Ruffner is clearly on a high right now. A big public sculpture for the corner of Seventh Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle is in the final stages of production. An award-winning documentary, "Ginny Ruffner: A Not So Still Life," is currently being screened at film festivals and arts venues. And a big exhibition of recent work has just opened at the Bellevue Arts Museum.
Surrounded by her surreal, large-scale metal and glass sculptures at BAM, Ruffner recently talked about a wide range of subjects: genome research, her garden, leafy sea dragons and some of the many peaks and valleys in her life.
Our conversation was interrupted as well-wishers recognized her and stopped to say hello.
"It's the hair," Ruffner said, referring to her distinctive mass of crinkly, sand-colored locks.
The diminutive artist has a soft-spoken manner that contrasts with her direct opinions and amused outlook.
Although friends and supporters say the attention she is receiving is well-deserved, Ruffner is not sure why the sudden flurry.
She was recently inducted into the American Craft Council's prestigious College of Fellows, but she laughs off some of the attempts to lionize and categorize her — particularly when it comes to making distinctions between "fine art" and "craft."
"I don't have time for it," she said, with an immediate smile. "To me it's unimportant. If people want to say it's craft because there's glass in it, OK. They can call it 'Fred' for all I care."
Success is not new for Ruffner. In the late '70s, she revolutionized lampworking — a method that involves pulling, twisting and fusing heated glass — during a time when blown glass was getting all the attention. Lampworking was seen as a lowbrow method for churning out glass tchotchkes, "boring and silly little things," in Ruffner's own words.
So, what drew her to the method?
"I thought, my God, the potential is amazing. I've always been motivated by potential. There's a downside to that. Saying that you see a person's potential can be offensive: 'What do you mean ... you don't like me for who I am right now?' "
A native of Atlanta, Ruffner was drawn to the Northwest by its emerging reputation for glass and public art. According to Bellevue Arts Museum Curator Stefano Catalani, when Ruffner moved to the area in the 1980s, "she brought an intellectual curiosity that feeds her skills and an adventuresome behavior of wanting to push the limits of what's possible with the material. She is not afraid of challenges. Her life speaks to that, too."
Ruffner's determination and her humorous, philosophical approach to life served her well during her lowest point. She is reluctant to dwell on "the big, bad time" of the early 1990s, when she was in a nearly fatal car accident that left her in a coma for five weeks and then unable to walk or talk.
Now, almost 20 years after her remarkable recovery, Ruffner is mobile, vocal and very active despite some lingering limitations. She says that the experience "has made me more creative. There are some things that I can't do physically, so I have to find ways to find solutions, to be more creative."
Her work has gotten increasingly large and complex. Like many contemporary artists, she hires specialists to help her realize her artistic goals, saying, "When I can't make something, I find people who can. It's the smart thing to do."
Ruffner's smile returns as she insists, "I'm good at bossing people around."
The technical complexity of her work is obvious in the exhibition at BAM, where five new works of art have been added to the exhibition originally organized by the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. There's also a huge sculpture newly installed in BAM's lobby, a graceful aluminum double helix that extends from the ceiling of the grand lobby all the way down to the floor, where it meets a bed of glass flowers.
A self-described "closet geek" who reads science journals for pleasure, Ruffner has been inspired for the last four years by "the recent extraordinary bloom in genetic engineering, particularly plant and animal engineering. That's extremely evocative in terms of what other things could happen, with inter-kingdom, interspecies implications. Does that mean we could share genes with birds?"
The sculptures she has created in this series are hybrids of glass and metal, two and three-dimensions, animal and plant forms, visual and musical references. She considers them "thought experiments," but they are rooted in visual, formal techniques.
In fact, the title of the exhibition, "Aesthetic Engineering," is very telling. Ruffner has grafted different sensuous, lyrical, bizarre forms onto each other in order to evoke certain behaviors and responses. They have titles like "Botanical Scales for a Horn Flower" and "Gene for the Grace of Falling Leaves." The extended labels indicate actions the sculpture is meant to take on: blooming, pollinating, dancing, yoga.
The forms also evoke aesthetic responses. Trained as a painter, Ruffner infuses her work with a curvilinear, painterly, unabashed beauty. According to curator Catalani, "It is attractive, per se. ... You want to get closer. You want to go around it."
However, Catalani also says that "It's not just a hollow exercise of showing skill." Concept and execution are impeccably matched in her work, he says, which contributes to the pleasure we feel in its company.
While delighting in the events unfolding at BAM, Ruffner is also overseeing the final production of her public sculpture, "Urban Garden," to be unveiled in early 2011. The Sheraton hotel, sponsor of the project, wanted a water feature. Ruffner wanted to give downtown a garden. The result? A large steel flowerpot with giant flowers that will open and close after being watered by a giant watering can.
What's next? Ruffner doesn't know, but she's excited by the possibilities.
"I want to write another book, a book on wonder," she said. (Ruffner has several books to her credit, including a pop-up book titled, "The Imagination Cycle.") "I want to do more of these thought experiments. My favorite project is whatever's next."