British artist Ruth Fox is standing in front of a three metre high wrinkle, and pointing to the life-sized version on her face. “Oh yes, the wrinkle,” she laughs. “That was a nuts moment!”
That wrinkle formed the backdrop for Ruth’s recent TEDx talk, How to Rebel Against Body Image Idealism at Royal Holloway, University of London. It seemed only fitting, she says, that she shared a piece of herself that society has led her to believe isn’t beautiful.
“My talk started with a quote from John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing that says: ‘The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe’,” she tells Future Women. “I looked at how we see ourselves – as an image in a mirror or a photograph – and then close up, in sections and fragments, like an arm and a hand, or a thigh and knee. I reflect this battle in my work. I conclude that like our minds, our bodies don’t need fame and attention, but recognition and connection. And validation.”
That talk then inspired the reason we’re standing in one of London’s most exclusive enclaves, adjacent to White Cube Gallery where other groundbreaking British artists, like Tracey Emin, have previously exhibited. Ruth is about to sketch my appendicitis surgery scars for Naked Pieces of You – her “diversity-meets-art campaign” that aims to challenge “the often uncomfortable relationships our minds have with our bodies”.
“We carry our bodies around our whole lives, yet we’ve carefully sculpted these damaging ideas about what constitutes ‘hot’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘ideal’,” she explains. “I wanted to draw people who felt awkward, disappointed or ashamed about part of their physical appearance – and do so in a massive window of a gallery space, not only to encourage a sense of empowerment through self-instigated positions of vulnerability, but as a way of laughing (and staring) in the face of it all.”
“I find inspiration in the state, beauty, and stupidity of us.”
Laughter isn’t always something we associate with art, but Ruth isn’t your typical artist. Her pastels have become a symbol of non-conformity, a colourful missile for activism against a world hung up on Instagram filters and validation. Her abstract life drawings are raw, vulnerable and imperfect – as indeed we all are – and they feel perfectly timed amid a backdrop of unrest and demands for diversity.
“A lot of inspiration comes from our species,” she explains mid-sketch. “I think we’re often ridiculous and sometimes wonderful. And our relationships with fear, power, vanity, love, community, survival and the big ‘V’ lately – validation. I find inspiration in the state, beauty, and stupidity of us.”
“For my portraits, I often approach people I find interesting physically, but they also have something else that comes through or intrigues me and which is not visible,” she says when I ask her to describe her creative process. “This could be vulnerability, self-assurance, a softness in how they talk. Then in terms of process, I stretch a canvas with fabric over the top of the canvas – denim, silk, jersey – then I apply oil pastel and paint, before stitching them with thread. Then I reverse that process, so I add more paint then more oil pastel. At the initial sketching stages of people, It’s very much a layering process that develops whilst I explore the lines and contours of the person I’m drawing.”
A large light-filled gallery on a cobbled square in Mayfair might be her studio today, but Ruth usually works from her home in the English seaside town of Margate (around two hours drive from the capital) amongst a growing community of fellow artists and creatives.
She describes the space as “100 percent organised chaos”. “It doubles up as my living room, so I try to keep it a little tidy,” she laughs. “It has my art on the walls to save on space and a ton of natural light. I also have a ton of Post-It notes all over the walls with lots of ideas for concepts and shows. A lot of paint pots, pastels, and plants – I need their green leaves breathing around me when I work – and classical music to help me focus.”
Ruth’s unflinching honesty exists away from the easel, too – extending to her own struggles with self-acceptance. She says her “crazy head is quite good for inspiration”, meaning her anxiety; and she’s made peace with two physical ‘constraints’ she’s felt societal pressure to change: her shape and the ageing process.
“I am going to have to shout about this line, because it’s carried me.”
“I have always been slender. I am happy with what I’ve got these days, but I can sometimes feel quite gangly,” she explains. “I have had my fair share of comparison moments – usually with curvier women – especially with some that can carry so much sexuality. For me, the pressure I feel from ‘the culture infection’ as I call it, is to look youthful. And then the line on my face appeared to get more defined from about the age of 35 and I thought, ‘I am going to have to shout about this line, because it’s carried me. My laughter, my heartache, my tears – I kind of feel like I owe it something’. And you can’t go surfing and not squint into the sun. So I hold two fingers up to botox where my face is concerned – I love surfing! And laughing. Even crying. It is up to others whether they choose to have botox or surgery, but I think people should be very open about it if they’re going to have it. Rather than portraying an illusion as a reality.”
Does she feel the mainstream media is also beginning to take note?
“Yes and no,” she says. “Yes, because brands like Dove are fighting the idealism battle and keeping it real. And activists and influencers are shouting about body diversity – in race, gender, size, age and other areas. No, because if you flick through Vogue, surf Zara’s website or watch a perfume advert, it’s all still skinny models, mostly white. They will still sell us the illusion whilst some of us are still buying it. We just need to stop buying it!”
As our session draws to a close, and she makes the finishing touches to my sketch while Future Women’s photographer, Jez Smith, snaps his final shots, I am once again drawn to Ruth’s wrinkle. This time though my thoughts turn to the transformative power changing the narrative around our so-called flaws can wield.
“All the rules we made up about what looks good,” she says. “The concept will continue throughout my career. All models breathe something different in to my hands when I draw them: sadness, pain, power, strength… perhaps this is what I am drawing.”
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