An Artist in the Garden
For over thirty years, artist and Santa Fe icon Ford Ruthling has lived and gardened “behind adobe walls” as they say, a mere stone’s throw from the historic plaza. His garden and studio has been a secret destination for garden aficionados and art pilgrims for years. Like Alice in some southwestern Wonderland , visitors to his garden take a magical tumble through a Santa Fe looking glass, into a colorful world where gardening and art collide.
A step through the purple gate deposits guests underneath a long ramada freighted and fragrant with old wisteria decorated with pots of geraniums and begonias swaying above like painted bells in an abandoned mission. Ruthling’s multilevel compound induces a sort of kaleidoscopic, M.C. Escher effect. Different planes, paths and sight lines keep the eye busy looking up to find some unusual ornament, down toward a bed of blooms, or away to a wall of indeterminate hue. Callers are confronted by old crosses, gilded golden moons, colorful tin fish, starry glass lanterns on poles, and antique light fixtures bristling with red roses. Thickets of summer dahlias bend like pilgrims along a fractured brick pathway beneath a giant, blue, bulge-eyed rooster wheeling overhead like a surreal wind vane. Strains of Prokofiev or Verdi waft from speakers dangling somewhere up and out of sight.
Recently named a Santa Fe Living Treasure for a large oeuvre of colorful paintings, sketches, lithographs and monotypes, Ruthling is famous outside his flowery fiefdom. His fine art is in a number of important collections and in 1977 he won an International award for a postage stamp design. He was inspired by the work of Albrecht Durer, has been Curator of Exhibitions at the Museum for International Folk Art, and studied at UNM with painter Randall Davey. During a stint in the Air Force, he began exhibiting his paintings in an Aspen gallery. Ruthling started his garden in 1970.
“I bought this place from a woman named Flora Conrad and it was a ‘fixer upper’ ” he says, laughing with an ironic twinkle. “I first came here to help find a buyer for the house, but when I saw it, I decided it had to be mine.”
After Ruthling moved onto the property, he set about shaping and terracing the land, fencing it to keep out stray dogs, and rehabbing the house. He was no stranger to the process of building and design, having worked on a construction crew when he was young, and later building a house. A native son of Santa Fe, Ruthling spent an idyllic boyhood in the rustic village of Tesuque amid farm animals and apple orchards. His love of nature, coupled with an instinctive penchant for making art objects, set the seed for the artist’s life and inspired him in both the studio and the garden.
“Many gardens are designed around an axis, but I could not do that here,” he explains. “My plantings are informal. I do have garden ‘rooms’ which become spaces where people can be comfortable and enjoy themselves in the garden. There are places to sit when it rains, or to watch birds, pet the dog, or read. Flora had made a sign that said ‘Naturist preserve’ and I still have that sign in the garden today. We have a skunk, squirrels, stray cats and dogs and a lot of birds like morning doves, grosbeaks, robins, house finches, flickers and hummingbirds.”
It’s like being in the country”, he reflects.
He conceived and crafted several buildings that he refers to as ‘follies’. One structure is a heated conservatory where he winters over his dahlias, geraniums, clivias, figs and amaryllis. There is also a small open sided cupola resembling an shrine and yet another building is an enclosed dining room.
Ruthling also has a passion for flowers. Over the years he’s planted a host of perennials, such as delphiniums, peonies, columbines, daylilies, irises, and sweet peas, along with shrubs including crepe myrtle, lilacs, and roses. He installed apples, pears, cherries, nectarines, and plum trees. Wisteria, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, clematis and other vines twine everywhere. In spring, a fog of orange poppies billows up around aging apricot trees, while on the terrace above, bearded irises curl up from their nooks like bawdy eels in a coral reef.
Ruthling is a real gardener and few days pass that do not find him rambling about the yard or at work with some seasonal task. Each spring he grows a baker’s dozen of annuals and rattles off his litany of favorites with the familiarity of someone who often has potting soil under his fingernails.
“I start nasturtiums, marigolds, sweet William, larkspurs, sunflowers, morning glories, verbena, Queen Ann’s Lace, snapdragons, California poppies, Shirley poppies and violets,” he recounts. “ I like to have flowers blooming at all times of the year.”
His anecdotal advice about how to store dahlias suggests more savvy born of experience:
“First I clean the tubers and wash them with Lysol. I store them in black plastic garbage bags. I punch holes in the bag, layer in some peat moss, then lay in the tubers , being sure to stand them upright. Then another layer of peat moss and tubers.”
Being in Ruthling’s garden is a total immersion experience, as if the visitor were actually inside the frame of one of Ruthling’s paintings. Amid the fantasia of flowers there are artifacts of every description. In a Santa Fe shop he got brass finials from the top of a Turkish mosque. He has African sculptures and clusters of glass grapes from India. A lot of his own art is there, too. On the wall hang huge ceramic bowls with designs drafted by Ruthling and crafted for him in Mexico. His signature crescent moon, carved from wood, winks as clouds pass behind its hollow eye. A tin cutout of a rooster leans against the adobe wall in the late afternoon sun.
This is not just art in the garden, but an artist in the garden.
What really makes Ruthling’s creative cosmos something extraordinary is the seamless flow between his studio inside and his landscape outside. A glimpse into Ruthling’s home reflects again the harmonious union of garden and art. Orchids, ferns, and other houseplants abound and every wall and hall is festooned with reliquaries, bultos and , retablos peeking from the leaves. One canvas in progress, reminiscent of Magritte, features a giant butterfly with an amaryllis flower for a head. Another painting is of huge, nodding, blue columbine blooms. For Ruthling, art, nature and the garden are all one palette.
“When I am in the studio and my eyes get tired, I go out in the garden to refresh myself,” he explains. “The mainspring of my art has always been nature – animals, birds, butterflies, insects and flowers. It’s also a place where I relax. I invite my friends in, even if we don’t see each other.”
Though he defines himself in essence as a painter, Ruthling is also a gifted carver and tin smith. He has become well known in the recent decade for his unique monoprints. To make these “ embossed paintings”, Ruthling fashions and stamps tin figures of birds, animals, leaves, trees, hearts and other objects, assembles these into a composition, inks them and produces colorful three dimensional prints with his press.
Ruthling makes tin objects for the garden too. A flock of jaunty birds adorns a gate while a quirky birdhouse is embellished with silvery leaves. Powder blue delphiniums soar up from below to caress a big glass heart where a pair of hands touch inside. A frill of lacy tin cutouts are draped long the eaves of the guesthouse roof. The effect of is instantly charming and produces another one of those “Only in Santa Fe” moments.
Ruthling is real Santa Fe. His art and his garden are a lot like the City Different, the high desert and green chile – distinctly regional but with universal appeal, spicy, intense, and imbued with a certain wild western lack of inhibition.
“I am a product of Santa Fe and I like to think I am a reflection of it” he professes. “Santa Fe has an informality and a renegade population of nonconformists which is important to me. I don’t want to be confined by the accepted definition of what an artist can be and do,” he explains.
Substitute “gardener” for “artist” and it’s a clarion call for all gardeners everywhere, when they make the connection between gardening and art. And as with art, gardens come in many shapes and sizes and are as different as the people who make them. Gardeners everywhere seek to create a refuge where they can have a personal experience with nature, beauty, and mystery, and Ruthling has set an energetic example of how it’s done.
Ruthling manages to awaken the dreaming child in nearly everyone who finds their way into his garden Wonderland and he demonstrates the power of art to bring a sense of magic back into our lives. When he entertains tourists or out of town garden clubs, invariably the result is excitement, amazement and starry-eyed wonder in the faces of many who have not felt the child inside for years.