Charleston Artist Kristi Ryba & the Value of Women’s Work

Kristi Ryba, Significant Moments In the Life of My Mother III, 2013; egg tempera and 22k gold leaf on panel; 51½ by 51½ inches.
Kristi Ryba, Significant Moments In the Life of My Mother III, 2013; egg tempera and 22k gold leaf on panel, 51½ by 51½ inches.

Kristi Ryba likes to attend her gallery openings in hand-sewn, 1940s-style vintage dresses. She calls the dresses “costumes” because when she walks into a gallery looking like a traditional housewife, she is making a statement about the importance of women’s work. “It’s uncomfortable and makes me self-conscious, especially when an opening is out of town and I have to get dressed in the hotel and walk to the gallery, but I’m always glad I did it when the night is over.” Ryba is petite with searing blue eyes that tear up easily when discussing her work. She is quietly intense about her commitment to creating art that honors the female experience, and has been making this kind of art, mostly under the radar, for nearly 20 years. 

Ryba first wore one of her costumes at home in her studio and asked a friend to photograph her performing “women’s work.” She used Photoshop to merge these portraits with images of  the kitchen, bedroom, and living room of a dollhouse. The end results depict her 1940s alter-ego performing various activities that include Putting on Shoes, Putting Roast in Oven, Washing Cup, and Playing the Piano. In each of these photographs, Ryba is absorbed in a task, and while she seems pleasantly occupied, there is a feeling of loneliness. In the photos, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the housewife performing her daily tasks, but in the real world, these efforts largely go unseen, and unappreciated.

Kristi Ryba, Dinner for One, 2015, digital collage.
Kristi Ryba, Dinner for One, 2015, digital collage.

In manuscripts, video, paintings, and prints, Ryba conceptualizes the domestic sphere with dolls, dollhouses, costumes and vintage family photographs. She is insatiable in her curiosity and exploration of mediums. When we spoke, she was brainstorming her next project, which expands on the dollhouse series but will incorporate a live video of the artist seeming to walk and talk inside the dollhouse. The thread that ties this vast body of work together is the desire to make art that is personal, art that “articulates the everyday.” Yet beneath this desire is a playfulness that made me unsure whether I wanted to laugh at or with this artist. And maybe that’s the point: to make viewers uncomfortable, similar to the way Ryba feels when she wears her costume, to make viewers question our presumptions about these necessary but invisible tasks and who performs them.  

“There’s an ambivalence between feeling the cultural pressure to follow the traditional female role (get married, have children) and truly wanting those things, and then feeling devalued because of this desire,” she says.

Kristi Ryba, Presentation Of The Sisters part of Family Fashion, 2015; egg tempera & 22k gold leaf on 37 panels, variable dimensions.
Kristi Ryba, Presentation Of The Sisters, part of Family Fashion, 2015; egg tempera and 22k gold leaf on 37 panels, variable dimensions.

Ryba grew up in a traditional household. Her father was a minister and her mother was a homemaker. Her family moved frequently because of her father’s ministry, and perhaps that’s why the notion of home is so relevant in her work. When I spoke with Ryba, she mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross with novelist  Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth, On Beauty, and Swing Time) who said:

“150 years ago our creative capacities were more fulfilled. People were, for instance, making their own clothes, cooking, making their own food. (…) But as an adult, I now understand that those arts are examples of our capacity to make things. And for thousands of years, they were the only evidence of women’s capacity to make things given that everything else was blocked to us the professional arts. And that they are of serious worth and value.”

Exploring the domestic arts is a personal act for Ryba, who says her work is a memoir of a sort. “The subjects I use articulate the everyday even if many are of recurring holidays or special occasions. In my family, there are no famous celebrities or persons who discovered and/or accomplished great or amazing things. They were plumbers, salespersons, mechanics, teachers, housewives, and ministers—people who experienced all of the quotidian joys and struggles of ordinary life and did the best they could. This struck me most profoundly with my mother and her very serious commitment to her job as a mother and the keeping of house.”

Kristi Ryba, The Allegory Of Motherhood, 2015; egg tempera & 22k gold leaf on panel.

In works like Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother III (2013), Ryba memorializes these un-monumental acts of her mother that were captured in family photos. The painting, made with gold leaf and egg tempura on a large panel, is shaped like a house and divided into five sections, reflecting the style and construction of Medieval and Renaissance altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts. Yet instead of featuring the Madonna and Child, Ryba’s painting contains an idealized American family: a husband, wife, and three children. In contrast to her photographs, this mother is never alone. She is holding a baby or surrounded by her children. She is on view, posing for the camera, an expression (mask?) of contentment on her face.

Ryba says she came to art late in life. After graduating from high school in 1969, she says, no one asked her what she wanted to do with her life. The most common professional options for women back then were nursing and teaching. So like many women of that time, she got married and had children. It wasn’t until she was divorced and struggled to establish credit that a feeling of helplessness set in. Eventually she went back to school and graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in studio art and went on to receive her MFA from Vermont College.

Kristi Ryba, from the series 1940s Interiors in Costume, 2013, digital collage.

Though Ryba feels frustrated with the gender disparity in the art world, she is inspired by the next generation of female artists — like Yvette Arendt, who recently was awarded the 701 Center for Contemporary Art Prize in Columbia, South Carolina —  women who are successfully pursuing their careers in art while raising children, women who came of age believing that their work was valued. She refuses to let frustration keep her from challenging gender stereotypes and has donated two pieces to the local Nasty Women exhibition at Redux Studios that opens on January 26 and runs through February 4. This exhibition is part of a national fundraising project organized by Roxanne Jackson and Jessamyn Fiore that “serves to demonstrate solidarity among artists who identify with being a Nasty Woman in the face of threats to roll back women’s rights, individual rights, and abortion rights.” Ryba’s work couldn’t be more timely and relevant.

Amy Mercer is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. 

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