of pathways.
One attendee asked Ruthling what he fed his plants. "Plant food," he said. "Whatever I find at the market--I'm not fussy and they'd better not be!"
FR was born in 1933 to a poor family in Tesuque. He started collecting young, buying things inexpensively in those days, and his collection started primarily with religious art (santos and relicarios and milagros). He owns a lot of silver (including a wonderful collection of native silver and turquoise cuffs), and is also a collector of African art. He told us he was not interested in contemporary folk art--the religious art he buys is in the vicinity of 300 years old. (He acknowledged that perhaps contemporary folk art might be worth collecting someday, but he didn't want to wait 300 years!)
He also spent some showing us some pieces from the series on which he is currently working. They involve cutting a pattern out of tin, pressing it with lithographer's inks, drying for a couple of days, and then adding brush detail to complete the work. These pieces are populated by apples, hearts, cats, birds, fish, and other images. No two pieces are the same--even if the same tin pattern is used, the colors and details vary. He presses one image from the tin to test the pattern--if he doesn't like it, he can usually modify the pattern to his satisfaction. If not, the patterns go into storage (sometimes a piece can be reworked) or are destroyed.
Ruthling's work has been collected all over the US--pieces are in the Smithsonian, Dallas Museum of Fine Art, and various New Mexico museums, as well as in many galleries and private collections. In 1977 four of his paintings of New Mexico Pueblo Indian pottery became a series of U.S. Postal Service first-class stamps. He has designed wonderful posters for various iconic Santa Fe events, including the Wine and Chili Festival and the Opera season.
One piece I loved was an image he called "Two of hearts--four melons" which showed melon slices with faces at each end. "It's a card that's not in the deck, but it should be!" He showed us another piece which featured an adult bear and a couple of small bears. "Someone said this was darlin'", he said. "I hate it if anybody says 'darlin' about my work," so he took the small bears out of the remaining bear prints.
Ruthling was named a "Living Treasure" of Santa Fe in 1993--and it's no wonder!
For further reading, check out this 1996 New York Times article.