This is the first in a series of visits with new artists on the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community’s (RAAC) eighth annual Artists of Rappahannock Studio & Gallery Tour this Nov. 3-4.
Rene Ruffner’s love of art is deeply rooted. Three generations of his family have been involved in the arts. His grandfather was a well-known photographer who documented the work and lives of members of the 1930s Arts Torp art colony near Pine Center and Elmira, N.Y.
“I grew up thinking these artists were my family,” says Ruffner, who has had an eclectic career as artist, federal investigator and author. He turned his fascination with the painters he knew in his youth through his grandfather into a passion for 20th-century American fine arts.
Today, in addition to creating his own unique style of work as an artist, he runs a side business of finding, appraising and reselling antique art on eBay.
“I am up early every weekend scouring the flea markets for antique art,” said Ruffner, who is a certified art appraiser and has written a book entitled “Finding, Identifying, and Profiting from Antique Art.”
He frequently gives workshops on this subject, and is now working on a book which will catalogue more than 325 artists who created under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program during the Great Depression years.
His father, who enjoyed a career in architecture and the military, was an accomplished artist, despite only working on the weekends.
“I remember my father telling me that some of his first memories were of my grandmother teaching him colors from an artist color chart,” said Ruffner.
Both he and his brother pursued art careers. While his brother chose commercial art, Ruffner attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where he concentrated on honing his talents as a sculptor. Despite a talent that led the institute to choose his work for display, he never sculpted after he graduated. It was not until he was in his 30s that he found his true artistic path as a painter of oils and acrylics.
“Family and career intervened,” explains Ruffner, who lived in Japan for seven years and later worked for the federal treasury department as a investigator. In that capacity, he investigated money laundering schemes and government wrongdoing in South Florida and New Orleans, and later became a program manager and trainer at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).
It was during the latter assignment that his career turned into volunteer real estate development, when he convinced the renovators of the Old Opera House in Brunswick, Ga. to turn the attic of the building into a communal artist space.
“Back then, my works were large, 4-by-8-foot abstract paintings. They were so big and messy that I could only paint in my driveway,” said Ruffner.
Seeing the empty space in the Opera House renovation, he persuaded the powers that be to make the attic into studios for artists. With space to work in and the stimulation of other artists, Ruffner’s abstracts began to win awards and gain him recognition. He won the Saint Augustine Florida Art Community “Cutting Edge” national competition, and was chosen as the only artist to represent Florida in the Southern States Art Exhibit at the Atlanta Olympics.
At the time, he was primarily an abstract artist.
“I did the reverse of what most artists do. Most artists start out painting realistically and later move to abstracts. I started in abstracts and later moved to realism,” said Ruffner, who believes it is much harder to paint in the abstract than realistically. “It isn’t about just throwing paint on the canvas,” he said, noting that you have to work with color, balance, depth, composition and meaning.
He has since focused on painting landscapes and still lifes, for which he has become known, but is now veering to more magical and fantastical subjects that often feature costumed animals and flying dreaming subjects. His studio, which will be open for the Artists of Rappahannock Open Studio and Gallery tour Nov. 3-4, is called the Stray Dog Studio in honor of a dog he once had. It occupies the front portion of an updated “cracker house” on Harris Hollow Road and provides sunny window space and a mountain view.
Tickets for the Studio and Gallery Tour Nov. 3-4 will be available during the tour at the Washington fire hall and cost $10 for the two-day event, now in its eighth year, which features 17 artist studios and eight galleries, and draws close to 1,000 art lovers to Rappahannock County. Call 540-675-3193 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.