Studio Visit: Catherine Ruane, A Revolution of the Senses

Catherine Ruane, A Revolution of the Senses; Photo credit Gary Brewer
Catherine Ruane, A Revolution of the Senses; Photo credit Gary Brewer

Studio Visit: Catherine Ruane, A Revolution of the Senses

We must look a long time before we can see.
The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears to hear it.
Henry David Thoreau


We need nature, and particularly its wilderness strongholds. It is the alien world that gave rise to our species, and the home to which we can safely return. It offers choices our spirit was designed to enjoy.
Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life


By Gary Brewer
To notice the weave and weft of the natural world and to capture it in exacting detail; to look deeply and record what is seen, can be a revolution in our world. The lineage of revolutionary thought expressed in the act of observing in the Western Judeo-Christian world begins with Copernicus and then Galileo, whose observations of the heavens led to the collapse of both the systems of Ptolemy and Plato’s ‘ideal’ of order. The Christian notion of our importance in the scheme of things expressed in the geocentric worldview fell away and gave birth to modern science.

Several hundred years later, Gustave Courbet had the audacity to paint ordinary people involved with the normal activities of their lives. This simple representation was a disturbance to the norms of society. The reigning idea was that art should elevate the mind and soul by representing noble truths; religious themes, historic images and scenes from Greek myths were the iconography that engaged the soul in such truths. These classical images were being challenged by a humanistic fervor that emerged from The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine and the French Revolution. ‘Realism’, which portrayed mere humans, engaged in work or daily activities, was seen as revolutionary. It was an expression of the zeitgeist of the times when the old order of a society ruled by a noble class was falling. Realism expressed the realities of the radical changes taking place in society.

We are here, now. We have come to our senses (at least some of us), and can recognize that we are not the lords of nature but that we are nature; our bodies and minds function within a vast interconnected system where the health of our environment is a living connection to the health of our bodies and spirits. Catherine Ruane seeks to capture the living presence of flora from the desert – tenacious life forms that can endure in the most extreme and harsh environments. It is a form of spiritual identification with that which has the capacity to survive. Catherine’s passion is to represent and honor these plants; creating drawings through careful observation and an exacting eye. The details and patterns of cacti, Joshua Trees, palm trees, pine cones and other life forms, become her subject; in their physical properties, we can see the brilliance of nature’s capacity to adapt and endure.

These are subjects that Catherine gives the same careful consideration and imbues with the soulfulness that a portrait painter would, in capturing the inner life of their subject.
Catherine said of her work, “ I am drawn to plants that have the ability to survive in the harsh conditions of the desert. Metaphorically there is something powerful in their forms that express the tenacity and resourcefulness of these organisms, which through deep time have adapted ingenious systems of survival. It is this perilous moment in which we live, where the fallout from our inventions and behavior are impacting the health of our environment and ourselves that these images take on a metaphoric resonance. They speak to our need to adapt and learn to live in balance with nature, or fail to survive.”

Catherine and I both grew up in the desert. We share a deeply embedded sense of the spiritual aspect of being a witness to its ‘spirit’; an animating force that one feels in the desert. It is the extremes of the heat, wind, and the arid conditions that make the cacti, shrubs and Joshua Trees that live there radiate such a powerful presence. The existential expression of life’s will to live is made starkly clear in the silence and emptiness of the desert landscape. The wind that drones through the open spaces creates a sublime music; the cactus needles and the shrubs are the instruments the wind performs upon.

Catherine mentioned a period of time when she and her family lived in Arizona. “I would hike deep into the desert and sit quietly listening to the silence and observing the intensity of these life forms. Sometimes the wind would blow and there was a fine and delicate whistling that I thought hard about, trying to grasp what was making the sound. I realized that it was the sound of the cactus needles vibrating and delicately responding to the force of the wind that created this subtle music.”

Time is a factor in Catherine’s work. She spends countless hours on her large-scale drawings. There was a drawing of a Joshua Tree that rose from the floor to the ceiling in her loft, a good eleven feet of careful gradations of pencil on paper. The endless patterns of fronds and the stubs of the branches that fell, took on a life of their own. The shapes of the lower trunk looked as though it was studded with the fossils of shark’s teeth; fossils one can find in parts of the Southern California desert, as the Sea of Cortez used to make its way up through Anza Borrego to the Salton Sea. In her drawings of cacti, the cactus needles have an almost musical quality in the patterning; some straight and spiky others whose curves give the appearance of musical notation.

Catherine has been working exclusively in black and white. The restraint of her palette adds a formal calm to the work. It has a classicizing effect on the eccentricities of form and the elaborate patterning of her subjects. She said of her process, “The slow process of mark making with pencil on paper capturing my subjects with careful rendering in large-scale makes me feel connected to the slow rhythms of growth of these plants. A Joshua Tree cannot produce a flower until it reaches 60 years of age; the single moth that can pollinate these trees has a life span of 72 hours. The oldest known Joshua Tree is roughly 1000 years old. All of these time frames factor into my process of drawing, they flow through my mind and out of my hand as I delicately render the endless patterns and gradients of these potent forms of life.”

Life is precious and our time is limited. To deeply investigate nature as an artist and to represent the interlocking systems that create our home, our place on earth, is a form of spiritual practice. The act of looking becomes a meditation. To depict the forms of nature in the tradition of fine art connects Catherine to the Hudson River Valley painters, who sought to express the transcendental in nature. In Catherine’s work she seeks to honor these desert life forms and create a 21st century iconography of the spiritual and existential necessity to find a balance between nature and human nature.

Many religious belief systems fail to acknowledge the divinity of this world, looking to some paradise after death that we should focus upon; believing that this world is a veil of tears. It is a tragic aspect of human folly that such beliefs have participated in bringing us to the precipice of environmental disaster.

Catherine Ruane represents nature as a spiritual presence; she sees in the tenacity of the cacti and Joshua Trees, the animating force that brings life to earth. Her work recognizes and cherishes how fortunate we are to have these myriad relationships, creating the air we breathe and this beautiful home we call Earth. It reflects the beginning of a shift in the cultural paradigm, one that our survival depends on; to regard nature with the same reverence, love and fear that one traditionally holds for the divine.



Catherine is currently showing at the Porch Gallery, Ojai in the Thomas Recovery Show through March 11th and Feminism Now at Shoebox Projects through March 11th.

She has a solo show opening at West Valley College, Phoenix in September 2018 and is in a group show at Coagula Curatorial in June 2018.

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