Ginny Ruffner: What If?

Tuesday, January 03, 2023 11:08 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

How can we describe Ginny Ruffner’s work, life, and creativity in words? The “Flowering Tornado” seems an apt description of this prolific and experimental artist. It is also the title of her first pop-up book, “Creativity: The Flowering Tornado,” and the title of an essay by curator Tina Oldknow.

Ruffner is a flurry of creativity and imagination, never afraid to expand the bounds of materials or processes. In this context, a tornado is not used as a negative action. On the contrary, it blends, mixes, and breathes collaboration and curiosity. What is so extraordinary about this exhibition, “Ginny Ruffner: What If?,” at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, is that it functions as a think-tank for Ruffner’s work. It is not organized chronologically, like many traditional retrospectives, but instead co-curators Greg Robinson and Amy Sawyer bring work from every decade of Ruffner’s career to the gallery as a visual garden for the viewer’s exploration. From lampworked glass, to paintings, to large-scale aluminum sculptures, the exhibition highlights two foundational elements of Ruffner’s career: curiosity and creativity.

Ginny Ruffner, who celebrated her 70th birthday last summer, is never afraid to push the boundaries of her chosen mediums in unexpected ways. She often dismantles and reuses materials from older work to make new ones, which creates a constant revolution in her artwork as one piece flows into another. Even lampworking provides her the opportunity to make “mistakes” and go in a different direction. The earliest work in the exhibition is a prime example of the artist’s interest in expanding her artistic horizons. “Morning Parallel Universe” from 1984 is lampworked glass and mixed media, and is an early attempt for Ruffner to utilize paint on her glass artworks. In this instance, the viewer can distinctly see the marks of the applied paint materials. The juxtaposition of these early strokes of paint on glass with examples of Ruffner’s interest in realism through oil on canvas paintings is a fascinating visual exercise.

A short distance from “Morning Parallel Universe” is “Self Portrait with Lampworking Dictionary.” Created only 6 years later, this sculpture not only illustrates Ruffner’s impressive mastery of both lampworking and paint but is also a rich foundation for her narrative mastery. Ruffner chooses to represent herself as a swan in this self-portrait. Swans are a common subject for lampworking, including at booths in malls and other venues that produce small sculptures of swans, wishing wells, unicorns, etc. According to BIMA Chief Curator Greg Robinson, Ruffner did not permit her students to create swans for this reason and her choice to portray herself as a swan has layers of depth. Female artists face many obstacles, especially in male-dominated mediums such as glass. By using the swan, perhaps Ruffner is considering her own position within the glass community and her identity as an artist. In addition to the swan, she includes many examples of her visual language in the artwork. Wings, feathers, fruit, and a mirror all appear in the artwork and are again referenced in others in the exhibition. This language and use of whimsical narrative can be traced back to Ruffner’s earliest work, and makes her sculpture instantly recognizable.

While Ruffner is perhaps best known for her glass artwork, her painting and work in Augmented Reality (AR) are significant aspects of the exhibition. The paintings provide additional context for Ruffner’s interest in narrative elements and visual code. Her ventures in AR reiterate her dedication to providing a story for her audiences and commitment to curiosity. The retrospective book outlines this area of her work in greater detail, and is worth reading for this additional context. Visitors can also experience the AR first-hand through an app, which is a welcome element for the show.

Ginny Ruffner has been a fixture in the Seattle art scene for decades, and her influence on scores of glass artists is evident throughout her teaching career that carries far outside of the Pacific Northwest.

The exhibition and accompanying book provide visitors with a glimpse into the life and career of this important artist, while also paying her the respect earned through decades of creative output, teaching, and exhibitions. Visitors will be pleased to see the wide range of work included in the show; carefully selected and placed by the curators which must have been a challenging task when choosing from hundreds of options. In the end, the show provides artwork favorites, a few surprises, and endless possibilities for adventure, collaboration, and curiosity. Ruffner keeps creating work and we are fortunate to have a front row seat in Seattle to her ever-expanding artistic repertoire.

Chloé Dye Sherpe

Chloé Dye Sherpe is a curator and art professional based in Washington State.

“Ginny Ruffner: What If?” is on view daily from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. through February 28 at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art located at 550 Winslow Way on Bainbridge Island, Washington. For more information, visit

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