In the back of Highlandtown’s Y: ART Gallery & Fine Gifts, owner Julia Yensho tugs a canvas from a standing stack of paintings and drags it in front of its creator, artist Ruth Pettus.
“That’s a painting I could live with,” Pettus says. It’s a pensive man in a white shirt and green tie; almost sly in its first-glance simplicity, it’s actually quite textured and evocative.
It’s also one of more than 40 paintings and drawings that will be on display in a solo show of Pettus’ work through June 1 at Y: ART.
The show was Yensho’s idea. Thirty years ago, Pettus was diagnosed with a brain tumor that quickly went into remission. “There’s not too many people [that doctors] can compare me to,” she says. But now the tumor has returned, Pettus is in a wheel chair, and Yensho, who has seen how Pettus’ paintings have influenced local artists, asked her about her work.
“I have long admired Ruth’s work, and I wanted her to have an amazing solo show,” Yensho says.
Pettus agreed right away, she says. When the two gathered last week to prepare for the exhibit, there was a clear affection between the artists and friends.
“Where you chose to accentuate with color is just brilliant,” Yensho tells her, as they study another piece that easily towers over the two of them.
Pettus, who is allergic to oil paint, has always used acrylic paint and learned to use brewed coffee grounds to rid her medium of its plastic quality. To tell her then that her paintings have great texture is quite high praise. Like so many artists, she also repurposes canvases given to her by friends, creating additional definition by painting over what’s already there. Sometimes she flips over the canvas to paint on the other side.
“You often get a two-fer with Ruth,” Yensho says.
Ready with stories of her paintings’ inspirations, Pettus’ accent betrays that Baltimore is not her native home. She was born in New Zealand, was raised in England and Australia and moved here in the 1980s. Her shoe sculptures have earned attention around the globe; her paintings and sculptures have appeared in galleries from Ireland to Spain to Northern Virginia.
A series of cartoons in a London museum sparked her own series of “figurative men.”
“I don’t like saying ‘men in suits,’” she quips. “It sounds like meningitis.” But they are, in fact, men in suits inspired by the drawing of a line of men in togas, who, she thinks, were supposed to be the Apostles. “I thought I’ve just seen a line of men like this outside of this museum. They were in suits.”
This was not a subject that was often explored in art – the modern gentleman in a suit. Women, however, were often patterned in all sorts of attire, Pettus says. Back in Baltimore, a friend took a series of photos of men on the street in and around Hopkins Plaza. They were perfect for her work.
Later work includes a series of beach and piazza scenes that Yensho describes as “free, open and fresh.”
“I have always loved dancing, and the gesture is so important in those,” Pettus says.
Ruth Pettus at Y: ART Gallery & Fine Gifts, through June 1. A talk with Pettus will be held Saturday, May 25, 4-6 p.m. yartgalleryandfinegifts.com.