Article Submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Stella Gelardi Malfilatre.
Detroit-based multidisciplinary artist Ellen Rutt creates work that isn’t easily categorized. She works with the same elements as painters and sculptors — bright colors and three-dimensional shapes, that is — but the interactions she creates between physical spaces and her own forms are particularly distinct. Large-scale installations to screen-printed graphics, you’ll know an Ellen original when you see it. She talked to us about inspiration, what it’s like to support herself with creative work alone and how she once assembled 400 IKEA tables.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a full-time artist?
I first really realized I wanted to be a full-time artist after University when I was working at a big advertising agency designing “Ham-themed print media” for a pork company, which was hilarious, but as a vegetarian, it wasn’t exactly my passion haha. I’m really grateful for everything I learned at the agency – how to structure my time diligently and find humor in the mundane details of brochure design. I continued to work on personal art projects after hours and refused to let my day job steal away my motivation. I then worked part-time doing graphic design at a local gallery and print shop. I loved this job and the company supported me creatively and provided the security of regular income while I transitioned to full-time freelance.
After two years of supporting myself through creative work, I can say that it’s fucking exhausting, and terrifying and amazing and could change at any moment And that’s fine too. I think that what’s MOST important is to keep making the work that you want to make. The issue with being a “full time artist” is that it means your art has to make you money. The balance between making things that are authentic/honest/weird vs. making things that are marketable is nebulous territory that I am navigating with fluctuating conviction and trepidation. The good news is that there is a multiplicity of ways to make money doing creative projects and I think those opportunities are growing.
You paint on everything people to buildings and objects. What is your favorite canvas? And why?
I think my fave canvas is all of them all at once. For me, painting is becoming more performative – acknowledging that the artwork existing in a space, and then considering that the space in which it exists might also be art. I love work that can be lived – so I’m interested in creating environments and clothing and objects because they are all part of the same world.
How do you think your visual artwork, which is graphic and full of shapes translates to how you take photographs?
I see photographs not just as an opportunity for documentation, but as an extension of each project. The way something is captured, influences the way it interpreted. Slight shifts in distance or position can dramatically alter the composition of the photo – and thus, the meaning.
Tell us a bit about your love of thrift stores. What is this about for you?
For over the past 10 years I’ve shopped almost exclusively at thrift stores. At first it was for financial reasons and because there’s almost no retail in Detroit, but also because of the notoriously terrible working conditions of the people who work for various garment companies, and think we (Americans) need to chilllllll on the mass production of new clothes. We have soooo many incredible garments already in existence! Really, it’s just fun for me to walk into resale shop and genuinely have no idea what I’m looking for and just see what exists. It’s definitely an extension of collage – finding and image or an article of clothing and then reworking it, or editing it, cutting it up and giving it new life.
What is the most original project you’ve ever worked on?
One time I had to do a project that involved assembling 400 Ikea tables. Which is A LOT of Ikea tables! I hired a team of like 20 friends and we took shifts putting the tables together for a week straight. I remember watching the delivery men unload all of the pre-assembled tables into my big warehouse studio and thinking, “Holy shit what did I agree to I’m in over my head.”
What is your strongest memory from your childhood that resonates with how you work today?
Throughout my childhood, I did a lot of theater, but as a clumsy, chubby youth with a passion for singing but no real talent beyond ruthless enthusiasm, I was never cast in any leading roles. I think that performative side has lingered – the shapes are like props and clothing becomes costume in an exaggerated interpretation of human life. I live and work in Detroit, Michigan. Honestly, my favorite things to do growing up are still my fave things to do now – which is making things, dancing and wearing costumes.
How important is it for you to be surrounded by other artists?
I surround myself with artists mostly because we share similar erratic schedules and enjoy talking about ideas that are often simultaneously altruistic and totally inconsequential.
How do you stay in tune with your creative work?
Usually, when I’m not feeling inspired it means I need to drink more water put my phone down and go run around outside.
What is coming next for you?
I’m traveling to Mexico and then France for projects, preparing for a few shows that will happen in the summer and fall which sounds far away but it really isn’t. I’m excited to start biking again – it’s been a long, cold winter in Detroit and I can’t wait to breathe in some warm air again.
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