At 90, Ruth Rippon joins fellow nonagenarians Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos as a Sacramento artistic treasure who has left an indelible mark on our city.
Like her lifelong friend Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson, her associate across the causeway, Rippon has played a major role in the recognition of ceramics as a fine art medium and in the development of Northern California as an internationally known hotbed of ceramic art.
Those who know Rippon only by her life sized figures known as “Lollies” (Little Old Ladies) at the Pavilions shopping center and the ample woman reading a book at the UC Medical Center in Sacramento will be amazed by the variety, range and breadth of works in “Exuberant Earth: Ceramics by Ruth Rippon” at the Crocker Art Museum.
Featuring 90 works from the 1950s through the 1990s, the show includes exquisite porcelain vessels and sculptures of pomegranates, figs, peaches and other luscious (and sexy) fruit; large scale sculptures of an angel’s wing and a thunderhead cloud bubbling up from generative waterfalls; Pop-inspired works from the 1960s and ’70s; a number of impressive figurative works including a small bronze maquette for the Med Center lady and a ceramic sculpture of a tall, bundled-up, couple strolling in Central Park. Rippon’s mastery of traditional and experimental techniques, such as sgraffito (scratching through thick clay slips called engobes), and difficult to achieve porcelain and majolica glazes, is apparent in myriad stunning pots that echo Ancient Greek, Asian, and Biblical sources.
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Born in Sacramento in 1927, Rippon attended McClatchy Senior High School and Sacramento City College, where she demonstrated considerable talent in painting and drawing. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees of fine art at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of Arts), where she discovered her love of clay and embarked on the road to becoming a virtuoso ceramic artist.
After leaving CCAC in 1951, she pursued further studies at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute, worked as a teaching assistant at Mills College for prominent ceramist Antonio Prieto, and was included and won awards in important regional and national ceramics exhibitions.
In the fall of 1956, she joined the faculty of Sacramento State. The only female faculty member in a male-dominated department, she built the campus’ strong ceramics program and, over her 31-year tenure, taught hundreds of students. Many, like Yoshio Taylor, went on to become prominent ceramists and teachers.
As Crocker associate curator Kristina Gilmore notes, you can see the influence of Pop Art in her playful lustre-glazed “First Lady Blocks,” 1968, and her naughty “Peep Show Series,” 1970. A concern with contemporary political and social issues is apparent in works like “You,” 1969, a bold anti-war statement with a disembodied hand of Uncle Sam pointing at viewers, making them “complicit in an unjust war,” as prominent writer and curator, Jo Lauria, points out in the comprehensive and beautifully illustrated exhibition catalog.
There’s a dark edged humor in her toby jugs overflowing with dissonant words, a funky spirit to “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” a sculpture of a raucous red-faced toddler, and a surreal charm to her art historical tableau, “Too Loose Lautrec,” that depicts the French artist at work in his studio with accurate details such as the tubes of paint that would have made up his palette.
But the vast majority of her work deals with themes of nature, beauty, and the human condition in life affirming, humanistic terms. Ranging from “Women at the Bath,” 1974, a lidded vessel reminiscent of ancient Greek pottery with a finial in the form of two timeless nudes, to the ebullient “Woman with a Hat,” 1979, that depicts an earthy and exuberant woman who might be throwing her hat on a potter’s wheel, the show is a testament to Rippon’s restless spirit of inquiry, innovation, resilience and strength as a woman artist who survived, flourished and triumphed in a male-centered discipline.
The exhibition and its catalog were made possible by generous support from Creative Arts League Sacramento, an organization started by 10 women in 1952 to bring the work of exceptional contemporary artists to Sacramento. Rippon joined the organization in 1957 and, 60 years later, is still a prominent member.
Upcoming exhibition-related programs include “Lunch and Learn,” an in-depth examination of Rippon’s “First Lady Blocks” followed by time to enjoy lunch at the Crocker Cafe on Dec. 5, 12 to 1 p.m.; “Exploring the Art of Ceramics” with lead catalog essayist Jo Lauria, Dec. 9 2to 3 p.m. $8, members, $12, non-members. Information and registration at crockerart.org t
Exuberant Earth: Ceramics by Ruth Rippon - Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street
When: Through Feb. 4, 2018. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Cost: Every Third Sunday is “Pay What You Wish” Day. $10, adults; $8, seniors (65 and over); $8, college students; $5 youths (7-17); Free for children (6 and under) and museum members.
Info: 916-808-7000. www.crockerart.org