“I think it’s important to portray particularly women and femme people of all races and ethnicities as living fantastical lives, and being interested and interesting, in as many ways as actually exist.”
Artist Ruth Speer exists out of time; I mean this in the best way imaginable. If you scroll through her portfolio, or take a peek at her social media, you’ll surely find yourself confronted with a piece of artwork that makes you long for a place that’s impossible to get to. Part of Ruth’s power – and why I was delighted to learn more about her process – is her ability to take images we might be familiar with (Alice in Wonderland, mermaids, fairies, St. George and the Dragon, to name a few) and infuse the story with the kind of modernity that feels fearless. Heroes of color, women, and people with different abilities and from different backgrounds take center stage on her canvas.
Ruth strives to make Fantasy a place for all, and in doing so has gifted us beautiful work that will surely remain happily out of time. She inspires us with her art to dream a bit bigger and to challenge the old guard.
What follows is an excerpt of our conversation, which you can read in full in Issue #1 of The Seelie Crow magazine.
The Seelie Crow: When did you discover your artistic skill? Was there a moment you realized you had a calling?
Ruth Speer: I think it was more of a gradual pathway than a realization – I wanted all sorts of things growing up, from being a Fantasy writer to running a bed & breakfast. I always loved drawing and painting, though, and it slowly turned into a viable vocation throughout my teens until I was suddenly doing it full time in college. And here I have been, quite happily, ever since!
The Seelie Crow: Were you always drawn to Fantasy?
Ruth Speer: Yes! I have notebooks from my childhood where I would write and illustrate my own fairy tales that I told to my sister. These, of course, sprung from reading fairy tales and Greek myths and Fantasy novels all the time. I have no idea why I was drawn to these things – I think I’ve always searched, in my work, for that spine-tingling, overwhelming atmospheric feeling of immersion that comes from experiencing a specific moment in a film, or the key change in a song, or the slow burn romance of two characters in a story. And fantastical imagery, or magical realism, or surrealism, and all of the above, have felt the best way to attempt creating those moments myself.
The Seelie Crow: Your art seems to pull from your own imagination as well as history, folklore, fairy tales, mythology, and classical pieces. What is your process of developing a piece? How do you – for lack of a better term – sift through the noise to find what works best for you?
Ruth Speer: I honestly would have such a hard time trying to explain it! Sometimes it feels like I go into a deep cave in my brain when I’m hammering out a concept, where all the archived bits of ideas and imagery are filed, and then I step back out, and it’s several hours later, and the piece has been thought up somehow. I tend to think a lot about the power of associations – the often subconscious feelings, or emotions that using certain visual language will evoke, and how I can use what I know of art history and popular culture to build the story I want to tell for the viewer. Of course, the beauty of art is that every viewer will have their own experience of a piece, so that a single painting can tell a thousand stories to a thousand different people. But, I also spend a lot of time and energy trying to be as thoughtful as possible in the elements I’m cobbling together, and what the effect might logically be.
The Seelie Crow: One of my favorite pieces of yours is a painting that appeared in your book There Is A Magic Deeper Still of a Black, female sailor and a white male merman. Your art regularly features Fantastical people of varying backgrounds, abilities, and race. Why do you think it’s important to bring these kinds of characters into your world?
Ruth Speer: I don’t think I can do justice to the actual width and breadth and depth of the world, or try and create a new and fantastical or magical one, without portraying people as they truly exist, in all their myriad lovely differences, including backgrounds, abilities, and race. It wouldn’t be as interesting or truthful. I try and give each character as much of a distinct personhood and story as I can, even if it’s just one image, not only because it’s so much better for telling the kind of atmospheric story I described earlier that I’m always trying to create, but because making art of people, especially women, that is merely decorative from beginning to end feels like a leftover tradition from particularly Western art history I don’t want to continue. And for historically marginalized people, that merely decorative aspect is even more sinister. I think it’s important to portray particularly women and femme people of all races and ethnicities as living fantastical lives, and being interested and interesting, in as many ways as actually exist.