by Bing McGilvray
Ruth Mordecai’s new, eponymous book is cause for celebration. A visual feast and a triumphant testament, it is a summation of her life’s work at age 80. She had just left Torah class at Temple Ahavat Achim when we sat down for a light lunch at the Sandpiper Bakery on Middle Street. In person, Ruth radiates the same confidence and compassion that can been seen in her paintings and sculpture. We talked about her art, living and working in Gloucester and much more. You are invited to listen in.
B. First of all, this book is magnificent. A great achievement. Where can folks get a copy?
R. Trident Gallery and The Bookstore, both on Main Street in Gloucester, are selling it. Or, just get one from me, the artist.
B. The cost is $125 because of the abundance of high-quality reproductions and a very limited run. How many copies did you print?
R. Only 125.
B. Run me through the process you took, looking back over a lifetime of work and editing it down.
R. In about 2014, I did a series called The Container Series. They were big paintings and I threw into them a lot of the symbols that I have used over time. Maybe it was a ladder relating to the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Horizon lines from some of the landscapes I’ve done. Or apples from earlier paintings. I threw it all in and I felt I was beginning to summarize what I’ve done. But the thing that was missing for me was, how do people know what motivated me to do these containers – what are the origins?
B. I see.
R. The biggest thing I wanted from this book was to have something for my children and grandchildren. I also wanted to make it for the museums and individuals that collected my work and my community.
At the same time, at Temple, there was a group that met around creating an ‘ethical will’ – and what is an ‘ethical will’? It is what you leave to tell your children or your closest loved ones, a personal written memoir. I was approaching 80, a sort of landmark thing, and I thought if I don’t do it now, it’s not going to happen. There were other factors too.
Trump came in. I felt that anything that had a portion of ‘the other’ needed emphasis. The Jewish part of my work is very important to me to express. I sensed this creeping anti-Semitism coming back. It wouldn’t matter if I were Mexican or Muslim or anything. It’s coming from this same place of being ‘other’. So that motivated me with the book.
B. Yes, I think it’s motivating many of us these days. I hope so.
R. At heart, I am a teacher. There aren’t as many artists now coming from a figurative tradition. I wanted to describe the journey from the figurative to abstraction in a way that people might be able to understand it. And I also wanted other artists to know that they can do this too.
Most people think you’ve got to have a book from Abrams Publishing. That assumes you’ve got a major gallery and have had a major museum show.
I thought, why can’t I make a book that’s equivalent to that and do it the way I want? Why not? My designer was wonderful, Meredith Anderson, who’s at the Cape Ann Museum. She had a connection to a publisher that specializes in art books. Charlie Carroll, a wonderful guy from Gloucester, made sure all the photography was ready for printing. So it was all done right here in Gloucester. I took six months and just got it done.
B. The end result is fantastic. I think it’s everything you set out to do … and beyond. Tell me about the text.
R. The two people who have written about my work (Judith Tolnick Champa and Ori Z. Soltes), I knew before. I felt they knew my work. So, I wasn’t looking for someone who was necessarily a museum person, although they both are in their ways. They have known my work over a long period of time.
B. Two distinctly different voices. And you.
R. My ‘Artist Statement’ I’m very proud of. It took a long time to get it down to one page. But it is what I wanted to say. Fifty years in one page but I’m very pleased with it.
B. Fifty years in one book is an accomplishment too. As a record of your life and work, it’s very clear and powerful; your journey and its metamorphosis through time and place and experience. Like all exploratory artists, there is always something of your previous work in the new work. It’s evolutionary in that sense.
R. There was a book I saw. You walked right into it. The artist was front and center. Pictures of the artist in the studio before you got to the work. That was something I wanted to do.
B. Where was the cavernous space, the black & white photo at the start of the book?
R. That was 249 A Street in Boston. That’s where my studio was for 25 years, before I came to Gloucester.
B. That’s the question I really want to ask. Why did you come to Gloucester?
R. Well, for one thing, I met my husband Ed (Powers). He was coming from New York and I was in the studio in Boston. It was a live/work space.
B. This was the Fort Point Studios right?
R. Right, Fort Point. We tried living there for a few years and at some point we bought a house in Gloucester with the idea that we could rent it out while we stayed in Boston. That’s not exactly the correct sequence of events. Before that, a friend let us use her house for a few days a week. It was summertime. We fell in love with the place.
B. How long have you been on Rocky Neck?
R. Since 1999. Almost 20 years.
B. Tell me about Rocky Neck. Supposedly, it’s America’s Oldest Art Colony. Anyway, it is unique. I don’t know of another place quite like it.
R. Well, Provincetown was but …
B. That’s gone now. There are many regional art enclaves throughout the country. What makes Gloucester so unique, Rocky Neck, in particular, is that it has real artist presence existing alongside a working waterfront. On Cape Ann, the artists aren’t separate from the community. They are ingrained in the fabric of life here. A vital part of it. It’s been that way for over 150 years.
R. It’s not just visual artists but writers, dancers, musicians, and theatre. Pretty amazing how many talented people are here.
B. Creative people are a major part of the city’s economic engine. Most citizens are aware that it is about art here as well as maritime. Artists are accepted and welcome. Most people here know an artist or two. I hope Gloucester never loses that but sometimes I worry.
R. Rocky Neck has been changing. We are threatened with development. I’m not sure what the forecast is. We have lots of energy now about our Board and community and sharing our exciting programs. Certainly, we still have serious artists there. We are connected to the whole Gloucester community.
B. Cape Ann is an artist’s island. Was Fort Point your first studio?
R. No, actually when my kids were 5 and 7, I got a place in Watertown. The first studio was over the garage. Then when the kids were in school, a group of us formed a collective, right on the river in one of those old brick buildings.
B. I grew up right across the river in Brighton.
R. Oh. OK. Well, we were on California Street.
B. I know it well.
R. After I was there 4 or 5 years, Fort Point started to happen. I became a member of an artist’s group, Boston Visual Artists Union. We were interested in live/work space. All these buildings on the waterfront on the edge of South Boston were becoming available at that time. We bought the building for one million dollars, 70,000 square feet. There was a great deal of resistance at the time because we were all liberals and …
R. Yes. Hippies. South Boston was very conservative.
B. Uptight Irish Catholic. That’s my background. It’s disappearing now, I think.
R. Oh, it’s changed so much.
B. Is it still there, your building?
R. Oh yes. There are two or three buildings where the artists own their own space are still there.
B. It happens all the time. Artists move into low rent, abandoned areas and the gentrifiers soon follow, pricing artists out.
R. People came there first because it was artsy. Then they drove everyone out.
B. Your recent show at Trident Gallery was wonderful. Was it meant to coincide with the release of the book?
R. I finished the work for Trident six months before the show, so it could be photographed and that would be the last chapter of the book.
B. I see.
R. Secondly, there are several works that really relate to stories in Jewish … are they Old Testament stories, Biblical stories? One of them is totally mystical. The piece that has the four prongs –
B. The Missing Letters.
R. The Missing Letters series. That’s a result of our present political struggles. It’s similar to the belief of the Messiah coming. When the mystical letter appears there will be no more repression and we will be loving. So, that’s my way of dealing with what’s going on now. It pushed me into that series.
Finally, these pieces are hopeful.
The one with the letters floating above it … those are Hebrew letters. One is an Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Another is Chi, which means life. The third is Bet, which means home.
The story revolves around a rabbi who was very special to the people and his congregation. It was during the time of the Crusades. The Crusaders wrapped the rabbi in the Torah and lit it on fire. His parishioners were just going crazy, crying, ‘What will we do without you? What’s going to happen without you and the Torah?’ And the rabbi says ‘Do not fear – the letters are going up to God.’ OK? Well … it was something that grabbed me.
B. Wow. I can see why.
R. It became the basis for the piece which – but you don’t even need to know that. Maybe I shouldn’t …
B. It’s a very powerful story. But the work stands on its own.
R. There are some mono-prints. I love collage. I cut up and pasted some mono-print forms. Two of those, black & white. And another one, more painterly, with the apples.
B. Yes, tell me about the apples. It’s a recurring theme. Anything to do with Adam and Eve?
R. No. Nothing. We had apple trees in my backyard growing up. Eddie, the man who worked there, he and I would go out and shake the tree, put all the apples in baskets, bring them in to my mother. She would make apple pie, applesauce and the house would smell wonderful.
B. Another great story. Let’s see, anything else you want to add in conclusion?
R. No. I’m just thrilled it’s done. Thrilled you are interested.
B. The thrill is all mine. Thanks, Ruth.
Bing McGilvray is an artist, flaneur, and raconteur living in Gloucester.