APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.
Ruby is a film aficionado and a photographer who works out of her home. She is a part of the Film Shooter's Collective and calls her 4x5 camera "Milady."
Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?
I think I was rather wild. I had two younger brothers and very few restrictions, so I was basically free to explore and adventure, so long as I came home alive and in time for dinner. So creativity wasn't so much encouraged as unrestrained.
I read a lot and wandered around creating fantasy worlds out of whatever spaces were available. I daydreamed pretty much constantly and those little dreams could feel very real to me. I would rope the neighbor kids into acting out little scenes I had thought up and when they weren't available, I made small versions of those scenes with boxes and thread spools, or whatever else was on hand.
I remember being obsessed with drawing “cities” when I was very little, scores of tiny little buildings on winding streets. And maps of places both real and not. I loved starting at the edges of a place and then filling it in with ideas. I think detail in narrative has always been something that I was focused on.
And when I got older, I wrote incessantly. Embarrassingly clunky short stories. Terribly informative poetry. I think I have always been trying to tell people something very specific — to articulate an idea so clearly that they see it exactly as I do and understand my interpretation.
Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?
I do not think my creative process is unique; nor is it particularly static. The way I got to “here” might be unusual, or perhaps the method to my madness. But really what I do and how I do it is just a combination of curiosity and habit. I will want to know how something works — a particular camera, emulsion, process, etc — and then I work it forwards and backwards. i.e., this is how it works from beginning to end, this is what happens if you break down that protocol.
Essentially, I need to first learn the How and the Why and the actual craft of a thing, and then I have a tendency to break bits of that down. So my work kind of divides along those lines: I have more technical and controlled portraits and then the work that breaks down the technicalities and the control.
I think this is one of the ways in which being a parent has really helped me. I know that plans are always subject to change. I know that people don't smile all the time and that quite often they are solemn or even disgruntled. So I tend to only have very abstract ideas in mind of what I am hoping for. And usually my ideas end up in a different place than they started. Some of my favorite shots are those which I binned because they weren't what I had in mind. But after some distance, some time to forget what I had originally intended, I look at those shots and see something else.
Obviously when I am doing portraits of adults I can be more specific and have reasonable chances of meeting my expectations. But I always have that abstract “plus” shot in mind, I suppose. As in, I need to get X type portrait in Y variations, but would also like some other undefined shot. And I usually stumble onto that undefined shot when I am shooting. That is the moment I really love — when I feel like I am seeing my subject clearly and in a special way and feel like I can capture that.
What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?
You know the Cartier-Bresson quote about the “decisive moment?” I think about that often. And for me, it means something else. It takes a certain sort of boldness that I lack to presume that I could define a moment or thing. It isn't that I am timid or lack confidence; rather, I just do not believe that there is a single truth to anything. I will share the truth I see, and while reasonably confident in its truth, I am certainly not going to insist it is the best truth. It is just what I see.
And so I am drawn to finding new ways to see something — instead of the “decisive moment,” I prefer to look for the in-between. Those sort of interstitial moments where a thing could be any number of different truths. Like when you think you see a goblin face in the bark pattern of a tree and you know if you just wait long enough it will wink at you. Except instead of imaginary goblins, I am looking for the real person inside the people I shoot and waiting for a connection.
Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.
Probably the biggest hurdle was considering that what I was doing could possibly be art. I am still not sure about that. For me, I am just a photographer geek who shoots film and sometimes does weird things to that film. I like making and I like what I make and that is enough. But I am not sure that it is Art.
The second biggest hurdle would be accepting that I can do something that doesn't make money and that it still has value. This has been my major enemy for a few years now. I know, intellectually, that the value of a person and their work is not monetary. But while I find it very easy to see all the different values another person has, I find it very hard to value my own work and actions unless I can see that they are clearly and directly benefitting other people.
I have a husband and three children. Our house is 105 years old. There is always something that needs to be cleaned or fixed or fed or filled out or listened to. It is still very hard for me to not do those things for a little while so that I can work on photography. It was easier when I had plans to go professional and try to start a new career, but that is no longer a possibility. So I do frequently find myself wondering “Why? Why am I doing this?” It’s a habit I can’t kick.
What is your educational background, and how does it influence your creative work, if at all?
I have a BA in Classical Humanities and English and a JD. I don’t know that there is any direct influence, other than being good outlets for both stubbornness and somewhat obsessive curiosity.
What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?
Falling down the glorious rabbit hole of instant film has been a much-needed change. My work tends to be subject to a lot of control — controlled studio lights, subjects of my choosing, scenes and sets from my imagination. I would go into a shoot knowing pretty much exactly what to expect, everything from where my zone III would be to how much I would bump up development time.
Last fall, I was in a terrible rut and just didn't feel much like shooting at all. But then my husband gave me an Impossible I-1 for my birthday. It was a complete and utter surprise. I had tinkered with pack film and old land cameras a little, but really had not done any serious work with instant film. It was so far outside how I usually shot and so contrary to the way I shot. But something about all of that was immediately appealing, and I was quite soon again diving down into the unknown.
The possibilities and the beautiful imperfections of instant film are both challenging and satisfying. I love being able to literally take a photograph apart and put it back together into something new. And this new love has also kicked me out of my rut with my old love. Sometimes we just need a kick, I think.
Share your favorite local hangout & or another hidden gem.
I tend to be both a homebody and a creature of habit. And truly my favorite place to hangout is my own kitchen. Or the darkroom. When I do go out, my favorite place is the Willow Tree. I am a bit socially awkward, but I have always felt both welcome and comfortable there.
My other favorite place would be Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. I love that it is so wild and windy; there is something about it that just feels like home for a gothic heart. And, of course, the wild ponies are pretty amazing. It is a place I take the kids — everyone loads up all their cameras and away we go. It is especially wonderful in the winter, if you don't mind the drive.
Where can we find you on the interwebs?