Regional Artist Feature: Ellen Rutt

Ellen Rutt Division mural in progress.jpeg

UICA is in the process of curating a number of public murals throughout the city. Our Exit Space Project is a dynamic experiment investigating the ideas, images and conversation being conveyed by contemporary artists working within the public space.

Our most recent Exit Space Project mural was completed in June of 2017 by Detroit artist, Ellen Rutt with support from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. We sat down with the artist to learn more about what motivates her.
Photography by Justine Montigny.

Ellen Rutt is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer living and working in Detroit, MI. Rutt makes bold, mixed-media paintings and murals and is interested in the visual and tactile nature of our existence - how we as as humans interact with the shapes, colors, textures that surround us everyday.  Rutt's work is a call for inclusivity and a celebration of diversity and uses playful forms as a vehicle for authenticity while using humor to help soften communication around cultural and political belief systems.

How would you describe your work?

Visually intense, layered, shape orgies.

How did you start your career as a muralist?

When I moved to Detroit, I was surrounded by all sorts of graffiti, murals and incredible hand-painted signage. It’s pretty contagious so I just started telling everyone that I wanted to paint walls. And eventually someone let me. It looked like total shit but then I practiced, and eventually got much better. I still have a long way to go though.

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Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?

Several years ago, I was really struggling with anxiety. I serendipitously stumbled upon an opportunity to participate in a year long “spiritual quest” of sorts, that culminated in spending 10 days camping alone in the woods off the grid and sober. It wasn’t what I expected, I didn’t have crazy visions or anything, but I got to explore the question, “Who are you when there is no one else around?” When the space is empty, you have complete freedom to do or be whatever or whoever you want. You can scream and cry and laugh and sing and yell shit and crawl on the ground like a slug or run as fast as you can, the options for “how to be” are actually limitless. Remembering that the world goes both infinitely inward, and infinitely outward really changed the way I wanted to live my life, and by extension, my art practice.

Do you have a piece of work that stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

ellen rutt working on a mural.jpeg

Each piece or project is like giving birth and I could never love one of my metaphorical “children” more than the others because I learn so much from each one. But I had so much fun painting this underpass mural, completing first solo show, and this light-up mural felt like a big step forward in my practice.  I’ve been making some textiles recently and plan to open up a little webshop and possibly sell some stuff at the UICA...

What new projects do you have on the horizon?

I’m about to paint a mural in France will be my first project abroad! I’m excited and terrified because it’s 6 stories tall! But I’ve been practicing my french and now I can say “Je ne parle pas français.” I’m also doing another light-up mural/installation with my studio-mate Patrick Ethen as part of the Facebook Artist In Residence program, and then my favorite festival, Murals in the Market (Detroit’s mural festival), takes place the September. Other than that, I’m just trying to push my work further - always looking to find ways of being more vulnerable, more honest and more mischievous.

What do you want others outside of the creative workforce to understand about careers within the arts?

So, imagine that on your first day of work your boss was like, “Could you please paint a realistic  hand for me?” And you (assuming you are not in a creative field) were like “Oh shit, Ok. Wait. I really don’t have any experience with that. Ok. I’ll try my best.”

That is sort of what it’s like when creatives try their “hand” at running their own business. Most of us don’t have any formal business training and are learning as we go. So for those who are not in creative fields, hi! Let’s work collaboratively! You teach us about contracts and organization and we’ll teach you how to tap into your inner freak :) It’s fun and mutually beneficial, I promise.

ellen rutt mural in progress.jpeg
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What are you passionate about besides your work?

Im passionate about committing fully to this lifetime, learning as much as I can from many different people,  and exploring the vast paradoxes of being a person. Also dancing. If I weren’t making paintings I would devote my time to trying to be a back-up dancer for Tunde Olaniran.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others?

Choose empathy. Drink more water. Seriously. Everyone go drink a full glass of water right now!

Looking for more?

Find Ellen Rutt's mural on the retaining Wall of I-196 Exit Ramp (North Division Street, Grand Rapids, MI). Learn more about Ellen Rutt here.

Ellen Rutt mural painting.jpg