Dr. Jon Ruehle on sculpting art, molding minds

2 years ago

Is Jon Ruehle a scientist doing art, an artist doing science or someone doing both?
  The question leads off Ruehle’s biography on the ASMSA website. Ruehle’s primary job at ASMSA is serving as an instructor in the Science Department, where he teaches microbiology, zoology, immunology, botany, neurology and developmental biology.
  Ruehle used his knowledge as a professional sculptor to also teach a 3D art class during the spring semester. Students learned how to produce wax sculptures that could be cast in bronze.
  Ruehle earned a doctorate in developmental genetics from the University of California at Davis as well as a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from the University of California at Berkley. Before coming to ASMSA in 2007, Ruehle taught at UC Davis, St. Mary’s College of California and University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
  He has been a professional sculptor since 1974, when he sold his first pieces to Zantman Art Galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. Since then, his work has been featured in public and private collections worldwide, including the National Academy of Design in New York City and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.
  His works mostly focus on wildlife. For Ruehle, his sculptures provide an insight to how the animals actually live. Whether it’s a boar rubbing against a tree stump, a wolf on the hunt, a bear catching fish in a river, a sporting dog with a bird in its mouth or a bird in flight, his goal is to present that animal in a manner that shows them in their natural habitat, not in an idealized and artificial pose.
  “I sculpt as part of my academic training and intellectual interest,” said Ruehle, adding that he always does extensive field and background research on an animal before he uses it in one of his sculptures. “All of the pieces I do are demonstrating some kind of behavior, and it’s not just to depict some kind of carousel animal. So many pieces that you see that are wildlife art you can almost see the stake stuck up through their belly that goes up and down on the carousel. They don’t look like anything out in the wild.
  “Somebody said once, and I thought this was the ultimate compliment, my sculptures are the kinds of things the animals would give each other for birthdays and Christmas.”
 
Molding a class
 
  Bob Gregory, dean of academic affairs, asked Ruehle last winter if he would be interested in teaching a sculpture class. Ruehle had never had a student be serious about learning how to sculpt from him. There had been several that may have asked about it, but they never followed through, he said. He also had never taught an art class before.
  For Ruehle, it was important that he would focus on teaching technique, not creativity. The creativity would come from each individual student.
  In his own artwork, Ruehle works directly in wax rather than making a clay sculpture first. Clay requires making a rigid metal armature of the final pose at the beginning of the process. Then a mold must be made of the clay model to produce a hollow wax that can be cast using the lost-wax process.
  As a self-taught artist who learned to sculpt in foundries, Ruehle developed his own technique of producing a hollow wax from the beginning. Hollow wax can easily support its own weight, even in fairly large sculptures without an internal armature.
  Using flat sheets of wax a quarter of an inch thick that can be warmed so they can be easily formed, Ruehle can quickly capture a shape the same way sheet metal is formed into car parts or other designs.
  Once he has the basic shape, Ruehle then begins to work on the details of the piece. Using the hollow wax provides more flexibility. If he does something that he doesn’t like, he can reheat the wax with a heat lamp and make it more malleable, making changes possible. If he was working in clay or another medium, he would be stuck with the original, Ruehle said.
  “If you don’t like one of the legs, you cut it and move it wherever you want. Or you can warm it up and twist the body. You can reach inside and push the wax out or push it in when it’s hollow. It’s a very quick and very immediate process,” he said.
  Ruehle said he is the only person he knows who uses this particular technique. Ruehle’s method creates a hollow-wax sculpture which can be used to create a mold allowing editions of the original image to be cast or for the bronze casting itself, creating a unique bronze. He didn’t know how well it would translate to the classroom.
  It apparently translated very well.
  “The kids at the end of 12 weeks were about where I was after 15 years of work,” he said. “These kids are amazing. I told them what to do and they go, ‘O.K., get out of the way. We’re going to do it.’
  “Evidently the technique is very amenable to first-time people. It doesn’t take years and years of fiddling with [intermediate stages of molds and armatures] because you get the image so immediately, see what to do right away and you can make changes so easily.”
  He said the ability of the students to get what they wanted right away was very satisfying.
  The class was held during the same class period as Painting I and II. The classrooms were across from each other, and painting students would sometimes wander across the hall to see what the 3D Art students were creating. Ruehle said that will likely encourage more students to take a 3D art class in the future.
  As a part of a growing slate of arts coursework under the new Humanities Emphasis this fall, another 3D Art class is planned. Dan McElderry, a longtime ASMSA Spanish instructor who also previously taught art, will lead the class. McElderry emphasizes design, so his class will focus on multiple mediums. Students may do a wire-based sculpture that focuses on balance in design or a paper sculpture that encourages them to think about color in a three-dimensional space.
  Ruehle said he hopes to have the opportunity to teach his class again. The experience has also led him to consider teaching private classes, something he would not have done in the past.
  Gregory said the class was successful on many levels and that he hopes to offer it again. Classes such as Ruehle’s sculpture class demonstrate that ASMSA believes in lifelong learning. While students may know Ruehle initially from their biology classes, the art class allows them to see his interest and ability in art.
  “[Ruehle’s] art class demonstrates that we don’t work in little boxes,” Gregory said. “When he creates a creature, he has to know the anatomy of the animal. He has to think about the physical design of how to support this structure. You can see in this creation how math and science and art are incorporated together. That’s an important piece for us. It’s neat for kids to see how to put all these pieces together.”
 
Please accept this gift
 
  Ruehle’s work has been featured in galleries around the world. In 2000, he was selected by an international panel of museum directors and art dealers as one of the 50 most influential contemporary wildlife artists in the world.
  At least two Texas governors own complete collections of his pieces.  Another was given to Walter Cronkite as a retirement present, he said. He has sold more than 2,000 pieces since the mid-70s, he said.
  Martin Wood, the owner of Collector’s Covey in Dallas, suggested that Ruehle sculpt a longhorn, and the edition of 50 castings sold out in a weekend. Wood then convinced the University of Texas to use a special edition of the longhorn bronze as gifts in recognition of major gifts to the school totaling at least $250,000.
  “You go into somebody’s office in Dallas and see the longhorn sitting on their desk, you go ‘Hmmmm, I know who you are,’” Ruehle said.
  Ruehle’s sculptures are being used for a similar honor at ASMSA as part of the Display Your Support program. Members of the ASMSA Founder’s Society will receive a limited edition bronze hog. Gifts of at least $50,000 earn donors membership into the society.
  Vicki Hinz, development specialist for ASMSA, was enthusiastic about offering Ruehle’s sculpture as a gift for the school’s benefactors.
  “The most heartfelt and impactful acknowledgments come from those who directly benefit from a donor’s generosity — ASMSA students,” she said.
  “Dr. Ruehle’s teaching philosophy is inspiring and his desire to give back to the school and the students he loves by sharing his art of sculpting is an incredible gift.”
  At the Community of Learning Luncheon in May, Ruehle presented one of his pieces, a wolf, as a gift for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, who was recognized for his contributions to ASMSA, including championing state funding for the construction of the Student Center. Beebe is an almnus of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, whose mascot is the Red Wolves.
  Ruehle said he is pleased to offer one of his sculptures for members of the society. It’s a unique opportunity for him to help the school raise money that will benefit the students.
 
So which is it?
 
  Back to the question first posed by Ruehle himself on his website biography page. Is he scientist doing art, an artist doing science or someone doing both?
  He still has the first drawings he made when he was 2 years old. He said he never drew stick figures, and his artwork continued to progress as he grew older.
  By the time he was 5 and 6, he was building things. When he was in the fifth and sixth grade, his family lived in Washington, D.C. He would visit the Smithsonian Institution and study the scale models.
  “My little fingerprints are probably still on the glass,” he said.
  He would go home and make scale models of Roman siege machines, including catapults that he would use to shoot spitballs in class.
  When the teacher saw the model, instead of getting in trouble, he was asked to tell the class about it, he said.
  He dropped out of college with a semester left to finish his bachelor’s degree in 1971 after becoming disillusioned by the possible commercialization of his research at the time. After spending two years in South America, he returned to the U.S. by 1973.
  His love of art grew with him. He took a class in casting bronze at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art one summer. Class members had to make a wax to prepare for the lost-wax process. He then took a job  in a foundry to learn more about the process and was soon “fixing” the waxes to be cast for clients. He learned to sculpt directly in wax rather than using clay as is most common. Within a year he was able to support himself by his wildlife sculptures.
  He chose not to return to school until the late 1980s, finally finishing his bachelor’s degree at Cal Berkley and going on to graduate school in 1989 at UC Davis, where he had his first teaching experience. He earned his doctorate when he turned 40.
  He found that he enjoyed teaching, but throughout that time, he continued to work on his art — the one thing that was the constant from his youth.
  So the answer to the question may best be answered by his views of himself as an artist and teacher.
“I’m a professional artist, and I’m a teacher by avocation. So I teach because I enjoy it. I sculpt because I have to,” he said.
 

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