Pictured above: Marigolds
Arizona-based mosaicist Dee Ruff’s art brings together color, texture, space and light, to convey her love of the natural world. Here, Rhona Duffy asks Dee to give us a glimpse into her art and what drives it.
What drives your art?
I’m fascinated by the way natural stone and minerals fracture under the force of my hammer and hardie tools. And I’m smitten with the hues of beautiful glass and the way the light refracts across highly textured surfaces of carefully combined materials. Mosaic art is one of the most ancient and durable forms of art. Like stitches in needlepoint, pieces of tesserae combine into powerful and evocative unified expressions. Each tessera means something: if you take away one, the entire composition changes.
Since moving to the American Southwest, I have hiked through beautiful desert canyons. My backyard has unobstructed views of the Santa Catalina Mountains that sometimes seem to touch the clouds. I’ve enjoyed majestic Arizona rainbows from my backyard patio and celebrated the vibrant sunrises and sunsets that never fail to spark awe within me. When the moon rises into the desert night sky, and the celestial bodies come into view, it sometimes can feel like magic to have the opportunity to see the wonders of nature.
What advice would your younger self with the benefit of hindsight?
Follow your heart in your creative endeavors! Can you imagine how different the mosaic and glass art world would be if mosaic masters were discouraged from using brilliantly colored glass and shimmering mosaic gold in their artworks? What if Chihuly had been told to only use muted, matte, earth tones and avoid any vibrancy in all of his incredible glass artworks?
Sometimes artists are advised to only create in one formulaic manner, without ever deviating from a particular style. I once had gallery owner discourage me from using any colorful materials or vibrant designs in my artworks. She dismissed anything that wasn’t muted “earth tone” colors. I had gorgeous colorful glass tesserae in my studio that kept calling out to me, but I was still gaining my confidence as an artist back then and very eager to please. I tried to comply with all of her expectations. This was a mistake that I hope others can avoid in their own art journeys.
Follow your heart and don’t let anyone try to dictate your color palette or diminish your unique style of art. Now all of my abstract collections feature the textures that I love while celebrating the beauty of color.
Do you have any secret weapons in your practice?
Common kitchen plastic wrap can be a great tool when creating handmade substrates for artworks! I enjoy using polymer-fortified thinset and alkaline resistant fiberglass mesh, sometimes with polystyrene, to create unique wall panels and 3-D sculptures. Sometimes the mesh doesn’t readily adhere well to curved or irregular surfaces, and it can be challenging to achieve a smooth finish before thinset cures.
The plastic wrap helps to keep the mesh and thinset secure, especially for the initial coating. When the thinset starts to cure, and hardens sufficiently so that it’s no longer sticky and wet, the plastic wrap can be carefully removed and the thinset can fully cure to a hard, stable state. If a smooth surface is desired for a substrate, using a damp brush can achieve a nice smooth finish on the final layers of thinset. Be careful not to use too much water, so that the thinset maintains appropriate integrity and strength.
What advice would you give to artists considering new ways of working?
Don’t be afraid to try new techniques. Take the time to use different adhesives, materials, and substrates. Read technical data literature (available from the manufacturers of products) and ask questions if you aren’t familiar with a product.
Experiment with unexpected or unusual ideas in your artworks. For some unique whimsy, I created a mosaic that features a snakeskin shed by a Coachwhip! I’m definitely not a snake person, but when I came out to our Tucson backyard patio in August 2021 to see that a non-venomous Coachwhip snake had left its perfectly shed skin right beside our patio, my husband said I had to find a way to use it in my art. I did a lot of research on how to best use and preserve a fragile piece of “tesserae” like that and Shakti (a tabletop sculpture) eventually came to life in my home studio. I used tiny glass stringers for the eyes, but the rest is the real thing, surrounded by travertine stone that I cut with my hammer and hardie and tumbled in my rock tumbler.
Most of all, have fun!