Ruth Laxson, known for her prints, drawings, sculptures, and artist books, has been a cherished artist in Atlanta for decades. Her current exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA), Hip Young Owl [January 26-March 30, 2013], is a retrospective of a variety of her works from the mid-1960’s through today. Curated by former Nexus Press director JoAnne Paschall and gallery owner Marcia Wood, the exhibition includes pieces from both private and public collections. Also featured are unique mail art correspondences, an oral history documenting the artist, and an interactive element that allows viewers to flip through a sample of Laxson’s artist books and sketches.
In addition to keeping with its mission to show work exclusively from Georgia artists, Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia has also raised money to produce a catalogue of a handful of the works from Laxson’s retrospective. The catalogue will feature full color images from the artist’s repertoire as well as essays and critiques on her life’s work.
Although Laxson is recognized for intricate artist books and drawings that feature her forward-thinking candor and textual commentary, she hasn’t always called herself a bookmaker, or an artist for that matter. Laxson, born on an Alabama farm in 1924, studied at Auburn University until she came to Atlanta and enrolled in courses at the Atlanta College of Art before it became part of the Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Laxson became interested in artist books and began with her own bookmaking process.
I sat down with the 88 year-old artist in her Atlanta home to discuss her current retrospective, the process behind her work, and the significance of creating for more than five decades. An excerpt of our interview follows.
BURNAWAY: You first started studying at Auburn University, so how did you eventually decide that art is what you really wanted to be studying?
Ruth Laxson: I started by studying business, so when I came to Atlanta a little demon was stirring around inside me. I went through my twenties with a lot of personal problems, like a lot of young people do, and when I was thirty I decided to start on my own and went to Atlanta College of Art. When I needed to learn something, like when I wanted to learn the etching process, I’d take a course. I never enjoyed it at first because they were teaching more of drawing and painting. I’m not a painter and I’ve never been in control of painting, so the few that are in the exhibit are cases of me taking charge and getting confidence with my work and putting them down there.
BA: The exhibition is currently on view at MOCA GA. Can you discuss what kind of work is featured in the retrospective in terms of drawings, prints, sculptures, or books?
RL: The books are what really gave me the most credibility because I discovered this facility for language that I didn’t know I had. I literally did not know what I was doing and I just kind of jumped in. I took workshops and started dealing with what was coming up from inside me, and critics and scholars started to write about it and I thought, “Well, if you say so!”
I got a letter press and learned to set type and I already had an etching press. I now had a legitimate press and I named it 63 Plus. I asked people for ideas about a name for my press and nothing fit so I thought I was 63 the year I got the letter press so everything after this is “63 plus.”
BA: You started with printmaking and drawing and even sculptures, but you became interested in bookmaking later on. How did you transition into bookmaking? Do you find it more enjoyable than other mediums or is it just a different process?
RL: It’s different and it’s harder work because the press is run by hand and setting the type is tedious. I never did it legitimately like a square block of type. I always just let it dance across the page. But one main way I was led into it was through a short phase of handmade paper. I was fascinated that I could take wet, soupy pulp and make it into paper. It could have led me astray because it had that beautiful, luscious quality, and interior designers loved it and sold it. Then one day I had this epiphany and thought, “Ruth, is this really what you want to do?” So I dropped it instantly. But it put me in touch with a network for artist books, the artists, the presses, the collectors, and the writers. My first decision then was to never use handmade paper because it makes a statement on its own. It didn’t make sense to use handmade paper on the pages because I wanted them to have more of a literary context.
BA: I thought the exhibition was well curated in the sense that people are able to physically look through the artist books at a designated reading table. Looking through the books along the wall is great because of how well they’re displayed, but it’s informative to be able to really look through everything, including the sketchbooks.
RL: Yes. Books of Ideas, I call them. Annette Cone-Skelton, president of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia wants to keep them in the archive, which is fine because I’m essentially through with them.
BA: I know in doing a retrospective there’s a lot to think about in terms of what to include, so I think it’s interesting that you decided to include the mail art. You’re not only sending out things to others, but you’re seeing what people are sending back to you. You get to experience work from not just one person but a bunch of people, and it’s obvious that there was a huge response.
RL: Yes, there was a worldwide network for a while at universities. Many times when I’d go into the studio I’d do mail art which is what would warm me up. It’s like a little gift you send out in the world without really knowing where it’s going. I had two or three friends who were real mail art buddies, and some of the envelopes even look like paintings.
BA: One of the most noticeable aspects of your work is the incorporation of text, which I liked not only in the artist books but the prints and ink drawings as well. How does the process work for you? Does the text come out after you’ve established the image?
RL: The text comes out after I start with the image. I cut the shape as a template and gesso it and paint it with black easel paint and rub it. I then start imagining it as a figure that I have in mind and the arms, legs, and head emerge. The text informs the whole thing and the words come from various sources. It might be a quote—even an anonymous quote— but most of the time it’s my own words. And if you notice, I like musical markings. I’m also fascinated by physics, and I think mathematics on the page is so elegant.
BA: I noticed that the force behind the words and the text is just as forceful in recent works as it is in earlier pieces. They’re completely different pieces, but there’s still that cohesion. I like that pieces that are decades apart still have the same ideology behind them. Do you still find something relevant either to what is going on in your environment or what’s going on inside you when trying to get your thoughts out there through words?
RL: Well, the idea of the God Doll emerged around the turn of the 21st century, and I think there was a point at which I gained more confidence and I gave myself over to putting thoughts down. It was just a natural development of an artist’s thinking. The God Dolls have become the most important works because they are the most direct and I find people really enjoy them.
BA: It’s really encouraging to see an artist like you continuing to do quality work. Do you feel you’ve influenced a group of younger artists in Atlanta?
RL: I hope I’ve influenced them in a positive way. I tell them that if you’re uncertain, you have to just assume the authority to put it down on that page. If you don’t have a pattern or anything, you just have to take charge and then you gain courage from that.
Hip Young Owl is currently on display at MOCA GA through March 30, 2013, including an artist discussion on Wednesday, February 20 at 7pm and a book demonstration on Saturday, March 9 at 2pm.