“[My work is] kind of like 80’s synth-pop mixed with a landscape painter and a person that works in construction…”
If you’re from a small, half derelict mill town or are a fan of urban exploration, you may just find that Will Ruller’s paintings air on the side of nostalgia and familiarity. Muted color palettes and deteriorating textures is what he’s all about; he notices the frequently overlooked and forces us to appreciate the beauty of degradation.
We love his work to begin with, but sitting down and talking with him about his unusual process and influences definitely solidified our fandom.
My name is William Ruller. I got my undergraduate degree at the state University of New York, Plattsburgh which is way, way, way northern New York. Then I got a degree in ceramics and painting; that was in 2007 that I graduated. Then I went to Savannah College of Art and Design In 2011 and graduated with my Master’s in painting in 2013 if I can remember correctly.
Did you ever see yourself becoming an art teacher?
No, I don’t think anybody ever really plans for that to be completely frank. You don’t go to graduate school to become a teacher, it’s not really the goal. It’s just like a job that I would like to do because nobody wants to wash dishes or do some sort of customer service instead. If you get a job that relates to what you want to do it’s way more enjoyable.
A lot of artists that I’ve looked up to, painters that I looked up to, have taught. I think it is good to teach but I absolutely refuse to become full-time. I don’t have any children at the moment, I just have a cat and a wife; I may change my tune if I had a child and had to provide, but I can live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I think it’s that moment that you transition from a still-struggling artist to a full time teacher, that is what you do for 40 hours a week, that breaks people a lot.
How does being an Adjunct professor affect your own artwork?
I don’t know how completely [teaching] comes back into my work but it definitely does, because you’re figuring out problems that you never really had to.
Teaching is kind of an interesting thing because you come across so many students that are non art majors. They have no interest in art, and they haven’t drawn probably since they were kids. Last year I had someone who’s trying to draw a shoe and, you know, I’ve never really tried to draw a high heel shoe in my life, but I had to try to explain how in the most simplified forms.
I think that when you work for a certain amount of years you start to fall into certain tropes: things that you like, that you know and that are aesthetically pleasing to you. In teaching you can’t really get dogmatic about that, you can’t force your way of doing things onto people. You need to let them do it their own way. That also will make you reflect on what it is that you normally do.
What is the ratio of hours you teach vs. hours you put in at the studio?
It’s pretty much 50/50 for the most part. I mean I’m teaching a summer course right now and I’m in there four days a week for about 3 hours, and I’m generally here [the studio] 3 hours every night. In the winter I’m here even longer but I’ve got to wait for it to cool down. (Will’s studio is in a warehouse complex with no central AC. It got pretty toasty, even during the two hours for the interview).
Once you’re in the studio, how do you allocate the 3 hours to make the most of your time?
I DON’T. I’m a slow mover initially in the studio, and I don’t just walk in and get to work. I’ve got to get here, I’ve got to unload my stuff, I’ve always have to smoke a cigarette before I actually begin to work, and usually when I’m doing that I get sucked into my cell phone for 15 minutes or so. The first 30 minutes are pretty touch and go, but once that’s over then it’s just like, go time then it gets moving.
So you studied ceramics and three dimensional work for a long time, and now you’re a painter. How do those two tie together?
They don’t really tie together. Sculptors generally are really good at sculpting but when they want to add color to a sculpture, I’m always like, “What, are you color blind? Why did you choose red on that?” Whereas painters can’t really build things. They always try to and it’s just a horrible, janky mess. I can’t really build things, but I can throw you really nice pot.
To me, they’re just two very different sort of things. When I started working in ceramics I made everything really beautiful, like with a super red copper glaze; I was selling it for a living. But then I got into wood firing which is where the effects are not nearly as beautiful at all. They’re really kind of gnarly and ashy and gross looking, which is very much my aesthetic. That sort of transitions into my paintings because I can get that gross, textural, juicy look in paint. To actually achieve that, I was burying canvases in the ground to get texture on them but they just never really got to where I wanted them to be.
One way that the two mediums kind of linked is that I’m interested in objects interacting with the paintings, not just the paintings themselves. I want it to be touched and smelled and walked around.
The one thing that you learn from ceramics, the thing that really gives you the leg up, is that there are so many chances for it to break. Your emotional attachment to the work is very small.”
Is there anything in particular that led you to do more abstract work?
I was very figurative all the way up until graduate school. When I started graduate school and the first three paintings I did were very figurative because my favorite artist is Francesco Clemente. He is literally the opposite of the painter I am and I always wanted to rip him off; I love his painting so much that I wish I could do that but I can’t, or at least not as well as him.
I was living in Oregon after undergraduate so when I got to graduate school In Savannah I was able to get up to New York to see my family a lot easier. I think the thing that shifted it completely was when I went back to New York. I was just walking around and saw the side of this building and I was like ‘that looks like it would be a really great painting’. That’s kind of what led to me just being like ‘Alright, I’ll try to go about it as if I’m trying to make a painting that’s just sheering off the side of a building’.
I’m also really interested in the Hudson River painting and early American landscape painting; I love romanticism and that is what I’ve always kind of attempted to do to a certain extent, some paintings more than others. Some aren’t vast landscapes, so much, but the other ones generally kind of tend to do that. It’s kind of like that Robert Smith from the Cure with landscape painting. Kind of like 80’s synth-pop mixed with a landscape painter and a person that works in construction.
So, what kind of music do you listen to while you’re working in the studio?
Well music, I think, is the best form of art. If you’re deaf, you can’t really hear music but you can feel it. I specifically listen to a lot of electronic and atmospheric music; a lot of jazz. I’m a huge Miles Davis fan I also listen to a lot of Depeche Mode and early nineties stuff like Smashing Pumpkins like I listened to when I was a teenager. I also really like The Cure.
Certain albums will work, like I’ve been really hooked on the new Radiohead album because Josh (one of Will’s studio mates) downloaded it for me. The thing I really really like about Radiohead is you can kind of like ignore it, but if I were to listen to like Rush in the studio will be a nightmare Geddy Lee’s voice would just cut through everything. If I were cleaning the studio, I would definitely listen to some Rush.
You previously said that you like to have people interact with you work, how do you integrate this into your paintings?
I put a lot of texture into the paintings because I mix in dry clay. It’s a big no-no for the idea of people to touch the work, but I like people to get up to the work.
I use linseed oil in oil paint, because I’m working mainly on paper and it just stays absorbent, and so it will smell like paint for forever. I want people to want to go up and rub their hand over it.
I also occasionally make I make like these book object things that are generally a flat color with dry clay on top of it. If I were to exhibit them they’re meant for someone to physically move. They’re super interactive. Whoever’s turning the pages, because the clay will flake off and kind of fall apart, is either building or destroying it in some sort of way, which is very cyclical of life. I like that people can physically pick something up and touch it because I’m still a 4 year old child who is like “Oh, what’s this?”
How did you come about making the books?
The books just came about because I went from being a hardcore production potter. I went from sitting down throwing like 50 cups in an hour to sitting down in a studio and painting. I wasn’t really doing this ceramics so in between paintings I would get stuck and I still get stuck constantly. I was drawing in these books and was thinking ‘Why am I drawing? What is the purpose of this?’ It was not fulfilling at all, and I was like, ‘What if I tried to just paint the book?’ It was just something I did to keep working, but then it became such an interesting thing.
Why use photo transfers in your work? How does it help convey your ideas?
The photo transfers are all photographs I’ve taken. I printed them all off and didn’t touch them, I just carried them around for like 3 years. I grew up in a very, very small mill town that was based heavily in the leather industry and then the leather industry left. The town was basically just bars, mills and churches. When I go back I still break into the mills all the time and photograph what’s been going on because the town is just a sad, miserable place. And then I transfer them onto my paintings to break the space up because the flat color doesn’t really have a foreground or background, it’s just there.
Is there symbolism behind the shapes, letters and such in your works?
When I was an undergraduate a painted tons of circles. I know there’re tons of things you can project onto the symbol of a circle, you know birth and death and whatnot, but to be honest I think it’s just an aesthetic thing. The ones that have a sort of symbolic meaning is the X and thinking about railroad crossings because doing work about railroads is the thing that’s been nagging in the back of my head.
I did this series of paintings that had the five, six and seven which was literally one of the dumbest things. My wife and I were driving back from Florida because we had to go pick up work at a show. We were listening to the Pixies line ‘if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and God is 7’, and I was just like ‘I wonder if that will make an interesting series’. It was very against what I would normally do. This is more of just like ‘I think this might be fun’ when I would normally be like ‘how is someone going to feel about something’.”
What is the step by step process used to achieve that end product?
The separate large paper pieces, those are on cotton rag, like watercolor paper, but I don’t treat them properly so it’s not gessoed. And then for the most part, at least with the charcoal, once I had an idea of what I want, the charcoal is the first thing that goes down.
I’ll put paint on and then piece of plastic over it which will remove some of the paint, then use paper towels and set another piece of paper on top. Maybe four layers down I add a little bit of clay to certain areas as I feel it kind of needs some texture. Then I’ll put paint back on top of that and more layers of paint so generally I have about 20 layers of paint.
I really hate shiny paintings, so I try to thin the oil paints down to almost like water and make them super viscous. The thinner kind of dulls that down as opposed to linseed oil which helps to bring out the gloss. but then kind of like the final touches I go back in with paper towel and in thin washes and it’s likes bronze patina.
Does that ever happened and you’re like ‘oh that looks fantastic’?
Yeah, here and there, you know, sometimes it works other times other times it’s like ‘oh crap I really didn’t want any gray there’”.
Do you have anything coming up?
I’m doing a show with a couple other people at the Spartanburg Museum called Uncommon Spaces. It is basically dealing with different takes on landscape and I’m interested to see that because I used to do these really huge panoramic paintings.
I burnt out last year. I had like three solo shows, a ton of group shows while teaching at the same time. I’m having to fly there and talk and then fly back the next day to teach a class, and it’s just like, ‘I can’t, this is just too much. This is too much of me talking.’