This Must Be The Place: In Conversation With Ellen Rutt

Ellen Rutt makes bold mixed-media paintings, murals, installations and wearables. Her abstract vocabulary of layered shapes and primary colors is applied to a variety of media to facilitate a conversation between materials and movement, places and process. As a multidisciplinary artist, her distinct style is recognized internationally through public murals and her studio work; however these facets of her artistic practice have remained separate.

This is your first time doing curatorial work, how did that happen? 

Yeah it is. That came about because one of the members of the Brooklyn based organization, Safe Art Space moved back to Detroit where his family is, and I their project just happened to coincide at the same time as my show, and so they reached out. I loved doing it, it was way harder than I thought. It was different because I’m selecting from a pool, and there were over 700 submissions, so picking 10 was difficult. 

Was there a criteria for the work?

There was no criteria originally, and then when I saw the submissions it became clear to me that what stood out was work that was work that felt more political. Because they are billboards, I was drawn to work that would be easy to recognize, there were a million beautiful buildings that were a little too detailed to be seen.

Are all of the pieces political?

I think all of them either overtly say a political message, or represent a sentiment that could be considered political.

I am of the belief that all art is inherently political because it exists within a context, even if you’re not acknowledging it, it exists within the framework of what is happening within the world and I do think that putting something in a space that is reserved for commercial propaganda, putting any image there subverts and then becomes political given the fact that it’s existing there.

And then you have this show as well, This Must Be the Place, which deals pretty explicitly with climate change, could you talk a little bit about how the work touches on that?

So the paintings are formally abstract paintings, they are not overtly about climate change. But I do think that no matter what we’re doing right now, we are entering a new phase that some are calling the Anthropocene, and so I think in positioning the work that I’m doing and that it happens outside, it is important for me to acknowledge that and to use this work to explore that further. 

It seems like it’s less in the subject matter of each piece and more in the process. I’m also curious, do you consider the pieces site-specific? And do you consider the piece the actual work that’s in the gallery, or the process of making it, does that distinction matter to you?

Yeah it’s like all of it. I do wonder how does a painting exist as is when it’s removed from any contextual signifiers, how does it change when I display it without the ability to say how it was made. But I think the history of how it’s made is integral to what the piece is about.

Is the materiality of your work important to you– like what materials are used in the processes of making your work, and their effect on the environment?

I think it is becoming more important for sure. I also think– the thing that’s emerging for me in the research I’m just beginning to do is that as much as it is about individual decisions, I also think that the most important thing we can do is support community organizations, national and international organizations who are seeking to undermine the systems that are causing climate change, because as much as I could buy certain types of materials, how do we hold the emitters accountable? How do we find policies and how are these organizations doing that in a way that doesn’t just put the blame on the consumer, but the fact that the options being provided are extremely problematic. 

So yes I do think that my material choices are important, and as a person of relative privilege that is something I should continue to push, but for everyone culturally it’s hard for me to put blame on individuals.

I was curious about your thoughts of the artist as producer and viewer as consumer, the space between artists and corporation/business, and the blurring of the lines between self-expression and self-branding. As an artist in the gig economy where it can feel like sometimes you have to earn a living through creative work for corporations/business. How do you factor these things into your practice?

Yeah what does it mean to turn yourself into a brand. Or you’re getting funding from an organization that also supports a conservative think tank. 

For instance you have artwork in the gallery, but you also have clothing for sale. Are those separate for you?

They are separate in that– well the first step for me was, ‘what are the non-negotiables’? I found a wholesaler for pre-owned sweatshirts, and even though there’s transportation needed, there’s no new production required. I do think having some form of accessible art available is important to me as well, and I think that sweatshirts or wearables are a really fun way of acknowledging and adorning our bodies. So I think thematically some of that is related to my practice, and also from a business standpoint it was something I could create a few designs for people and then I could hire people to sew them for me, and that felt like a way of fueling a creative economy here in Detroit, on a small, growing scale. This type of job is perfect for stay at home moms and dads, and women, men, non-binary people who need flexible schedules where I can be like “here’s five sweatshirts” and you can sew it on your time. So it felt like when I tapped into that that I realized I can mostly just be a facilitator of this product, and as much as possible just sort of funnel this into a small scale manufacturing experiment. I do think the balance between branded or commercial jobs and fine art is one I’m still navigating, and the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth a lot. 

I also felt like the commercial space is a corrupt space and that I was selling out by participating, but then it’s also like some of the collectors of art are running the commercial space, so either way you’re catering to rich people. So I don’t really know what the more ideal situation is. What I do think really feels empowering is that my commercial jobs allow me to take time off and focus on this work and pay a decent wage to the people who helped me and I would not be able to do that without some of these commercial jobs. 

We don’t always choose where our money comes from. I think there are some companies I would not choose to work with, but in general it’s a little more nebulous and it depends on what project do I want to work on and how much do I need to self-finance it.


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