When Ginny Ruffner moved to Seattle in the mid-1980s, she had already mastered the lampwork technique that would make her a celebrity among art-glass devotees. Her distinctive style of glass sculpture -- opulent, figurative, richly colored and metaphorical -- grew to include large mixed media installations and public artworks. Ruffner’s career was in high gear in 1991 when an automobile accident left her severely injured and in a coma for six weeks. Against all odds, she fought to regain her ability to talk, walk, and work as an artist. She succeeded -- and then some -- and now serves as an ambassador for the power of the imagination. Working with assistants in her Ballard studio since the 1990s, Ruffner sends work to exhibitions in museums and galleries across the country and around the globe.
An Artist's Beginnings
And, just to think, it all started in kindergarten. That’s when little Ginny Martin got her first art assignment. Her teacher asked the children to draw something useful, so Ginny thought that through: What would be really, really useful? She produced a flurry of white crayon marks, which she later took home to her mother. When asked about the drawing, Ginny proudly explained: "It’s a toilet paper factory."
As an artist, she was off and running.
Ginny Carol Martin came into her parents’ lives on June 21, 1952, and no doubt began challenging them from day one. Ginny was the first-born of Carolyn Newton Martin (b. 1930) and Alton Lamar Martin Sr. (1925-2010). Years later, Alton told a filmmaker making a documentary about his famous daughter, "She is real stubborn and opinionated" (A Not So Still Life). He said it fondly, with a kind of bewilderment.
Alton worked as an FBI agent and Carolyn taught typing. The Bureau kept Alton on the move and each time he was reassigned, the family had to uproot. Ginny was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Ginny’s sister Kay Martin (now Argroves) was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1953. Another sister, Melinda Martin (now Jester) was born in Trenton, Michigan, in 1958, and their younger brother Alton Lamar Martin Jr. was born in Fort Mill, South Carolina, in 1965.
What their life lacked in geographical stability, the family made up for with time together. No television watching was allowed at mealtimes, when the family sat down and talked, and the kids learned the art of listening and spinning a tale, even if it was only about the day’s events. "I had a truly Ozzie and Harriet kind of upbringing," Ginny later told an interviewer. "My parents are still married. Nobody was an alcoholic. Nobody beat me. They just encouraged me and loved me" (Archives of American Art).
Reading, Writing, Drawing, Painting
From the start, Ginny was smitten with the power of words. She imagined growing up to be a librarian because then she could read all she wanted. Books unleashed her creativity. "I think reading is was what fostered my imagination because with books, you have to imagine how things look, how they sound, and how they smell. Books are a true vehicle for the imagination. They can transport you anywhere" (Miller, Why Not?, 13).
Ginny was precocious and, in addition to her well-developed verbal skills, she could draw and write with both hands. That lasted until she started producing confusing mirror-image writing and was encouraged to decide on one or the other. She chose her left -- but later, for painting, would continue to use her right hand as well.
Family vacations meant the long road trip to Shady Dale, Georgia, to visit Ginny’s maternal grandparents, Mary Virginia Blackwell Newton (1912-1983) and Benjamin Dayton Newton (1899-1975). For a grandmother, Virginia was a young woman -- just 39 when Ginny was born and named after her -- and the two were close. Ginny looked forward to the special Southern treats her grandmother cooked: biscuits with fig preserves, squash casserole, peach ice cream, ambrosia. And, almost better, she got to go through her grandmother’s jewelry box, where she discovered brilliantly colored, gem-cut colored glass broaches and ear bobs -- so alluring they stole into her sense of aesthetic pleasure and guided it ever more.
When Alton was reassigned to South Carolina, the family moved to Fort Mill -- a town of 4,000 at that time. It was the 1960s; Ginny was in high school and thrilled to have her own bedroom, with a built-in bookcase. Her parents allowed her to decorate and paint her furniture anyway she wanted to. "I painted a beautiful mahogany set lime green and antiqued it and painted hippie flowers all over it," she recalled. "It was a great testament to my parents' patience that they let me do that" (Archives of American Art).
Hooked on Art
By then, Ginny was hooked on art. "I was the artistic one in my high school. I could draw a tree that looked like a tree, that kind of thing. And I was painting, so I just said that I wanted to be an artist. I had no idea what one was, but I wanted to be one." Because her high school didn’t offer art classes, Saturday art lessons at the Mint Museum in Charlotte were her entry into that exciting world. In that "little bitty town," Ginny later quipped, "We were lucky to have English" (Archives of American Art).
Cute and fun-loving, Ginny moved through high school popular and with no trouble attracting boyfriends. That was the beginning of Ginny’s professed "life-long interest in ultra-cute boys," which she explained tongue-in-cheek: "I’m an artist, so of course I love beauty" (A Not So Still Life). At the same time, she happily broke the stereotype of a Southern belle by being president of the science club and chaplain of the student council -- proud to never have been a cheerleader. Known for her brains and gumption as well as her creativity, Ginny graduated in 1970, in a class of 75 students.
She began her college education at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, transferred the next year to Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, and ended up at the University of Georgia, Athens, where she settled on drawing and painting as the focus of her art major. Ginny’s immersion in art history deepened her understanding of art and inspired her. "Art history is ... a wonderful background, the shoulders to stand on," she later explained, calling it the source of "all kind of things that are food to me" (A Not So Still Life).
After graduating cum laude in 1974, Ginny enrolled in the master of fine arts program. It was then, in a twentieth century art history course, she discovered the great iconoclast Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and his enigmatic Large Glass, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Ginny had been trying to find a way to incorporate light into her paintings, even investigating the use of neon. The Duchamp piece sparked an epiphany. "I realized, oh, I won’t need to light my paintings; I can paint on glass. Light can come through my paintings" (Archives of American Art).
Nobody on the faculty or in the region was working with glass, so Ruffner taught herself to cut and drill holes in the brittle material and began constructing abstract collages of colored shards mounted on clear sheets of glass that were bolted together in layers or planes, so that the colors and shapes appeared to float. The works had depth, light and mutability: they felt energetic, alive. Ruffner had found a medium that suited her. Her master's project comprised a series of the glass constructions, and her defense of them, "An Artist’s Statement: Glass Constructions" gained her an MFA in just one year, summa cum laude.
Diving into the Future
Ginny dove right into her future. A month out of college in 1975, she married Charles Emory Nail (b. 1953) and made two other vows to herself: She would never work in any field that didn’t use her artistic abilities and she would always have a studio, because then she would be motivated to work, by guilt if nothing else. The marriage didn’t work out and the couple divorced in 1980. Ginny married again later that year to Robert Edward Ruffner (b. 1943).
If Ginny’s instincts about relationships lacked certainty, she was on sure footing in the field of art. She found work making posters for an ad agency, running a stained glass business with a friend, and teaching art at a community college before discovering a glass shop in Atlanta that was producing little figurines and animals. The product didn’t interest her much, but she immediately saw the possibilities of the process, called lamp working -- a method using a hot torch to melt tubes of glass which are then shaped and twisted into forms. She tried to get a job at the shop, but it required experience, so she audaciously bluffed her way into a job as a glass engraver for another company, where she worked for a year as an engraver and apprentice lampworker. Then she returned to the original company.
"I went to work for them, a classical European apprenticeship. I had to do the same thing over and over again, always making it exactly the same. It was good training" (Why Not?). Meanwhile, Ginny used her paychecks to buy tools and materials and set up her own studio, where she experimented with her own designs: shaping elegant goblets with stems made of dragonflies, carrots, radishes, and crocodiles. And her work began to be recognized: She was chosen for the "Americans in Glass 1981" exhibition at Leigh Yawkey Woodsen Art Museum, in Wausau, Wisconsin.
After completing the goblets, Ginny moved away from functional pieces into more abstract sculptural forms with the Dancing Box series, of sandblasted and lampworked glass. Ghostly white structures standing on stilt-like legs, they represented to the artist issues of containment and sensuality.
Entering her 30s, Ruffner was trying to figure out who she was, apart from family expectations and societal role models. She knew she was smart and felt compelled to prove it, so took the IQ test at MENSA -- a society of people with high IQs. She tested in the 99.4 percentile and joined the organization. (She later joined Intertel, also, which accepts only the top 1 percent of IQ test scorers.) During the summer of 1984, Ruffner was invited to Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood as a guest instructor. She found she liked the freedom and creativity she encountered in the Northwest; she liked the climate, the people, and the career possibilities.
Later that year, Ruffner was back in the South when her namesake grandmother died. Jolted by grief, she reflected on her life and work. She began to unify the two strands of her art-practice -- painting and glassmaking -- for the first time applying color to the surface of her glass sculptures. That year her work appeared in the show "Glass America" at the Heller Gallery, New York, and the "Pilchuck Faculty Show" at the Traver-Sutton Gallery, Seattle, as well as in museums in Georgia and Wisconsin. In 1985, she and Robert Ruffner divorced, but Ginny kept the name for professional reasons.
This emotionally fraught transitional period culminated in 1985 with an exhibition at the Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta that included a large-scale, mixed-media installation titled Seven Stages of Intimacy. It wasn’t long after that Ruffner decided to load up her little pickup truck and set off for a new life in on the other side of the country. She landed in a studio near the Pike Street Market and quickly joined the local art scene.
Hot in Seattle
Seattle took note. Ruffner’s downtown loft was featured in lifestyle stories and prominent columnists dropped her name in print. Critics praised her work. She collaborated with a local opera director; volunteered with other artists to raise funds for Seattle Children’s Hospital; painted a beer glass for a Pike Place Market benefit; was commissioned to create public artworks. Her energy seemed boundless. And her favorite medium, glass, was the hot new thing in Northwest art. A Seattle Times critic singled her out as a "master” of lamp working"; "the nation’s leading lampwork artist," and "one of the nation’s most prestigious glass artists" (Tarzan).
There was no doubt that her wild hair, sexy grin, drop-dead shoe wardrobe and brainiac sense of humor made Ruffner mediagenic. But when she hooked up with another smart-mouth Southern-transplant prankster, the author Tom Robbins (b. 1932), the match proved irresistible. The pair collaborated on a slightly wacky show that Bill Traver was happy to host at his gallery -- for the sheer fun factor, if nothing else. Robbins was delighted by Ruffner and modeled a character in his novel Skinny Legs and All on her. "You’ve heard of bedroom eyes? She had bedroom hair. You could have filmed a Tarzan movie in her hair," he later remarked. "She could blow glass without a furnace, just with the force of her personality. She was that hot" (A Not So Still Life).
The couple eventually drifted on to other romances, but remained good friends.
In 1991, Ruffner was on a fast track to art stardom. In addition to a breakneck schedule in the Seattle area, she shipped work to exhibitions in France, Japan, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis, and Boise. Tacoma Art Museum invited her to curate an exhibition and when the show opened in November, Ruffner used the opportunity to raise serious issues about glass as a medium. She called the show "Glass: Material in the Service of Meaning," and in an introduction to the catalog noted: "There have been many superficial depictions of beauty but few examinations of the meaning of beauty through a material that so successfully conveys it" (Glowen, Levin, Glass, 8). She was at the top of her game.
So, a month later, it came as a profound shock when the news hit Seattle that Ruffner was in a coma in North Carolina. She had gone home to attend her brother’s wedding and been involved in a devastating car crash (on December 22, 1991). As Ginny’s family circled her bedside at the hospital, touching and talking to their unconscious loved one, doctors wrote her off. The brain injury she sustained was so encompassing, they saw little chance of survival. As the coma dragged on, through one month and into the second, doctors suggested the family let her go. They refused.
One of Ruffner’s first memories as she finally began to fade in and out of consciousness was of lying in the head trauma unit at the hospital, where another patient yelled constantly. Another time, she opened her eyes to find an ex-husband and her boyfriend both peering at her. She quickly closed her eyes again and the thought flashed through her mind: "There is a hell" (Farr interview).
She couldn’t speak or walk. Her memories were erased. She didn’t even know she was an artist or remember her work. "I was terrified. My mind was like a big empty house that you knew you used to live in. I couldn’t even make a sound, but I could move my thumb. The first sound I made was snapping my finger" (A Not So Still Life).
Against the Odds
Her recovery became a long hard-won struggle against the odds. The doctors finally figured out that if they wanted Ruffner to do something, all they had to do was tell her she couldn’t.
"I’m sorry, but if I were not so goddarned stubborn and bullheaded, I wouldn’t be here," she insisted years later. "I did have good support, but nobody else was here living in this body" (A Not So Still Life). By the first week of March, more than two months after the accident, Ruffner still hadn’t spoken a word. But one blessed day when her parents walked in, Ginny mustered everything she had and mumbled: "Hi Mom. Hi Dad" (A Not So Still Life).
Then began the countless hours of physical therapy, speech therapy, vision therapy, as well as some pretty absurd brain injury classes during her five months in critical care and the recovery center. "They said when you lose brain matter you don’t regenerate,"Ruffner recalled, angrily (Farr, interview). Her supercharged 39-year-old brain did not accept that verdict and quickly proved it wrong. "I had to learn to talk so I could tell them to drop dead," Ruffner said (Farr, The Seattle Times).
She was back at work within the year, only now in a different way. In a wheelchair and unable to use her left hand, she had to reprogram to draw with her right. As a glass artist, she already was used to working collaboratively, so it was no problem to transfer more of the physical work to assistants. Her speech was slurred; her vision blurry, but ideas were bubbling up and she could direct others to make them tangible for her. In fact, she kind of liked bossing people around.
The big question for her was: How could she relearn who she was as an artist: her imagery, her motivations, her creative palette, her sense of color and metaphor? "Fortunately," Ruffner said with a giggle, "there was a book" (Farr, The Atlantic). She was referring to the book on her life and work, Why Not?: The Art of Ginny Ruffner.
Beauty and Danger
Faced with challenges that would daunt a less determined person, Ruffner saw opportunity. Here was a chance to remake her aesthetic choices, essentially to recreate herself as an artist. Before, Ruffner’s work had been engaged with beauty, pure and sweet -- sensuous, erotic, extravagant in color and opulent in form. The medium of glass perfectly supported that imagery. In the early 1990s, Ruffner returned to glass for her Balance Series, as she learned to regain her own equilibrium. But now Ruffner also found she wanted to balance beauty with danger, juxtaposing materials that challenge each other, like steel and glass, emblems of the strength and fragility of life."It seems kind of bizarre to say I feel lucky to have had this learning opportunity," she said, "but in a way I do" (Farr, The Atlantic).
She is intrigued with the way things work, their origins and evolution. "I truly like the element of subjectivity," she told an interviewer in 2006. "Like in particle physics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and in astrophysics and cosmology, the Anthropic Principle of the way the universe developed." She quickly added: "I'll explain both"(Archives of American Art).
Another persistent motif is Ruffner’s deep-seated feminism, rooted in her reaction to the "good ole boy" mentality she grew up with in the South. "They like their women quiet and obsequious," she said (A Not So Still Life). It’s safe to say that Ruffner wouldn’t fall into either of those categories.
Working and Thriving
Since the 1990s, Ruffner has lived and worked out of a studio in Ballard. Every year brings a spate of gallery shows, museum exhibitions, and commissions. She’s active in the arts community and serves on the board of directors for On The Boards and on the advisory council for Pilchuck Glass School. She acts as a juror for competitions and fairs, and is occasionally called in to curate exhibitions.
Ruffner has been an artist in residence at universities, museums, and schools from Alabama to Ireland, Taiwan, France, and Australia. She has created pop-up books to accompany her exhibitions. In 2011, she installed a large-scale public artwork, The Urban Garden, at 7th Avenue and Union Street in Seattle.
In 2014, Seattle Art Museum commissioned her to create a bench at the Olympic Sculpture Park to honor benefactor Mary Shirley (1939-2013). Ruffner’s work has been featured in ad campaigns for Absolut Vodka and Bombay Gin, and a film about her, A Not So Still Life, won the 2010 Golden Space Needle award for best documentary. She has a career that most any artist would aspire to.
But let’s not pretend Ruffner’s rebound has been quick or easy. In the decades since her life went off the road, Ruffner pushed herself continually, body and soul, to demonstrate the resilience and elasticity of the human brain. And if the material of the brain is capable of repair and rejuvenation, as she has so beautifully proven, the spirit that drives it is more miraculous still. Let her be an example to us all.