The Art of the Comeback - Ginny Fuffner

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment

Ginny Ruffner, one of glass sculpture’s brightest stars, enjoys something of a midcareer retrospective Feb. 9 to May 29 at Palm Springs Desert Museum, as well as an exhibition at Imago Galleries in Palm Desert opening with a Feb. 19 artist reception.

What makes these shows particularly special is that Ruffner, 52, created a significant portion of the wildly imaginative and narrative works during a period of deep determination — the years following a 1991 car accident that left the agile artist in a coma for five weeks and in a wheelchair through much of her intense rehabilitation. The wreck impaired her memory, vision, and speech, as well as her ability to walk and create.

Within two years, however, Ruffner was back at work in Seattle, placing the whimsical and curious icons of her visual vocabulary into sculptures that, when fabricated and embellished, communicate her fantasies, fears, hopes, and frustrations. For example, in It’s All In How You View It (1994), Ruffner spins a miniature interpretation of her old wheelchair into a symbol of hope; birds and brightly colored streamers appear poised to extricate the chair into boundless freedom.

She continued to express her experience as a disabled person in Balance Series: Coping with the Fountain of Youth (1995). In this one, an alien surfer teeters on a wave of blown-glass water. From a compositional standpoint, the blue and white waves could be the figure’s shadow; they claw and expand in proportion with the tropically outfitted alien’s fully extended arms. But the green alien with the antennae (she’s tuned in) and unsettling facial features personifies “Ruffner’s perceived treatment as an alien while in her wheelchair,” asserts Vicki Halper’s essay in the exhibition brochure produced by Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, which organized Creativity: The Flowering Tornado, Art by Ginny Ruffner. “The creature doesn’t take this sitting down, literally, and grapples with all physical and mental tests of balance with Ruffner-like panache.”

Indeed, the artist’s fearlessness tracks throughout her career in the male-dominated glassblowing field, where — after adopting a process used to create glass scientific instruments — Ruffner emerged a pioneer and an instructor at the influential Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle.

“The [museum] installation consists of six huge gold frames on easels arranged symmetrically, three to a side, in the gallery,” Halper explains. “Each is intertwined with different, clearly identifiable sculptural forms. The corridor between the frames leads to a massive metal tornado (the overwhelming force of creativity) that seems to emerge through the gallery’s wall and floor, flanked by a pair of gigantic filigreed wings (transcendence, a spiritual state unconfined by matter). These forces, larger than life itself, might denote the source and aim of art. The artist wants to help us tap into those powers. The framed images suggest how. Ruffner has used frames consistently to tell the viewer to stop thinking about, say, dinner, and start thinking about art.”

The show’s namesake,  The Flowering Tornado (2003), consists of suspended frames that incorporate sculpted flowers, chains, hearts, arrows, and bear traps, with a tornado with wings — a metaphor for creative thought — as the focal point. The steel leaves atop the piece seem to frame the entire installation. Forget all else, it suggests, and enter this colorful field of ideas that belie Ruffner’s vivid and giddy constellations.

A pop-up book available in the museum gift shop documents The Flowering Tornado installation with the artist’s vision interpreted by paper engineer Bruce Foster.

The installation is accompanied by several bronze sculptures and 25 lampworked glass pieces with surfaces decorated with paint, pencil, and pastel. Palm Springs Desert Museum has arranged a complementary exhibition, Desert Glass Collectors (Feb. 9-April 10), consisting of studio glass art collected by Coachella Valley residents.

Palm Springs Desert Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, (760) 325-0189,
Imago Galleries, 45-450 Highway 74, Palm Desert, (760) 776-9890.