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Cindy Ruskin - creating portals into magical unknown places

Norwalk, CT / United States

Originally from South Africa, Cindy has a BA in art history from Harvard and has studied painting in San Francisco and New York City. Cindy devoted more than two decades to creative projects with low-income children in New York City, including the creation of a large mosaic for the Lower Eastside Girls Club. In early 2020, Cindy moved to Connecticut to become a fulltime artist. Cindy's paintings have been published in All SHE Makes magazine, The Purposeful Mayonnaise Journal, Photo Trouvée, and GoddessArts magazines. Interviews with Cindy are featured in the online publications Art Feeds Souls, Clover & Bee magazine, and Strictly Magazine. In recent years, she exhibited her work online at the PxP Contemporary Gallery, the TMP Gallery, the Camelback Gallery, and the Arts to Hearts Project. Previously, Cindy's exhibits included a solo show in New York City, sponsored by ChaShaMa and a one-week-long guest show at the Matthew Marks Gallery, benefiting the Duk Lost Boys Clinic the Sudan. 

How did your experiences studying art history at Harvard and painting in San Francisco and New York City influence your current artistic style and themes?

My undergraduate degree in art history taught me how to look very closely at works of art. I learned to recognize techniques and materials of artists I had loved since my mother took me to galleries as a child: the charged emotional paintings of Turner, van Gogh, and the Expressionists; the romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites; the dream worlds of Chagall. I also expanded my appreciation of artists from South Africa (where I grew up), exploring the way their work revealed life in the townships during apartheid. All these artists continue to be favorites who influence my own paintings.


As I researched and analyzed artworks in college, I started to discover layers of meaning below the surface, relating to the climate of the times in which they were made. Ultimately, this became a key aspect of my own work where I often incorporate multiple layers of meaning.


One of the most helpful college courses for developing my style was a hand-drawn film animation class. Because I had problems with hand-eye coordination, I used to struggle with drawing as a child. My work was untidy and illegible, and I pressed so hard with my pencil that I would accidentally poke holes in the paper. Though my teachers discouraged me from becoming an artist, I found ways to work around my deficits by inventing my own visual language and techniques. However, it was only when I created thousands of animation cels in college (12 drawings per second of film) that I began to feel confident about my quirky, whimsical style. I still love the look of hand-drawn animation and dream about going back to it.


After college I moved to San Francisco where I took painting classes at the San Francisco Art Institute and at the Academy of Art College along with illustration and computer art classes. This led to various jobs, as an illustrator, greeting card designer, animator, set designer, window dresser, graphic designer, and storyboard art instructor.


Fifteen years later, when I moved to New York City, I took painting classes at the Art Students League. I found community there, and a place to explore my own voice. However, traditional painting instruction never became the primary factor in developing my style. I continued to learn primarily by experimentation and discovery. For me, painting was – and still is – a constant exploration.

Could you tell us more about your work with low-income children in New York City and the creation of the large mosaic for the Lower Eastside Girls Club? How did this experience impact your artistic journey?

I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1997 with the intent of becoming a full-time painter. But the pull to do something for the community often took time from my art career.  The focus of my art practice shifted to nearby community spaces where I worked with neighborhood children on a wide variety of projects: the mosaic for the Lower Eastside Girls Club, bicycle decoration workshops, a class on creating paper dresses, and another on storytelling with accordion books. 


For 20 years, I ran the art program at Avenues for Justice, an alternative-to-prison program for juvenile offenders. In the windowless basement of their drop-in center, I stocked an art closet with all the materials I wanted to explore with the students. The varied media and techniques from my classes seeped into my personal practice: I made artist's books, scrolls and abacuses, painted on silk, and worked with alcohol inks, fluid acrylics, printmaking, mosaics, papercutting, and glass etching. I’ve incorporated many of these techniques and materials into my own work, especially the reverse-painting-on-glass technique and painting on scrolls as a form of storytelling.

What inspired you to transition from working with children to becoming a full-time artist in Connecticut? How has this change affected your creative process?

When the Covid pandemic came to New York City in 2020, I was in the highest risk category. My immune system had been severely compromised for decades because of three kidney transplants related to lupus. This meant that my husband and I immediately had to go into quarantine. We landed in Connecticut because of generous friends who offered us shelter for many months.


It was then that I found a positive angle on this unsettling time. Our quarantine allowed me to follow a life-long dream and create a sort of extended artist retreat. I focused on my painting full-time, which my husband had been encouraging me to do for years. With all other distractions removed, I was able to paint every single day, something I'd been longing to do.


More than three years after the start of our quarantine, others had returned to normal life. But we realized that it wasn't safe for us to return to the city or our previous lifestyle. We decided to remain in Connecticut where I've been able to spread out and create larger works. In our new home, I now have my own studio where I'm able to leave paintings on the walls and add to them over long periods of time, while working on newer ones.


I had no idea how profoundly leaving the city would transform my art practice.  I grew up in rural South Africa and always carry the sounds, smells and feeling of the country with me. But somewhere in the excitement and bustle of New York City, I had lost that deep feeling of awe for the beauty of nature – a feeling that I‘ve rediscovered and now try to capture in my paintings.  Now, I often paint in our yard, listening to the sound of the birds and the wind.

Your paintings have been featured in various magazines and online publications. Could you share how these opportunities came about, and what it means to you to have your work recognized and published?

As a child in South Africa, I used to look at “Art in America” and other art magazines, marveling at images from a strange world so far from my life. I never imagined my own work being in print one day.


Then, when Covid required us to leave New York City, I was isolated in a new town. So, I looked online to find an art community and joined The Art Queens, an extremely supportive international community of women artists.  Following their lead, I developed the courage to put my work on social media, to start responding to open calls and get practice talking about what I do.

Your art is often described as exploring the balance between humor and seriousness. How do you approach incorporating humor into your artwork while still conveying meaningful messages?

That’s a great question! I think I might enjoy laughing even more than I love painting. I can’t imagine how dull life would be without humor and laughter.


As I experimented, I realized that serious issues don’t have to be presented in a serious way. The trick is to find the right balance. When darker emotions appear in my work, my underlying optimism never wavers. And my fanciful tongue-in-cheek style allows me to handle difficult subjects with a light touch. 

Your fascination with storytelling is evident in your art. Can you discuss how different forms of storytelling, such as mythology, fairy tales, and literature, have influenced specific pieces or series in your portfolio?

Painting is one way for me to process what I’ve been reading. That's why I often begin sessions in my studio by reading a poem or a meaningful passage from a book.  


When I’m in the mood for fun in the studio, I start a painting based on a fairytale and see where it goes.  These universal stories – full of light and dark twists that I love -- are open to multiple interpretations. My “Little Miss Muffet Grows a Tuffet” has a sweet tooth. She eats so many cakes and pies that she grows her own tuffet -- a dessert buffet on her rear that resembles a large Victorian-style bustle. My “Little Red Riding Hood” has an awkward post-coital conversation with the wolf from opposite ends of a park bench.


I’m currently working on a short collection of paintings inspired by a passage from the novel “Moby Dick” where the cabin boy, Pip, falls overboard and is abandoned at sea. He survives but his soul drowns and is carried to the depths of the ocean where “he saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.” In my paintings, I put myself in Pip’s place by descending into “the vast, terrible isolation of the ocean.” There, I uncover lights in the darkness, allowing my subconscious to discover what Pip sees that causes him to lose his mind.


My own imaginary stories also appear when I’m painting. In “The Go-Between” a creature flits between a group of fairies and a conferring couple who have reached a standstill. Or, in another painting, a class of mini-Marie-Antoinette schoolgirls with pink candy floss hair pose for a school photo.

Your paintings often celebrate the sacredness of life and explore vibrant inner worlds. Could you share a specific artwork that holds deep personal significance and the story or inspiration behind it?

My painting “Persephone” depicts the celebration of spring and new beginnings. Persephone bursts into life after being Queen of the Dead, bringing light, warmth, and joy with her. Her rebirth mirrors the miraculous way my own life has restarted again and again. I’ve had three kidney transplants, each one feeling like a miraculous rebirth -- especially after shutting down for years on dialysis.


Because of my health challenges, I’ve lived most of my life as if I were going to die the next day. That didn't always lead to wise long-term decisions. It did, however, keep me very present and fully aware of the preciousness of life. By painting stories like this one about Persephone's return to life on earth, I revisit my gratitude for my existence.

Your use of vivid colors and decorative whimsical style is a defining aspect of your work. How do you believe these artistic choices contribute to the overall messages you convey through your paintings?

My style celebrates womanhood and all things “girlish” by being consciously feminine and decorative. I have a great sense of freedom when I paint and choose my colors spontaneously. The bold colors and spiritual themes in folk art inspire me as I create my own naïve style. I aim for an irreverent, cheerful feel that infuses even the darkest themes with some sparkle and joy.

You mention exploring the themes of femininity and female power in your art. Could you elaborate on how you approach these topics and the symbolism you incorporate to convey these ideas?

I want to push the femininity and intimacy in my style and materials as far as I can. This is particularly true in my mixed media work where I use found materials such as candy wrappers, doilies, buttons, wrapping paper, found letters, and bits of ribbon and foil to provide sparkle, glitz, and humor. 


Most of the symbols in my paintings come from the natural world. I have a constant feeling of awe and respect for nature – the exquisite beauty and complexity that sometimes turns incredibly cruel. I'm often inspired by women poets -- Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Mary Oliver – who explore their inner lives and thoughts through nature.


One of Emily Dickenson’s poems about the intimate world of a flower blooming in the forest has inspired many of my paintings. The poem is about the challenges a vulnerable flower faces – the heat, the wind, the prowling bee – just to survive and bloom in the woods. For me, the flower in the poem, and in my paintings, symbolizes the many challenges faced by young women, and the courage, creativity, and humor that it takes to survive in a difficult and complicated patriarchal world. I re-read this poem often. Every time, my understanding -- and the relationship to my art -- deepens.


The last two stanzas:

To pack the Bud - oppose the Worm -

Obtain its right of Dew -

Adjust the Heat - elude the Wind -

Escape the prowling Bee


Great Nature not to disappoint

Awaiting Her that Day -

To be a Flower, is profound

Responsibility -

As an artist, how do you view the role of art in addressing and coping with challenges in life? How do you hope your artwork resonates with viewers and impacts their perspectives?

I try to face personal and global challenges with optimism – and then convey this in my work. When there's hope, there is possibility for action, even if the future is grim. I've experienced this in my own life, and hope to share it with others through my art.


There are so many brilliant artists today who address global issues with extraordinarily powerful and important work. I wish I could be one of them. But my political life and my artistic life are separate.  Since I consider myself an activist, I’ve grappled with this separation my whole life. No matter how much I wish I could make work that deals with climate change, war, and inequality, that's not who I am as an artist.


My imaginary landscapes won’t bring about social change, but I hope they're able to bring joy and, most of all, touch something deep in the viewer’s psyche. If my paintings are portals into magical unknown places, maybe viewers will see something that brings them closer to the richness of their own inner worlds.


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