Ruth Marshall uses field photographs, scientific data and first hand observation to knit contemporary textiles of exotic animals. Each of her one of a kind artworks represents a specific, individual animal whose pelt she spends months researching. With intimate access to top scientific experts and data, there is no other textile artist studying pelts of endangered species at Ms. Marshall's level. The lineage of her studio spaces is extraordinary: the Bronx Zoo, The Museum of Art and Design, Wave Hill and Berlin.
LS: How did you come to have an art studio at the Bronx Zoo?
RM: I got a job at the Bronx Zoo back in ’95. It was a pretty bohemian place to work, with laughing and singing. As long as we kept to zoo work during the day, didn’t abuse supplies and cleaned up – working on our own art after hours was fine. I choose to be at the zoo seven days a week. I don’t know how my art would have been able to develop if my apprenticeship at the zoo hadn’t given breathing space to work, think and grow.
LS: How did a studio surrounded by New York City’s animal world, not its art world, influence your work?
RM: I was very much aware of living in a bubble while at the zoo. I knew that if I began the long haul to being an artist, I needed to take a few steps back from the colossal, all consuming orbit of the art world in order to survive. At the zoo, exotic animals live out their life in relative peace and harmony with an assurance of longevity, under the care and protection of many different types of specialized people with round the clock security. I felt protected and cared for too. I completely identified with that environment. I left there with my dreams and aspirations intact.
LS: How has the hands-on research process involved in your work evolved since leaving the Zoo last year?
RM: After leaving the zoo, I got permission to go backstage at the American Museum of Natural History and work with the extraordinary pelt collection in the mammalogy department. It is such a historical institution. I got kind of awe-struck. It has revolutionized my work. For example, I just recently noticed how the direction of the hair on a tiger changes on the shoulders and travels down the forelegs. There are a lot of cowlicks and swirls there. In my next tiger, I will try to imitate that by changing the direction of my knitted stitches.
LS: You are currently in the Open Studios Program (artist in residence) at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. How has the architecture of your studio at MAD – its physical structure and accessibility to all museum visitors – affected your work?
RM: MAD is the only major museum in NYC that has an open studio program. Sometimes museum visitors aren’t sure what to do. It’s a new experience for all involved. However, the design of the building is very clever, making it a very comfortable environment to embrace new experiences. Visitors are directed ingeniously through the whole museum. The lighting is great. There are extraordinary views of Central Park. My studio overlooks the landmark gilded sculpture of Christopher Columbus.
LS: Next you have a residency at Wave Hill in the Bronx and then one in Berlin. What is most beneficial to your work from having these studio spaces provided?
RM: It's invigorating! Studio projects are there to do exactly that- invigorate! As a process oriented artist who spends an extraordinary amount of time alone, these residencies are a lightning rod in terms of feedback. Residency programs are so competitive and successful for artists because they supply an outlet for those who would otherwise work closed off. Art itself is a thought that continually needs to be communicated.
LS: Have you been to Berlin before?
RM: I first visited Berlin around 1986, when the wall was still up. I have seminal memories of that experience. Jump forward in time to 2009. I revisited Berlin… It was indescribable. After the wall came down in 1989, I made all these Christmas greeting cards with dates on them, a huge "November 9th, 1989" scrawled across the front. I tried to sell them at an outdoor craft market in Australia, but no-one bought them. Nobody understood what that date was about. It’s funny in that way which strange things can be funny. I’m Australian with an American green card. My artwork talks about animals that live in different parts of the world. I try to get people interested in things from different countries. Artists think globally, it’s natural to them. It is hard for me to comprehend how or why it is so difficult for others to empathize with events that happen in other parts of the world.
LS: Berlin is reported to have the oldest and best known zoo in Germany with the most comprehensive collection of species in the world. Do you foresee the zoo, art, architecture, history, culture of Berlin finding its way into your textiles? What are your plans for your upcoming residency in Berlin?
RM: There is so much history in terms of people’s interactions with animals. Animal stories are our stories. The oldest known paintings by humans are thought to be 35,000 years old and include images of animals. I’d hope to bring the Berlin Zoo – and Berlin itself – into my textiles. This would make a richer tapestry, so to speak.
Ruth Marshall recently finished knitting every species of Coral Snake in the world. She is currently working on her “Tiger Pelt Series.” She has shown at MASS ART, Museum of Art and Design, Indiana State Museum, San Jose Museum, Scottsdale Museum, Hunterdon Museum, Berlin, Paris and Istanbul. She will be included in two books being published in 2011 and has an upcoming exhibition at The Textile Museum in Washington DC. Her first solo museum exhibition is to be held at the Museum of Art at University of Maine. (www.ruthmarshall.com)