In the symphony of creative expression, some individuals master the art of playing every instrument in their orchestra of talent. Ruby Roth is such a virtuoso. An internationally acclaimed author, illustrator, and artist, Roth wields the power of her brush and her words to create intricate narratives that strike at the heart of human experience. Her work, echoing her unique experiences and innate talent, stretches across children’s literature and into the realms of powerful, intricate figurative drawings. Balancing the dichotomies of life and art, she invites us into her world, filled with strong, feminine bodies navigating through the dualities of existence. Let's dive deep into the journey that has shaped Roth's life and career and discover how her experiences echo in her art.
Ruby Roth in the studio
Can you share with us some of your earliest experiences with art and how they shaped your perspective?
I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil. As a small child, I was so into comic books, I had a Garfield book collection, I took children's art classes in animation and drawing, and later as a teen got into Heavy Metal, vintage pin-up art, and MAD magazines. I knew I was going to be a part, somehow, of these art forms. I've also observed bodies from the inside out since I was 4 and saw my own spinal X-ray diagnosis of Scoliosis. For the following 15 years I underwent aggressive treatment and art became a coping mechanism to deal with pain and an outlet to help me live vicariously through other powerful bodies. My sketchbooks were filled with super heroines, tank girls, girls with guns.There was no doubt I was going into the arts in one way or another.
Having been raised between the bustle of Los Angeles and the lush nature of Kauai, Hawaii, how have these contrasting environments influenced your creative process and artistic voice?
Experiencing these very different environments contributed to what was already a brewing dualistic nature and the penchant I have for uniting opposing forces. In a lot of my work you see women in peaceful or melancholy solitude, often communing with nature. What's absent visually but present conceptually is the opposite forces they're managing internally—maybe the noisy, busy modern world, apocalypse, dystopia, shadow sides of the self. My own experience of embodying dualities—like life force energy/death force energy, tranquility/rage, entrepreneurship/primitive needs, panic/transcendence—very much feeds into my work and subject matter.
You mentioned that art was a vital outlet for you during the 13 years you wore a backbrace for Scoliosis, and your depictions of women seem to be a reflection of that experience. Can you elaborate on this connection?
Looking at my X-rays from age 4, I had a realization very young that I "was not my body"—rather, I felt very clearly that I was inside a vessel experiencing Scoliosis and inside a backbrace that was molding that vessel to its form. My hips were dented, my ribs squared, and very asymmetrically. I became enthralled with bones and bodies, the female body in particular because I was trying to understand my own, but also find beauty in all bodies as a means toward self-acceptance. While I wore those full-torso braces 20+ hours a day for 13 years, I couldn't express myself through clothing or via my body the way other girls could. So I was drawing badass women, women in their power. I was living vicariously through their strong bodies; their sexiness when I felt bound; their weapons a symbol of self-protection when I was enduring the repulsive touch of slews of doctors without a choice. As I got older my sense of power became more subtle as I developed my aesthetic style of distortion instead, emphasizing what I found strong and beautiful, and celebrating the ways that any body, even in distortion, can be beautiful and "perfect."
Your biography states that opposites play harmoniously in your life and art. Can you share an example of how you balance these dualities in your work?
I am meant for an older world where we aren't battered by the modern age, but I am also here existing in the hustle. I am constantly in the practice of transmuting toxic energies into usable energies. I am generally a tranquil little vessel, but I have thrown myself to the wolves and fought in the ring. My women are embodiments of these kinds of balances. They are made of pinched but voluminous masses, organic and geometric shapes, hard and soft edges. Set in empty landscapes, or in solitude away from the modern world, they are managing, transmuting, practicing the alchemy of creating peace when they may be processing rage or grief, warding off oppositional forces, or even toying with different sides of themselves—the virgin and the whore, the nurturer and the rager, etc. I think of my women as finding their way through physical and spiritual dimensions of darkness and light, bondage and freedom, apocalypse and utopia, life and death forces, always seeing a sacred balance.
Your illustrative children’s books have sparked various responses: Glamour described them as an "explosion of controversy," Jane Goodall commended them as "powerful and important," and your fans express their inspired impressions by saying "Ruby Roth is a mood." Could you share more about your experiences navigating the diverse reactions to your book-related work?
My series of non-fiction vegan books for kids were the first of their kind in children's literature to address factory farming and how our food choices affect animals, the environment, our health, and global food distribution. In 2012-ish, when the major media tagged them as "controversial," I had the opportunity to defend my art, writing, and message on a world stage and gain a great following of the relatively newly burgeoning demographic of vegans around the world. I had always wanted to make art with a purpose beyond self-expression and the diverse reactions to my book afforded me the opportunity to both check and strengthen my intentions, and use my art to help make changes in the marketplace that contribute to more sustainable systems. I always welcome both negative and positive reactions to all my artwork now because I know it ultimately serves me in refining my motivations and life's purpose as an artist.
Ruby Roth in the studio
From children’s books to figurative drawings and paintings, you manage to weave together a diverse array of subjects. What connects these different mediums and themes for you?
The children's books and my figurative work might seem at first to be on different ends of the spectrum and made for different audiences, but the throughline for me is clear—firstly, they are connected by my aesthetic of distortion and organic and geometric shapes. And secondly, I think of all my subjects—children, animals, wild women—as making their way through the splendor and travails of the earth, the darkness and light, bondage and freedom, apocalypse and utopia, life and death cycles. All my work is about physical, emotional, spiritual, and planetary wellbeing and seeking some sacred balance.
It's evident that your subjects traverse through various dimensions - darkness and light, bondage and freedom, and so on. Can you share a bit more about this journey and what it signifies to you?
The most formative experiences of my life have been either supportive and grounding or utterly dysregulating. Being raised between a city and a remote island, being bound in pain but discovering internal/psychological freedom, having life-long intense episodes of panic and depersonalization but practicing the art of transmutation and transcendence, delving into art as a means of alignment with my higher self and purpose—I've experienced spiritual soundness and a feelings of divine connection, and also the hellish dimensions of existence in what can feel like hostile territory. Whatever cards I am handed, I generally understand them to be assignments, and all ends of the spectrum of experience are equally important to building the core of who I am, and what I express in my art that may be relatable to viewers and collectors.
Your mastery of anatomy is demonstrated in your work through distorted and pinched forms, geometric and organic unions, and the sharp and soft contrasts. Can you share your thought process when incorporating these elements into your work?
My childhood and wearing a backtrace 20+ hours a day for 13 years was the most influential experience that shaped how I see and draw bodies. Most everything I've learned about art comes from studying the figure through live-model classes. Existing in a brace, figure drawing helped me see beauty in all bodies, and come to grips with my squared ribs, dented hips, and the abrasions that would become permanent. I lived vicariously through the beauty, sexiness, and strength in the bodies I observed, exaggerating, distorting, and emphasizing asymmetries. I find beauty in any body, and especially love what many people think of as "flaws."
A study by Ruby Roth during a live paintng session
With over 160,000 social media followers, how do you approach the responsibility of being a source of inspiration for so many people?
Having such a broad range of work, from children's books to nude figures, I know different people are following for very different reasons and they won't always be interested in my "other" work. But there is an integrity I strive to maintain in being true to my self and work—over marketing. In the digital age of recommended cohesion in branding, it might be the harder route, but it's right for me in that I demand that my audience see a woman who can be a children's book author and painter of nudes; that I was a mother and I can be a seductress; that I can be a nurturer one minute and a cursing sailor the next. If you want to follow along, you're going to get all of me—there is no single character, subject, or color palette that I'll box myself into for the sake of marketing.
Your books have been translated into over 10 languages and are distributed worldwide. How does it feel to know your work has such a global reach?
I don't know if there's a better feeling as an artist to know that an audience finds purpose in your work as much as you do.
Can you share more about your role on the Advisory Board of Ruckus Roots and how it aligns with your overall mission as an artist?
I've always wanted my art to have a purpose beyond self-expression and Ruckus Roots is non-profit organization that helps people do that. It brings art practices into underserved communities, meanwhile cultivating environmental awareness and sustainability. The projects always include recycled, recyclable, upcycled, or collected materials and involve environmental action. It taps into everything I'm interested in as an artist—creating a more sound world through ritual, creativity, community, self-awareness, and a desire to elevate the spaces and dimensions we occupy.
People may see your subjects as being quite different from one another. How do you see the connection between them?
Had I not deadset on being an artist, I probably would have ended up in politics. Through high school and college, I was involved in anti-racism student groups, social justice organizations, and double-majored in Art and American Studies (U.S. history through the lens of race, class, gender, and sexuality). Right out of college I started teaching art at elementary school. The kids all began noticing I wasn't eating the string cheese and milk served at recess and started asking questions. I went to look for a vegan book that I could bring in to could discuss and do an art project around, but I couldn't find anything besides a title about a talking tomato—and I didn't speak to students like they were babies. It dawned on me that I could put all my social/environmental interests together with my art and create the books that I wanted to read to my students. There are now 5 illustrated books—3 specifically about veganism, 1 plant-based cookbook, and 1 book about emotional wellbeing and managing our inner life.
Ruby Roth at work in the studio
It’s clear that your personal experiences and interests have greatly influenced your children's books. Can you tell us a story of how one such experience directly led to one of your books?
Same answer as #8! :)
Editor's note: Ruby is referring to her previous response regarding the incorporation of various elements into her work. You can find this discussion under the question: "Your mastery of anatomy is demonstrated in your work through distorted and pinched forms, geometric and organic unions, and the sharp and soft contrasts. Can you share your thought process when incorporating these elements into your work?"
Your favorite subjects are women's bodies and their inner lives. Can you tell us more about why these subjects fascinate you and how you approach capturing them in your work?
Yes, my women are often navigating an inner or outer wilderness. I am interested in archetypical femininity and how the feminine accesses psychological territory, generates nourishment from nothingness, seeks the highest wisdom to pull into the mundane. Working with women, I look for the dualities I know they often embody at once—as gentle nurturers or ferocious protectors, as mothers and seductresses, as embodiments of peace and rage, meditation or eruption, coyness and sass, flaunt and humility, vulnerable self-consciousness, or the relief of abandon. Their poses tell me visible and hidden stories—from their fingertips to pinky toes.
Finally, as an artist who has managed to build a unique and impactful career, what advice would you offer to aspiring or new artists?
If you are an artist through and through, you will keep developing your craft your entire life. You will never give up on your craft. And you will come to understand that what makes you an artist exists whether you ever sell a piece of work or not.
Ruby Roth with one of her murals
Ruby Roth's journey has shown us that art can transcend boundaries, serving as a potent medium of self-expression, empowerment, and transformation. Her remarkable ability to balance dualities and unearth the power within adversity offers a source of inspiration to countless individuals worldwide.
Today, with her work reaching a global audience, Ruby continues to use her art as a transformative tool. Whether she is creating provocative vegan children's books or evocative paintings depicting the powerful femininity, Ruby’s art embodies her unique vision, acting as a testament to her resilience, creativity, and unwavering commitment to her craft.
As Ruby Roth once said, "If you are an artist through and through, you will keep developing your craft your entire life." Her words serve as a potent reminder for all creatives to relentlessly pursue their artistic endeavors, regardless of the challenges they may face.
Are you inspired by Ruby Roth's art and her journey? Do you find your own experiences and perspectives resonating with hers? If you’d like to explore more of her work, follow her journey, or add a piece of her art to your own collection, you can visit her website and social media profiles.
We invite you to explore her compelling collection on our gallery website. Maybe you will find a piece that resonates with you.
BEHIND THE SCENES WITH RUBY
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Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the artist, and do not necessarily reflect the views of our gallery. We do not endorse any person, brand, or service mentioned in the article.