Ruth Patzloff, Painter
When the voices blend they sound like angels
I hope there’s some room still in the middle
But when I lift my voice up now to reach them
The range is too high way up in heaven
So I hold my tongue, forget the song
Tie my shoes, start walking off
And try to just keep moving on
With my broken heart and my absent God
And I have no faith but it’s all I want
To be loved, and believe
In my soul, in my soul. — “Waste of Paint,” Bright Eyes
What are our souls like? Someone recently told me that members of a certain Native American tribe believe you have to wait for your soul to catch up with you after you travel by airplane. I like that idea. But I am curious about my soul’s identity. What is it like? Is it quirky and awkward? Is it artistic? Does it know what good food tastes like? Does it love to be outside, by the sea or on a mountain? Where would it go if its bloody, fleshy shell, my body, was gone? Who would it be then? Does it have my memories? Does it age?
I know a human’s identity cannot be summed up in a series of factoids, and I know that you can never capture an identity, much less a soul, in any way, shape, or form, but you can take portraits, verbally, visually, orally. You can have glimpses. I also know that every soul I have ever had the chance to glimpse has been exquisite.
Ruth Patzloff does not think of herself as a real artist. For her, art is something personal, something that has been a necessary, automatic accompaniment to the rest of her life, something which began when she was very young. She was cautious about having me interview her because of this. “I feel I am not a professional artist, though I do know I am an artist in a different sense.” Her eccentric parents from the little village of Dronninglund, Denmark—her politically active, pedagogically-minded mother and her artistic father, a tailor who had dreamed of working in Paris—took her early bent toward drawing seriously, though they didn’t know quite how to support the gift where they lived in the countryside.
When Ruth was 16-years-old, her impressive talent was recognized by higher powers, and she was offered a “real job” at an advertising agency she had worked for previously. However, she did not want to risk having to possibly draw illustrations for a project she did not agree with, so she sat in the meeting—“so principled, afraid I would have to advertise something I didn’t believe in”—and turned down the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In some ways, it seems like Ruth regrets that idealistic decision. She never again was provided such an easy avenue to become an artist by trade, and afterward, she had trouble making art her priority. Art classes were not offered at her high school, so she took music instead, and her application to her chosen graphic design school was rejected, so she went to teaching school instead. She explained, “If you don’t have a profession it will haunt you. I could have made it a profession, but I didn’t.” But how would it have changed her soul?
In images, Ruth told me about her life. She described her life in scenes, giving me a story and then adding visual imagery and details little by little, using words like strokes of a paintbrush, without doing so consciously. She believes “we have these things inside of us,” and for her, some of “these things” seem to be powerful memories that she expresses through her art.
She sees her first art memory, Leonardo da Vinci’s horses, which were on TV when she was a child. She remembers the horses’ back sides—“these scribbled circles. And I started drawing horses. I didn’t have horses. I wasn’t a horse girl. I was just drawing.”
She sees her father who had been polio-stricken as a youth, trying to get the telephone as quickly as he can, unaware of his own disability and of the sorrow and loss his disability made her feel as a girl. “Having a disabled father and seeing him run, limping, to get the phone, breaks your heart.”
She sees herself sitting on her patient father’s lap as he showed her how to draw using perspective. “He would say, ‘now I am going to draw a road.’ He would draw electrical lines and they would get smaller and smaller. I could show you exactly what it looked like.”
She sees the house she grew up in until age 11, in the countryside—a beloved, huge, bizarre old school-building turned into a high-ceilinged massive home surrounded by trees for her education-loving parents and their children—her “paradise by the forest.”
She sees she and her brother “riding cars in Europe” together, through Paris, Lichtenstein, Munich, on a whim in the days leading up to her college art final, before returning home and working tireless hours on a huge exhibit of sculpture, paper mache, paint.
She sees the stunning paintings her young art students in Nepal created of the mud red huts and grass roofs around them when she was a teacher there in her mid-twenties. “To live in Nepal as a whole was a very creative experience—like theater, we even dressed differently.”
She sees a young Danish boy being baptized with a bowl of water—a bronze Nepalese bowl used to collect breastmilk that she had found at a market and shined until it glowed with otherworldly brilliance—in a church in Nepal.
She sees herself in Oslo, Norway, taking a nine-month-long art program as a 36-year-old alongside 20-year-olds—“It didn’t matter because we had art”–biking up and down beautiful mountains.
She sees herself retreating to the Danish countryside in her 30s. “Sitting on the train one day, I realized, ‘I have to get out in the countryside. I cannot be in the city.’ I had to go out to the forest, the soil, the natural world, not all this stuff that is made up, these positions we put ourselves in. That’s where I started out as a human being, in the forest where people grew stuff. So when I was in a crisis, I had to go back there again.”
She sees women singing in an African American church she visited on Roosevelt Road here in the west suburbs of Chicago. “You hear this humming coming up and they start singing.”
She sees her church from childhood. “When Danes sing hymns, and you hear the congregation sing these songs they love and that mean so much to them and carry them, what am to say the spirit of God is not moving them?”
For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it should come to light. — Mark 4:22
Ruth’s art has been woven through the span of her entire life thus far. It is not something she does as a hobby or to make money. It is intensely personal and is ingrained in her very way of living. “There is always another language, culture, way to do things… Art I could do through everything. It’s so personal to me, because it became my friend through everything I did—a private room where I could put all these things together, all these experiences.”
Ruth shared with me some of the artists who influence her (including all of the artists besides Ruth represented by the works in this blog) and she also shared with me some of the objects she finds and sees that inspire her, not without expressing self-consciousness about the fact that her husband has to cohabitate with her series of seemingly random collections. She showed me dried leftover paint from one of her palettes. The chunks and shavings of waxy color created a surreal mix of jumbled shades in a tiny jar she can’t throw away. She passed me some old-looking, miniature purple flowers and explained how she can’t get rid of “any dried flower with color left.” She handed me a tiny leaf with strange coloration on the back from a “lipstick plant.”
Ruth’s art is colorful. The range of colors she employs in almost any given painting encompass the hues of the rainbow, often in the abstract patterns of the background of the painting itself. Her figures and images are big, hovering, dreamlike, and impressionistic. Some of what she does is abstract—shapes and patterns of color, while other works are human figures hugging, looming, floating in space, holding out their arms, carrying fruit.
In addition to her paintings, Ruth creates rich-textured, sparkling, vibrant mosaics of fabric, pinned or sewed in patterns and shapes on huge pieces of material to be hung on walls. She showed me, one, in particular, that she has been working on for a long time. Most of the massive collage of color was abstract, but one face stood out, floating amid the shades of amethyst, plum, orchid, pomegranate, crimson, garnet, copper. The floating head looks like a princess or queen from an ancient Byzantine religious icon, laced in gold—surreal and captivating. It is hard to stop looking at her mysterious face rising out of the whirls of the blazing background. Where do ideas like this come from?
I asked Ruth what it is like living here. She lives very close to the intersection of Austin Blvd. and North Ave., right on the border with one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. While we were talking about her experience with an outdoor church group she and her husband enjoyed for a while, she explained, “It made me feel more normal to be out near the soil.” While she spoke, police and ambulance sirens wailed down the busy road a block away from us, somewhere after 10 pm. Near the soil? What must living in this urban cement-town be like for her?
I know she maintains a bountiful garden in her yard and that she brought a significant number of old, wooden pieces of furniture with her from Denmark to ground her here, but I asked if she ever feels sad about being away from Denmark. She answered no, with honesty, I believe. The only time she feels sadness about living away from her land and people, is when she realizes that she is consciously not sharing her life knowledge and ideas with others or providing her input when it is relevant, simply because it will take too long to express the context of her history. “When you have something to say but you stop because it takes too much to explain, that’s where the sorrow is. That’s where the art comes in.”
When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love. — Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard
Last April, Ruth was asked to paint during worship at church. She is not sure why she was asked, because nobody really knew she had painted, but she was more than willing. A month later, her 83-year-old mother mailed her a book of the artwork of Arne Haugen Sørensen, a fellow Danish painter. To me, the art in the book is strikingly similar to the paintings Ruth creates. After showing me some of his work, Ruth expressed, “When I look at this, I want to cry. It is so much me. It is saying what I would say. That’s a sore sometimes—that you can’t always explain where you get your inspiration from.”
But Ruth has chosen to travel much of her life and to be away from who and what she knows and the people who know her. She married an American from Minnesota (who does speak fluent Danish); she has lived in Nepal and Nigeria; and she even chose minority studies over art at one point in her education. Clearly, Ruth has a deep love for and curiosity about other people, places, and environments. She told me about when she returned to Denmark after living in Nepal for three years, the school would regularly call and ask her to come back, but she would force herself to stay in Denmark, because she believed it was the right choice at the time.
Furthermore, possibly due to the atmosphere she grew up in, with her parents trying to make a difference in their community through politics, education and their faith, Ruth is drawn to working with people who are different. “It’s not of this world, loving people who are different. You spend a lot of energy adapting and integrating yourself. What I love is when I stop feeling like the other—when the people you are with don’t have to feel like they are so other.”In general, she has trouble focusing on one or the other—arts or social justice. “I am so torn between the arts and the social issues and then I don’t end up focusing on the arts, but a socially engaged artist is much more powerful than a ‘Christian’ artist. We need really good artists who are socially engaged.”
For Ruth, art has been a means of holding on to her roots while processing her life as it continues. She talked about how when she was at the Einar Granum School for Drawing and Painting in Norway in her 30s, she did a self-portrait of herself looking into a mirror that was hanging on an easel. In the painting, which she shared with me, you mostly just see her back. After the assignment was complete, her professor pointed out that her self-portrait was very similar to paintings by the great Danish artist, Anna Ancher, who is known for character painting and color. Ruth had not made the connection herself; she had not intended or even recognized the unconscious similarities with the work of yet another fellow Danish artist, but her inheritance was so ingrained in her self-expression, that it came out nevertheless.
Ruth explained, “When you start painting, you don’t know where you’re going. There is an identity you get. It’s something that’s coming out that you’re not completely in control of—part of you that’s coming out.” Over the course of her life, finding space and freedom to paint has been a challenge, which is part of why being invited to paint in front of the church during worship has been a blessing over the past year. “My story has been a struggle to get elbow room to do what I want to do or even know what I want to do. There is something that’s coming out of the painting that is my whole inheritance. From here on I have to step into something else, and I don’t know what that is yet.”
Thou knowest best my needs,
My sighs Thou heedest;
Thy hand Thy children feeds,
Thine own Thou leadest;
What should I more desire,
With Thee deciding
The course that I must take
Than follow in the wake
Where Thou art guiding?
— “Sunrise Hymn,” Thomas Kingo
Art is an expression of who we are: our identities, our memories, our lives, perhaps our souls. In some ways, because of how far away culturally and geographically her previous experiences have been, Ruth’s art is foreign to us. Having been acquainted with the paintings she had done for church before the interview, I liked them and found them vibrant and interesting. However, the human figures, in particular, didn’t seem familiar on some indistinguishable level. But after seeing the overt similarities between her art and the art that inspires her, most of which uses the same palette and even the same blend of reality, impressionism, and the abstract, they fit into a much fuller context. Understanding the artistic backdrop allowed me to identify with her art more deeply. I had to see what it came out of for it to make complete sense. The human-like shapes now have an urgent poignancy to them. They are not meant to look realistic but to express and impress subconscious emotions, recollections, symbols.
While painting abstract images and mysterious scenes, like her interpretation of Psalm 23, Ruth creates things that express who she is and her own heritage. As outsiders, we see the paintings, find them interesting or beautiful, but don’t entirely understand them. They have less context for us, and most of the context they do have is probably religious, due to the bonds we have with Ruth from our shared faith. Music captures a country’s ideals, people, even geographical landscape—think of how everyone from Willie Nelson to Lady Gaga does this for America or how good it feels to be driving out west somewhere listening to Neil Young—and I believe visual art does the same thing in more ways than I previously realized. When we can picture and understand the art and memories that Ruth’s earliest images and emotional connections come from, her art becomes something far deeper for us.
In some way, I do believe art expresses a person’s soul. And if we are to believe what we say we do about God, each piece of art and each artist represents a different part of him. To know other humans and feel the connections of the universal human experience through art or any other medium, while recognizing the simultaneously profound and insignificant differences between us is to live, and, more importantly, is to get a glimpse of God. If we can connect with Ruth’s art by grasping where and who it comes from, we no longer perceive her as other. But this is not because we overlook her past and history and wealth of experiences different than our own, but because we understand those things and they envelope her art in a tapestry of meaning. Once we have context, she has even greater freedom to tell us stories that will reach our souls.
Some of the artists who inspire Ruth: