My Lessons with Ruby, Part Two

My Lessons with Ruby, Part Two

To recap: the world slipped on its axis and everything fell apart. Then we came together and decided we could rebuild things to be better? OK, perhaps it didn’t happen quite that way – but I’m going to focus on the latter part of the statement “…we came together and decided that we could rebuild things to be better.” If you missed Part One, here’s the link.

I fell hopelessly in love with Ruby Bridges and what she represented: the fight for equality to all. A simple ideology yet seemingly very complicated when put into practice. And it was that sentiment that fuelled my desire to work on something that had true meaning attached to it. Something to make people STOP. And THINK. And REACT.

This is my verbose attempt to explain my thought process behind creating ‘Ruby’.

Choosing the right piece of furniture. ‘The Problem We All Live With‘ was painted in 1963. The hip 60’s when design was sleek, crisp, minimalistic. Think straight lines, with gentle curves. I personally love that type of design; and a nice teak credenza with a flat, clean front would have been absolutely perfect for this painting. Except. Except when it comes to original, Danish/German design with that delicious teak wood I become a ‘Purist’ and I can’t bear the thought of painting over it. What I really needed was an antique dresser or buffet, with very little detail. The focus needed to lie directly on the image, not on trimwork. Plus, it had to be aesthetically ‘light’ in appearance. The image is ’emotionally heavy’, and I knew that that alone would serve to ground the piece.

This piece was perfect, well almost perfect. Yes, it had a damaged top and a medallion that I didn’t want/need slap bang in the middle of the drawers – but those issues were very workable. I could strip and stain the top, paint it perhaps, and then get my heat gun to the medallion – and Bob’s your uncle.

And so the process began.

Such a story to be told, hidden under the layers.

Applying the image transfer. I’m not a fast painter, I’m incredibly slow. Over the years I have accepted the slow pace, and I don’t beat myself up because I’m not churning out finished pieces. I enjoy the peacefulness that comes with creating something, and I want to savor every moment of it. The above photo shows the piece in the early stages. I’d applied a primer, and as you can see, was trying to figure out where the colors should go, and how I was going to blend them. The print was photocopied in four separate tiles, that I then pieced together. If you look closely, you can see the seams jutting against each other. For the most part, I like to hand paint over the edges. This piece was different. I actually ended up highlighting the seams with shellac (the heavy sticky consistency of the shellac seemed to be a good way to mirror the general political climate at the time). Besides, Ruby’s journey was anything, but seamless. I actually love that the main seam is directly behind her – I thought it rather poignant: the Before and After of that day’s crusade.

Addressing the damaged top. The easiest option would have been to just paint over it. But I tend to like the balance of a stained wood top and a painted body, so I decided to strip it back to the natural beauty of the wood. That’s when my mind started to really deconstruct the image and what it really represented. To say I quickly overwhelmed myself with imagery and symbolism would be an understatement in it’s finest form. WHAT exactly was I trying to create: a finished piece of furniture or something more? And, if it was the ‘something more‘ what could I do to elevate it from ‘good’ – to something so wonderful it would make you cry? (do people cry over furniture??? – asking for a friend). How could I use my skills and products to help tell her story?

I looked at the big dark stain and the two gouges on the top and a light bulb magically turned on. The dark stain WOULD remain in the wood. The very notion of segregation is a dark stain on our history, on the very core of what we hold to be true, because apparently “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Try explaining that to the small African-American child being terrorized for wanting to be seen as an equal, and how those great words actually don’t apply to her.

And then I addressed the two deep gouges in the wood. Do I fill them in, or leave them exposed? It would be so easy to fill them in and put a ‘band-aid’ over the damaged wood, and no-one would notice. But, my intention of working on this piece is to shed light on past events, and so the wounds of time need to be acknowledged. Suffice to say, the top was stained a beautiful deep walnut, flaws open ready to be judged.

This may be completely off topic, but isn’t it astounding that the company ‘Band-Aid’ manufactured bandages specifically to match Caucasian skin? An American multinational corporation was O.K helping Caucasians camouflage their wounds, yet choose to blatantly ignore the needs of other ethnicities. I will give credit where credit is due though; in response to the Black Lives Movement, Johnson & Johnson decided that it will now produce bandages for diverse skin colors? But, guys – it took you until 2020 to figure this was a good decision?? It almost beggars belief.

Picking the right paint colors to reflect the feelings of the image. In regards to paint color, I knew that I wanted to have the piece transition from dark to light. I wanted Ruby to walk from the dark past, into a brighter future. So a stark Black paint color was a natural choice, but I also wanted to include the feelings of the time – and that was very much about maintaining the status quo of segregation. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Southern white people in the 1960’s didn’t want radical change. They liked the agreed notion of ‘Separate but Equal’ because it helped smooth (perhaps pacify?) the unrest and discontent felt by the disenfranchised. The buffet was painted black with a smooth texture in the right hand corner. Status Quo accepted, over and out.

I usually don’t like to play with a lot of color, I find it unnecessary and sometimes too chaotic (unless, of course, you’re going for a BOHO look). On a side note, L.S Lowry (one of my favorite artists) worked with only FIVE colors in his huge catalog of work, quite amazing. I personally prefer to play with hues and textures as a way of adding interest to my pieces. So from Black, what color comes next? Influenced by the U.S. Marshals dress, I opted for grey – a neutral color, a beautiful blend of black and white. The neutrality of the color also represents their role in the painting. They could not ‘choose’ sides. Their sole purpose was to escort this black child to a white school. Grey it had to be.

But I still needed one more color. I sat on the concrete floor in my garage, surrounded by about 30 different paint colors – trying to figure out how I could make the transition from dark to light, without it being too visually stark. And I glanced over and saw a paint container that said ‘MILITARY BRONZE‘. And BOOM! that was my color. It would represent the regimented walk that she had to take to get the education she so deserved.

Pulling from the image. There’s no mistaking the image is incredibly powerful. A small African-American child being escorted to school by agents of the U.S government. The background showing hateful derogatory names; a wall stained with the juices of broken and smashed tomatoes. I suspect that the person doing the throwing would have felt immense pleasure had they been able to witness the breaking of Ruby’s spirit – her hopes broken open for the jeering crowd to devour. It’s not hard to imagine that some of crowd would have stood shaking their heads at the spectacle of it all, all the while thinking “You silly misguided girl”.

The idea of weaponizing words or objects for the sole purpose of intimidation is nothing new . It’s a very successful method of attack. I think what is so disturbing in this case, is that the weapons were aimed at a six-year-old child. That poor sweet child, my heart breaks for her. But the words are out there, they’ve been said and the fruit has been thrown – do we just accept it? Is there a way to somehow take back the power and take control of the situation? Perhaps.

How can we creatively neutralize the weapons used against Ruby? Well, one way is to take ownership of them and reuse them in a very neutral manner. If you neutralize the weapon, there’s no longer power associated with it. I wanted to focus on the tomatoes (never did I imagine that I would ever write such a sentence!). Rather than seeing them as instruments of conflict, I want to shine light on them – turn them into something wonderful. A strange concept perhaps, but I really think it works on this piece.

A ripe fruit is surely a wonderful sign of a plentiful harvest, given to us by Mother Nature. Not a weapon, but a gift from the earth that needs constant light to grow (as we all do). Let’s embrace that aspect of the tomato stain. If you enlarge the image of the splatter, it becomes this wonderful abstract art form. This is the image I wanted to put on both sides of the doors surrounding Ruby – she was being protected by Mother Nature. I don’t think there’s a mother alive today who wouldn’t feel nurturing and protective of that small child.

Now, let’s look at the bruised tomato on the ground. The tomato didn’t harm Ruby, the action of throwing it was the hurtful part. But Rockwell places the tomato behind Ruby – it’s in her past, she’s moved away from it. Historically, fruit was used to symbolize vitality and youth in oil paintings. So instead of cowering away from the ‘missile’, we’ll embrace the tomato and place it above Ruby’s head: A ‘crowning’ of sorts. An open recognition that her vitality was very much needed in the fight for an equal education for all.

Deciding when to add texture for emphasis. I’ve already mentioned that the black portion of the buffet was relatively smooth in texture, and I decided to gradually add texture to show that the journey was going to be anything but smooth. I added a lot, like A LOT of texture down towards Ruby’s feet. It’s weathered, it’s a hard going path and could easily trip you up. Ultimately, Ruby will get to where she needs to be. And the path, hopefully, will become smoother for others to walk.

What finishing touches should I use on the molding? The buffet doesn’t have a lot of intricate detail work. There’s a thin band of molding on the bottom of the buffet, but nothing else. My choices were to paint over it, or use the molding to add more depth to the finished piece. Now, I LOVE gold leaf, I’ve used it on many many pieces. Some people prefer glazes (which are easy and cleaner to apply), but the downside is that you don’t get the depth and natural patina that a metallic leaf can offer. For those reasons, I generally always opt for the real thing.

Would gold leaf be the right choice? Gold is considered a precious metal, while silver is a semi-precious metal. The people protesting that day made sure they reminded Ruby that she was anything but precious. They believe she had no worth, a second class citizen with nothing to contribute to a white school – if anything, her very presence in the school would only serve to devalue it. Gold or silver leaf would not work, but copper leaf would be perfect. Not only is copper a soft and durable metal, it’s also very malleable. Ruby wanted nothing more than to be allowed to adapt to a new (better) environment.

The traditional way of applying metallic leaf is to first apply a base coat of bole (a soft red clay), but chalk paint will also work. A black base will add a cool finish to the leaf, where red will give you a warmer softer glow. I chose red knowing that some of it would show through, tying in with that beautiful red vital tomato.

The final step was to add a patina – nature’s way of showing time and wear. There’s different colored patinas that you can create with an assortment of chemicals. With copper you can produce beautiful blues and greens – such striking colors. But I wanted to go with a black patina. It would be my way of highlighting the dark history while paying homage to the beautiful glow of Ruby’s skin – the only thing they judged her on. The last touch was to seal everything and further ‘dull’ down the finish. The crowd tried everything in their power to diminish Ruby’s light.

And yet they failed.

And she carried on walking.

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