Ruth Hamilton’s art delights and entices the viewer to enter an ever-expanding world of imagination and possibility. The Poultney artist’s colorful canvases and sculptures tell story after story, each filled with the wonder of color and form.
It is easy to get drawn into her sumptuous landscapes, many of which reflect the Vermont countryside and the Lakes District in England where she has traveled. “South from 22” is a fanciful painting filled with autumn hues that enhance the forms of Vermont’s hills and mountains in Autumn. “The Road Home,” another Vermont landscape, is transformed by a Fauvist color palette in blue and pink. “A Mighty Stone, Castlerigg” aptly captures the stature and grace of Neolithic standing stones in the Cumbrian plane in northwest Britain.
Hamilton’s love of landscape both in its broad form and intimate details is clearly evident. She invites us to share her journeys of excitement and discovery. In other paintings, like “Friends” and “The Blue Plate,” we seem to be eavesdropping onto person-filled paintings, where scenes of drama, mystery and intimacy play out.
It is in her papier-mâché sculptures that the artist’s antic side lets loose. In “Rub a Dub Dub,” diminutive figures float in boat made of an old popcorn maker. “Gibpot Circus” is reminiscent of Calder’s metal circus, but Hamilton’s performers, all executed in riotous color, swing through the air, wheel around the circus ring and perform their tricks in an atmosphere of pure exuberance.
An experimenter at heart, Hamilton has created sculptures in different media. “Ode to Joy,” an outdoor sculpture made of thin shell concrete, is a 6-foot-high piece, with an open crescent shape, like two arms open to the sky. Some of her soft sculptures feature myriad small sewn elements that are then joined together to make an installation, as in “Murmuration.” “A Bigger Splash for D.H.” is a combination of painting and sculpture, where the toes of the swimmer are visible in the middle of the dynamic center of the sculpture-painting.
Hamilton’s sense of adventure, imagination and play know no bounds. Ever the optimist-pragmatist, she continues to create out of a wellspring of fascination with the visual and interior worlds. In addition to writing poetry, Hamilton has worked as a registered nurse, and been an activist for the arts, participating in art communities in Poultney and Brandon. She brings an unusual range of experience and knowledge into her art-making practice.
In addition to early shows in New York City at the Max Fish and 8 on 10 galleries, and inclusion in the permanent collection of the St. Louis Art Museum, she has shown extensively in solo and group shows in Vermont. Some of these include the Fleming Museum, Castleton University’s Christine Price Gallery, Studio Place Arts in Barre, The Alley Gallery in Rutland, The Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, and Stone Valley Arts in Poultney where she is included in an exhibit, “Painters Choose Painters.” Many of her works are permanently housed in the Northern New England Museum of Contemporary Art (NNEMoCA), founded by Mark Waskow, in Burlington.
Hamilton is an artist of intriguing breadth. I pose a few questions to her about the varied sources of her inspiration:
B.A.: You grew up in Vermont. Can you share some pivotal experiences that inform your work?
R.H.: I grew up in New Jersey with time in Vermont where I always felt at home. Crossing the border into Vermont was pure magic. I moved to Vermont just after I graduated from high school. I lived in Stowe and hiked the mountain and rode horseback into the wilds on rugged trails and learned to ski. The colors and undulating land, the shifting light all felt like it was connected to my soul. I’ve always been most comfortable and at peace in nature.
B.A.: You’ve also had an entire career in the caring professions, as a nurse in trauma centers and prisons. What is the dialogue between these worlds and your art?
RH: It was a beautiful balance. You become very personally intimate with complete strangers as a nurse, and also with people you might not otherwise meet or seek out. That is an eye opener and enlarges one’s world, teaches compassion and empathy. The intensity of the RN was somehow rewarded and enhanced by the beauty of nature and expression with art. It also makes one very aware of the capricious and arbitrary luck of the draw. It certainly fostered my expression and devotion to art and the positive forces it embodies.
B.A.: What are the primary influences on your work? Are there artists who have inspired you?
RH: Certainly, gorgeous Vermont, but special people, special moments, too as in paintings with people in them. I love David Hockney not only his work but that he did his thing and never tried to fit in, be like others or what was popular in the art world, and of course Matisse and Van Gogh and …
There is a painting “The Harvesters” of Brueghel that is particularly striking. I cried when I saw it the first time at the (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). I’m fond of Basquiat, Gregg Woolard, Peter Doig. Francis Colburn of UVM was a huge influence as he encouraged me before I even knew I was an artist. It is hard to choose names as it then seems I should list them so many it would fill a book!
B.A.: What inspires your art-making?
R.H.: The process of making art is the way I feel at peace, fully in my own skin. It is kind of like being born and seeing the world around me for the first time and being awed. It is play and telling secrets. Plus, it is just plain fun; a playful and engaging way to live.
I have a passion and deep connection to the natural world, and I think some of these paintings reflect my appreciation for the sustenance, the beauty of it but also a disturbing sense of just how precarious that world is. I paint what I paint, and then it goes out there and becomes whatever the viewer sees, or experiences. I have to relinquish any sense of idea or control. There is no special truth behind it, and I don’t think that what was in my mind matters.
I would love it if the paintings awakened people to the natural world and the beauty of noticing small moments that reflect that awakened awareness. Perhaps this can extend into our relationships and other experiences.
B.A.: How did you get involved in sculpture, and how does that expression differ from painting?
R.H.: I’ve been making sculpture since I was a little kid and played with clay, cloth and papier-mâché. One of the most serious impetuses to actually making sculpture and not just playing around or admiring others was spending time at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center (in West Rutland). It’s wonderful to roam around seeing great works and artists in process of creating.
People often comment that my paintings are very sculptural, that they have a lot of form that you can feel. It seems like another example of the dialogue between artist, subject and audience: tuning into to a deeper world than the surface alone.
B.A.: You were a founding member of the Poultney Artists Guild and have served on the boards of several arts organizations. Why do you think that arts activism is important?
R.H.: I don’t think about it really, it is just something I like to do. I like bringing artists together to share ideas, learn, find venues to share the work with a larger audience. Seriously, I’d say art is peacemaking. It asks important questions by the images and ideas it presents. Art is an expression of loving, wanting to know it deeply. Don’t we need that now more than ever?
B.A.: Many of your paintings are like visual stories or poems. Is there a relationship between your art and your writing?
R.H.: I guess I’d say they are conversations I have with nature and want to share — or a moment, a wonderful person who inspires me and I want to share that, too.
When I moved back to Poultney last autumn, I was enamored with the old steel bridge just down the road. Every day, all day, it was different; the light, the snow and ice, the depth of water after rain, the stones glistening through the water, the tumble of the current, the riparian shrubs, vines, trees. It changes all the time throughout the seasons.
It is a poem in itself and so much more than a small river running across the land. I want to do a series of photographs, drawings, paintings and poems about it to make a book. I think I want to take your hand and drag you along to see it, to have that same wondrous experience I have that is so joyful. I think that underlies all my work: Come with me.