Portrait of an Artist: Ruth Denham

Jane Farrell interviews the talented Kilkenny native, artist Ruth Denham

Ruth Denham, a twenty three year old visual artist from Kilkenny, already has a strong foothold in the Irish art scene. She is a recent graduate from Limerick School of Art and Design, and currently a Professional Masters of Education student at UCC. With a background in Fine Art and painting, Denham’s works are highly sought after and regularly commissioned. A book lover, Denham frequently adapts what she reads into a visual form, drawing out the characters and their surroundings. However, her countryside Kilkenny home is the inspiration for most of her works. Denham is fixated by memories of childhood and they provide the framework for the imagery she explores. Her work is reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry which seeks to exalt the extraordinary in the everyday and it is no surprise to discover that Denham is strongly influenced by his works. “The curiosity of childhood and memory” are themes which she pursues, and she does just this in a prolific and exciting manner.

When planning her work, Denham says she thinks about a concept “for a long time before I begin, considering what I want to portray within the work. I find my subject and after a few quick sketches I begin. I don’t like to over think it because then it overcomplicates and lacks spontaneity. Recently I have started working on a rotation system, operating two or three pieces at the same time.” What motivates her practice is creating something which has a particular personal meaning to her and she is driven by a need to coordinate the process of thinking and making art.

A seminal experience for Denham was in her third year of college when she encountered that most dreaded blight on creativity, artistic block. She remembers that her “artwork was lifeless; I believed I had lost all of my ability to paint. Every day I would go into the studio and come out completely disheartened. I began to seriously wonder about my capability as an artist. I had no confidence. That summer my mother intervened and set aside a space at home to work in. She refused to let me out until I had created something I was happy about. From nine till six I would work and eventually I produced the first painting I have ever really been proud of.”

 

This devotion to her work is what cements Denham into the category of ‘serious artist’ as opposed to mere hobbyist. The level of consideration given to her work and her diligence to the slow process of making art is strikingly evident in how she perceives her practice as having changed over time; “I used to rely primarily on the inclusion of a figure as a focal point within the work. I felt that this presence was fundamental to giving a sense of narrative but I think that there are far more interesting, mysterious methods of doing this such as breaking it up into fragments so that the viewer can read between the lines.  Right now, I am looking at other ways to channel these thoughts, looking mostly at the actual experience of being a child in all its essence and attempting to impersonate that feeling of curiosity and of engaging with the world for the first time. I don’t think the actual human being is as important anymore but rather allowing the viewer take this position as an onlooker into a portal which hopefully triggers memories from their own past.”

A fear for many artists is how to combat the long, lonely hours and the enforced isolation their work demands. Denham has managed to counteract that, saying, “I always seem to be busy with something or another and I’m surrounded by people constantly so thankfully for me it’s not lonely. Studio time is a good opportunity to get away from all the activity and think about the work I’m making. It is really relaxing to draw or paint and listen to music. I also love putting on a good audiobook so it’s never too quiet.”

Of course, another issue artists face is the constant comparison between one artist’s works to another. Denham again has devised a coping mechanism for this and her thoughts offer a mantra in the face of criticism,“You hear people constantly comparing artists’ work to one another in an almost negative way with the suggestion of imitation. It seems like every concept, subject, angle has been covered before to some extent. It is almost impossible to produce something cutting-edge and yet having said that, if it’s made by you, it will be different and unique disregarding some similarities. I don’t think one should correlate or weigh up one work against another.” An artist doesn’t often need to take criticism into hand, given that they are usually self-critical enough as it is. Denham says, “I get addicted to detail and can spend, what seems like forever on one piece. This gives me plenty of time to over- critique my work and more often than not, I end up disliking it. I was given great advice lately, to pause in the middle of a drawing, leave it for a few days and then decide on whether it’s finished or not. It takes a lot of self-control but it really has helped!”

What also overrides these difficulties is seeing her work collectively. When she can see a sequence of events, unravelling experiences and happy memories from her childhood, it justifies the long hours, and difficult thought processes, all of which she seems to manage remarkably.

Denham’s dream project is to work collaboratively with an author as an illustrator for a children’s book and it is certainly possible to see how well her work would translate to illustrations. She is frequently to be found browsing the children’s section in bookshops for inspiration.  Her current career path is taking her towards becoming an art teacher but she hopes that this will allow her to continue developing as an artist while also taking on projects.

Finally, when asked what is the best piece of advice she has received, she adamantly replies, “stop scrutinising and comparing your ability to other artists. There is so much talent out there today and you would feel useless if you continued to do this.”