With galleries shuttered and travel discouraged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruiz, like many local artists, has found herself having to amend her creative processes, finding inspiration in the unfamiliar and isolated
One in an occasional series on San Diego’s diverse artistic community.
Katie Ruiz was not made for these times.
As she runs down the list of places she’s lived and created over the years, it’s clear she’s lived her life in continuous search of inspiration. From partying in the home of Fidel Castro in Havana or working in a refugee camp in Botswana, to backpacking through Europe or learning printmaking in Guanajuato, Mexico, the multidisciplinary artist is a firm believer that travel often serves as art’s greatest muse.
“People basically call me a gypsy,” Ruiz says from her Sherman Heights home and studio. “I’ve moved something like 20 times and have moved twice since the pandemic. I’m kind of nomadic, but when I think of home, it’s definitely San Diego.”
It would follow, one would think, that an artist like Ruiz would now find herself creatively stifled. With galleries shuttered and travel discouraged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruiz, like many local artists, has found herself having to amend her creative processes, finding inspiration in the unfamiliar and isolated.
“As artists we’re already somewhat trained to be alone, but for me, I’ve always used art as a therapy,” Ruiz says. “The pandemic has given me the time to make the art that my mind often didn’t have the ability to make, because I constantly forced myself into work mode or teacher mode. So this has been amazing for me at least in that aspect.”
And she has certainly remained busy. Over the last year, Ruiz says she has finished over 40 paintings and sculptures, some of which will be featured in a group show, “Staff Picks Exhibition,” at the Oceanside Museum of Art opening on Feb. 1. She also finished a years-in-the-making children’s book, “Brian the Wildflower,” and even found the time to craft some hand-sewn masks for healthcare workers.
More recently, she finished work on an expansive mural, “Waves of Feminism,” outside of the Women’s Museum of California in Liberty Station. The mural is meant to represent the three waves of feminist thought and features, among others, journalist/abolitionist Ida B. Wells, artist Judy Baca, writer Betty Friedan and Dr. Charlotte Baker, San Diego’s first woman physician.
“The women in my family have always held me up and supported my dream to be an artist,” says Ruiz, who grew up in L.A. and Prescott, Ariz., before moving to San Diego in 2017. “For me, it was about coming up with some symbolism that represented these ladies. It’s more of a graphic work than my painting and sculptural stuff.”
All of this is emblematic of Ruiz’s outlook on the stereotype that, in order to be considered a fine artist, one had to be a painter first. As talented a painter as she might be, her forays into fiber art and sculpture have proven to be just as fruitful.
“I did that for a long time, but I realized those were walls that I was surrounding myself in and that I didn’t have to stay in,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz says she sees her work as a “giant web,” with one project or series leading into and influencing the other. Her “Blankets” series of paintings, for example, explore the colors, patterns and symbolism of Latin American textiles. While the paintings rely heavily on Ruiz’s training in figure painting, they are more abstract in form. Subjects are often skewed or even covered up entirely by the blanket, making them anonymous but resulting in something more relatable and personal.
“It could be anyone under that blanket,” Ruiz says. “I really wanted to add layers and layers into my work, the narrative.”
This would lead to Ruiz immersing herself further into the intricacies of cultural tapestries with a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. There, she learned the backstrap weaving process used to create many Mexican blankets. Ruiz soon found herself using yarn and objects found in nature as a medium for sculptures as well. At first, she says she was embarrassed by some of her creations, but after some encouraging accolades from friends, she became more comfortable within the medium.
“That allowed me to take it a step further and every time I’m more authentic with what I’m making, and people resonate with it even more,” Ruiz says.
For example, her “PomPom Project” piece, installed outside of the Oceanside Museum of Art in 2020, used small, multicolored pompoms made from yarn and other materials. Installed during LGBTQ+ Pride Month and meant to resemble the Pride Flag, the result was a vibrant explosion of color that was both playful and profound.
“The first time I made pompom art, I thought, ‘this is so silly and ridiculous,’ but turns out people love it and it really resonates with people,” says Ruiz, who says she’s going to be doing more pompom art in the future.
As playful and subjective as it might be, there’s still a sense of activism that permeates throughout Ruiz’s work. A proud Chicana artist, she echoes the sentiment that “all art is political” but has also found a way to tackle issues such as racial inequities, women’s rights and intersectionality in ways that aren’t abrasive or polarizing. Before the pandemic, she was leading printmaking workshops at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights where she would teach others how to make protest signs and art.
“That’s another thing I may have tried to separate from in the past, is it fine art or political art?” Ruiz says. “I have a platform and it is who I am. I’ve always been active in my community and working for equality.”
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Fun fact: Ruiz’s first foray in fiber arts came as an “act of activism,” when she started a women’s knitting group in Botswana, Africa.
Combs is a freelance writer.
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