Lines to elsewhere
The world outgrows itself in works
from former staff artist
By Peggy Burch
February 16, 2003
Colin Ruthven says most of the large paintings in his current exhibition are “psychic references.” That observation will give the viewer a useful guide to navigating the distance between The Messenger Is Not Always Friendly – a large canvas with an intense pair of eyes, one red, one green, at its visual center – and Continuum – in which a ribbon of golden paint undulates and diminishes on its path to the horizon.
But the works in “Past and Present,” Ruthven’s show at DCI Gallery through Feb. 28, do not all spring entirely from interior sources. There are landscapes in startling colors. In Raptor, a bird of prey with a fish in its claws floats in the foreground, before orange mountains, emerald green tree trunks and a turquoise sky.
And there are portraits of the familiar faces of Elvis Presley and Beethoven, executed during Ruthven’s 15-year career as a newspaper illustrator. One of his humorous illustrations for a story about job burnout shows a melting candle with arms on either side in a man’s suitcoat.
“We’re calling that After the Show,” Ruthven said last week before the opening of the exhibition of 50 of his works covering a period from 1986 to the present.
Ruthven, 68, was an illustrator at The Commercial Appeal from 1981 to 1996. He retired after losing vision in one eye because of radiation treatments for melanoma of the retina. The vision loss affected his ability to work on the computer.
He was hired as a staff artist at the newspaper not because of the quality of his portfolio, Ruthven says, but because he had been a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps before he retired from the military in 1974. The editor at the time was Michael Grehl, who had been in the Air Force. When he learned that Ruthven had done two tours of duty as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, he didn’t bother to look at the artist’s illustrations. “Grehl wanted someone to kick ass and take names in the art department,” Ruthven said.
Among other duties of an illustrator for the daily newspaper in Memphis was regularly producing images of the city’s most famous citizen. “I did 18 portraits of Elvis,” Ruthven says. “And 15 were stolen. Or they got lost on the way back from engraving. I didn’t mind. I never tried to find out where they were. I was flattered someone wanted them.”
By the time he retired, the artist had won three consecutive second-place illustration awards in the annual prizes for Scripps Howard newspapers, which earned him a place in the newspaper chain’s Editorial Hall of Fame.
Ruthven grew up in Vancouver, Canada. “I never did go to art school, but I drew all my life,” he says. His first year of high school, he won a poster contest for the Canadian Kennel Association, and got a $50 prize and a puppy, an Afghan hound. “The dog died in a week,” he says. “We lived in a tiny apartment. It just geeked.”
He joined the Marines in 1954 and went to flight school. From 1967 to 1970, between tours of duty, he was based in Millington. During that time he did freelance advertisements, among them a weekly cartoon for Pigeon Thomas Iron Co., that ran on the second page of the Sunday newspaper. Ruthven settled in Memphis after his military retirement and worked as a graphic artist for ad agencies until he got the job as staff artist for The Commercial Appeal, where he later was named editorial art director and lead illustrator.
Among the idiosyncratic effects included in this show are some of his pen drawings on textured paper towels, including one of a highly detailed alien. Ruthven does one each day and calls it, “Keeping the line alive.”
DCI Gallery is at 768 Brookhaven Circle East, which has regular hours Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is open Saturdays by appointment by calling 767-8617.
~ Peggy Burch
Pears I Have Known is among the paintings by Colin Ruthven, a former illustrator at The Commercial Appeal, on display at DCI Gallery, 768 Brookhaven Circle East.
“By Thomas Busler” Most of the large paintings in his current exhibition are “psychic references,” says Ruthven, who’s better known for illustrations that appeared in The Commercial Appeal from 1981 to 1996.
“I did 18 portraits of Elvis. And 15 were stolen. Or they got lost on the way back from engraving. I didn’t mind.”
In Raptor, a bird of prey with a fish in its claws floats before orange mountains, emerald green tree trunks and a turquoise sky.