Ruby Wallis – Visual Artist
Ruby is a visual artist. She lectures at Griffith College Dublin and Pulse College Dublin in visual culture, history and theory of photography and film
Can you tell us a bit about how you got to where you are today?
I'm an artist and a researcher; I combine photography and film. I teach and lecture photography and film theory - I'm interested in history as well. I grew up in a family of artists, so it came easily enough to me. My dad, Chris Wallis, was lecturing in the History of Art and Visual Culture in GMIT until last year and my stepfather, Stephen Stapleton is quite a well-renowned experimental musician with the band Nurse with Wound. My mother is also very artistic and does some sound recording herself. I come from quite an alternative family; I've got five half brothers and sisters, because both my mother and father had second families, but I'm the only one of my kind.
I was brought up in London, but fell in love with the West of Ireland and the Burren at quite a young age. My parents wanted to get out of the London scene and start a small holding, to build an eco lifestyle, so we moved out to the community in Cooloorta in the Burren when I was 14.
I left school at 15 after my Junior Cert, travelled quite a bit and was involved in a lot of creative projects. For a while, I was travelling around with my dad and his wife doing children's theatre - they had a puppet theatre company, Dog & String. I had my son Freddy quite young, when I was 20. I moved into Galway when he was three and that was when I really started to find my friends and artistic community. I did a year in Macnas then I went onto art college in Cluain Mhuire. That's when the light really started to switch on for me and I became really interested in the visual arts. After that, I did an MA in the University of Wales in Documentary Photography where I got deeper and deeper into photography. I just completed my PhD in Fine Art Media at NCAD.
Your most recent exhibition, Unfixed Landscapes, was part of the PhD. Can you tell us about that?
Unfixed Landscapes was a philosophical enquiry through film and photography into the possibilities of representing the community down in Cooloorta. The kids were growing up there - it's an unusual, utopian situation. I tried out different experimental practices through slow filmmaking, through walking and video, through still photography and through autobiographical image making and collections of different images and text. It was basically three big experiments, and then I put them together into an installation so people came in and were guided around the whole space.
The community you grew up in, Cooloorta, is a very alternative community. What was it like growing up there?
It had its difficulties. It's slightly separated from the rest of society, so you can feel a little bit closed off or in a bit of a bubble. But also it's quite magical; you're very, very close to nature. I would go walking a lot. There's quite a romantic feeling tied up in it. A lot of the reasons why people live like that are quite aesthetic - those choices are made because they want to live a very simple, aesthetic lifestyle. But I quite like being involved in the busy cultural world with travelling and just working alot, so it suits me to be in Galway and moving about.
How would you describe yourself?
I'm determined - quietly determined, and driven. I'm quite sociable and friendly. I suppose it's a challenge to make the time and space for myself as an artist and I'm trying to value that more and more as my career gets more solidified and takes off. There are so many demands on time, I find, especially with family close by and commitments to people. I think it's important to have those in perspective. I need time every day to retreat to myself - long periods of reflective time.
Would you consider that as your work time?
Yes, but it could just be reflective time - it could just be walking, but I find it has to be for a long time. I'm thinking more and more that it's essential to my work. It's really about valuing yourself. Valuing yourself as an artist is quite tricky because it seems maybe a little bit luxurious. You just have to say, 'Actually, that is what I do, my studio is my practice'. Or if it's out in the world, walking practise, whatever it is, you need to put the time into it and make the space for it to actually take off. When I see other people's work really flourishing, it's because they've managed to make that commitment.
How does art/culture influence your daily life?
Art is my daily life now. It has become everything - a lot of my work is tied into my life as well. I've worked with my life so much that art is my life and my life is art. For enjoyment, I go to see exhibitions - that also feeds my teaching work, so it really is a full time thing. Culture is tied into nearly every aspect of what I do.
Was that your aim?
It's like a slow burner that's really built up and is gaining momentum over a long, slow period of intense commitment to it. But I can feel it really starting to take hold now, which is great. It can be a difficult career to pursue, mostly financially, because you're sacrificing the security of a 'proper' 9 to 5 job and that's tricky. But it fires me up.
What drives you?
I really get a lot of inspiration from looking at other work. It touches me deeply the way people can express and explore ideas that might be difficult politically, culturally, emotionally - sometimes very close personal work that reaches out in different ways. I want to be part of that sphere.
Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?
A bit of both, because sometimes it doesn't always work just to work on instinct; you need to have a solid concept. Sometimes the concept comes after the practice; I think you can inhibit yourself by having too much of an overbearing concept when you start a project. You need to intuitively feel your way into it, reflect on it, then go back and reflect again and make work like that. Then the concept starts to solidify. That's how I make work, anyway. But it's almost like if you're a writer, you put everything out on the page first of all and then start paring it back. With photography, editing is a massive part of it. With photography, you need to take your work, then you pare it back and pare it back and pare it back. With my MA show, Other Madonnas, I had hundreds of images and in the end, we boiled it down to 8 or 10 images because it was stronger that way.
It must be very satisfying work
When it works, yes. You can feel a bit blocked sometimes, going through different phases. When it starts to flow, it's really good. Some days you look at it and go, 'Oh my God, this is a pile of shit. What was I thinking?' And sometimes it is, and you get whipped up in your own excitement thinking you've done something brilliant and it's not brilliant; it really isn't. I do need other people's opinions - I think it's really important to have critical input. I'm really lucky because I run a lot of things by my dad, who's really clever and always perceptive. So I have this really good mentor, bottom line, who I can run my ideas by and he will say if he doesn't think it's a great idea too.
Any new projects in the pipeline?
I'm working on a new project for Belfast Exposed Gallery. I'm being represented for the year by Ciara Hickey on a programme called Belfast Exposed Futures. They've chosen six photographers to work with and promote, and we're going to be showing work in Paris, London and Belfast. So this is really a great break for me; it's the kind of break I've been waiting for because it's really supportive; Ciara is really great to work with and is a young, interesting curator.
I'm taking up a residency at the IMMA (Irish Museum of Modern Art) this year and I'll be working on the new show. I'm also working on a book that should be published next year, which will be an edited version of my thesis, along with imagery. So it's all very exciting; I feel that things are starting to happen in the way I want them to.
Who or what has been your greatest influence?
Artistically, some of the classic photographers like Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin or more recently Wolfgang Tillmans - I really like his work. Or experimental filmmakers like Ben Rivers, who's a recent contemporary filmmaker I really like. I find Steve McQueen and his long slow takes really inspiring. David Lynch is also a good influence for me. I have to say in my life that my parents have been a huge inspiration and influence on me. They're always positive, always active and thoughtful. They always have something perceptive to say and they always remain youthful and stylish.
I've also really been enjoying watching friends' careers blossom and seeing them rising to an international level - seeing them work really hard and seeing that it's working for them. My friend Claire Louise Bennett, for instance, who's written a book called Pond, which is doing really well. I've watched her writing it and talked to her about it as it was progressing. Now it's just gone viral and it's very exciting. Another friend of mine who's developed a photography career, Dragana Jurisic - watching her work really taking off is great. Friends like that really inspire because you can see the work that goes in, the blossoming and then seeing the way that things can take off now - probably because of the internet. Things can really spark up and suddenly you're off, there you go, you're being reviewed internationally.
What impact do you see culture having on Galway City?
Culture is at the heart of what makes Galway such a vibrant and interesting city to live in. I'm very excited about Galway growing stronger as an educational base for visual arts, film and media. We have a new head of CCAM (Creative School of Arts and Media), Dr Patrick Tobin, and it's looking like undergraduate and post-graduate schools will be expanding. As well as that, The Houston School runs excellent programmes. The Galway festivals are consistent and bring in exceptional acts from all disciplines - I love the Film Fleadh, TULCA and Cuirt. I'm always so thrilled to be able to cycle down and take in the ambience of it all. I hope that artist-led projects such as 126 Gallery get the funding and support they deserve. I'm always astonished by the amount of time and energy artists put in and give to keep a cultural force sustained in the city.