As I enter Ruby Hoppen’s home she ushers me straight to her sewing room to see her latest creation. “It’s another portrait of Casper,” she gushes, brandishing the watercolour to the camera. Her eyes narrow into blue slits, nearing the intensity of her speech. “Isn’t it weird?”
She glides through piles of dresses to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea. “Feel free to photograph the mess,” she says, pulling tealeaves from an elusive corner of the cupboard.
Ruby has made this Carlton bluestone her “nest,” a term she uses, as with all clichés, with a hint of irony. I might be more inclined to call it a labyrinth. Each of its curiosities assembled with some riddle logic known only to Ruby; everything woven into the fabric of the place by the twenty-three-year-old mother, seamstress, student and artist-in-residence. The carpet is habitat to a menagerie of stuffed animals- among them a rabbit and a kangaroo- handcrafted by Ruby for she and her fiance’s son, Casper. Ruby’s quilts are heaped along the backs of the leather couches, flecked with stains. Shelves loom over the living room, laden with records, books, folios, knick-knacks and scuffed photo frames. Her father, the magician and painter, owns the ventriloquist dolls that sit like miscreant children at the top of the shelf, leering over the space.
And then there are the paintings, mounted dramatically against the bluestone. Some are Ruby’s and some her father’s. The canvases are heaped with pastel oils, the abstract forms sometimes coalescing into likenesses of friends, of her dog, Mika, of her son, or of her fiancé. Or they remain symbols in and of themselves.
Ruby leads me to the front yard, barefoot. She carries several hand-bound sketchbooks and her enormous Hawaiian quilt, which she has decided, will be the backdrop for the photos. This is Ruby’s factory, and today as always, she is calling the shots.
I finish taking her photo and we sit down to talk. While a mother herself, Ruby’s stories are often recollections of her own ‘idyllic childhood’ in St. Kilda with her artist father Trevor, her mother Philippa, and her little brother Sebastian.
“I grew up in a family where art was, if not the norm then it was almost expected,” she muses, her eyes forming cool crescents as she looks up. Her voice has a plodding rhythm; she chooses each word with the same deft care she reserves for brush strokes. “It’s very different from the way that I have learned that other people have grown up- with some sort of an idea that art is frivolous and not worth your time. I grew up knowing that it was worth it and that it was important.”
She lets the last word hang pointedly.
Ruby’s father, Trevor Hoppen, is a painter too. He worked out of the Roar studios in Brunswick Street in the early 1980s. This group of artists was known for their inclusive values and neo-expressionistic style. He met her mother, Phillippa Armstrong, at university, where they both studied painting. Ruby’s father taught Ruby to sew when she was young, a skill that along with her painting and other crafts has become an obsession.
“I have to draw, and I have to paint, and I have to sew,” she says, reeling her passions off almost mechanically.
But painting is the preoccupation she considers her truest art. And it’s the one which she devotes the most time to. Ruby is in her second year of a Fine Arts degree majoring in painting at RMIT.
She plots out her process with the sombre care one might reserve for religious ritual. When she paints, she says, she begins by building, stretching and priming her own canvas, to “prepare psychologically,” for the act of painting. “After I’ve done that it feels like the hard work’s done.”
She then chooses her subject, and a colour pallet, of “pinks and greens and browns made from pinks and greens,” for her treatment of flesh. Lately, she has been less inclined to sketch beforehand, instead allowing the paint to go where it will. An almost mystic quality enters her voice as she says, “paint has it’s own way of finding where it should be.”
Her process is one of finding “abstraction within figurative constraints;” and in her translation of figure to canvas she focuses on observing and manipulating form and colour. One of her latest projects has been a series of oil paintings featuring glassware with objects positions behind them, such as spools of thread or bows. She allows the refraction of the light through the glass to influence the abstracted forms she paints.
She attempts to complete her paintings in one to two hours. Heavily inspired by the New York school ideas about action painting, she subscribes to the notion that “things should be done in one time, and be put out there, and then you move on.”
But this belief is something that she still struggles to commit to in her practice. Her compulsion to constantly produce, moving from one thing to the next, is at odds with her perfectionist tendencies. This makes the idea of completely letting go terrifying.
“I think I still really need to have less regard for a finished object. I’m very precious about things that I’ve finished because I don’t want them to change,” she says.
“But of course things change over time- my quilts all have stains on them and my paintings all have scuffed dirty edges because there’s just not enough room for them all to be hanging on the walls.”
It’s something she’s been working on- forcing herself to stop picking at a painting until she becomes unhappy with it. “I think you need to put your ego aside in the sense that you really are spilling your guts,” she says.
“A finished painting on a canvas can say a lot more about you than anything else, or at least about me,” she says. And her paintings are often a window to her emotional state, a mix of calm and fierce energy. The “eye stinging” embarrassment of showing a fresh piece fades over time. Eventually it’s like showing someone a photo of her as child, at once “funny and sentimental”.
Ruby’s urge to preserve things can be observed on her blogs. Her blog, entitled Oh Snail, has chronicled her life and her art for the past six years, since Ruby was around seventeen years old.
“I’ve always been somebody who likes to document and always written in a diary, always kept a notebook, so for me to be blogging was just a natural extension of that,” she says. “I just wanted to start it because I wanted to have a place where I could show people what I was doing and also have a record of what I’d made chronologically.”
Ruby’s archival impulse is reflected in her prolific output. This year she at first committed to blogging once a day, a near impossible feat she has now scaled down to twice or three times weekly. Considering the time consuming and exacting nature of her crafts this is still ambitious. She recently undertook a hand-stitched Hawaiian quilt, a process that took more than 48 hours. While Ruby’s long-term blogging strategy is now moving towards self-promotion in her hopes of one day becoming self-sufficient through her creations, it didn’t start out that way.
“The blogging world was a different place then,” she says. “There weren’t superstar bloggers,” she says, bluntly, “ and there wasn’t money to be made.”
“I followed middle aged women from America who had quilting and craft blogs,” she says. The blog features a myriad of sewing techniques, tutorials for DIY crafts and general musings about her life. Since she began sewing as a teenager she has constructed most of her own clothing, modifying vintage patterns to include her own stylistic flourishes- from oversized, colourful buttons to neon velvet trimmings. Many of her dresses are showcased on the blog.
“I make all my own clothes because a; I disagree a lot with the fashion industry and the way in which clothes are made and b; because I just feel a great sense of self-satisfaction,” she says, breaking into a self-deprecating chuckle. She pauses again, peering upwards, the bright light of the garden illuminating the ruby-red birthmark on her porcelain skin.
She begins, slowly, “I can’t really pinpoint that interest because it in a lot of ways it is the opposite of the way that I make paintings.”
“It’s really controlled, I’m very neat when I sew even though my sewing room isn’t a neat place,” she says, smiling as she nods imperceptibly toward the controlled chaos within. “I’m really particular about the way that I sew.”
“I guess that making quilts and sewing clothes for my family and darning and fixing things just gives me a feeling that I’m providing or furthering my nest,” she says.
And her nest has changed remarkably since she first started the blog at seventeen. Ruby met her partner Stephen Lynch in Melbourne, while on a semester break from her Fine Arts study at Concordia University in Canada. Steve then moved to Montreal with her. In October, 2010 their son Casper was born in Melbourne. But Ruby’s work has frequently dealt with childhood and ideas about motherhood, even when she was only a child herself.
“I used to make doll clothes and dolls and quilts for my future children,” she recalls.
Upon returning from Montreal, she already had suitcases full of baby clothes she had picked out from op shops and sewn herself. Unfortunately, she laughs, most of them were for girls.
Her voice grows serious.
“I have this really strong opinion that childhood is actually one of the darkest times in your life,” she says, each word slow and impactful.
“I have had several heated arguments with people who say childhood is innocence because it’s not and children aren’t innocent at all,” she says. “In my childhood I had a lot of dark thoughts and feelings- and I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing.”
She recalls when as a child she looked at a shampoo bottle and wondered how much she could drink before she would cross the boundary between life and death. Learning about mortality, she thinks, is one of the most daunting parts of life and it is first encountered in childhood. “I think people underestimate children,” she says with finality.
One of her latest blog projects is the undertaking of a weekly portrait series for a year of her son, Casper for the entirety of this year.
“Mainly with my portraits of Casper I try to take him seriously as a subject and as my son,” she enunciates the last two words carefully giving them weight, a due seriousness. “I think about how he’s going to see these portraits one day and I also want to show him how much I am there with him,” she says.
“ I don’t think people realise how much energy their parents put into them and how much time is spent and how mundane and draining it is,” she says, adding, “and how joyous it is and passionate.”
“I’ve really enjoyed doing the portraits of him and I think I’ll just continue to do it for as long as he’ll let me.”
The completed portraits piled together are impressive. They have a haunting quality and expressive treatment of form. They are unencumbered by sentimentality, and are not what you’d expect from a mother portraying her child. They remain aesthetically pleasing, without being excessively twee or pretty.
While she has always been preoccupied with the notion of motherhood, Ruby reluctantly subscribes to the old adage that one cannot know what it is really like until they’ve been through it themselves. She speaks with a quiet wonder about it.
“I think I’m a lot less concerned with myself in like…. a physical way,” she says. “I think that I’m a lot more… spiritually aware and I think about my body in a different way.”
“It’s not just an aesthetic thing, it’s a machine and it works really well and I’m so thankful for it,” she says.
“When I was pregnant it was such a crazy experience,” she says, an awed expression entering her face. “Having a baby inside me….,” her knuckles absently graze the front of her pink cardigan, “I could run my fingers down Casper’s spine and I could feel his foot and his hands poking through.”
She pauses, then carefully speaks again.
“I feel like breast feeding is an extension of pregnancy and I really think that it helped me to become more emotionally connected with myself and maybe that’s why I have started doing so many abstract paintings,” she says.
“Because I think that when you think in an abstract way you really tap into something emotional and spiritual. I keep saying spiritual but I think…“ her voice trails off, eyes aloft as she searches for the perfect turn of phrase. “It’s about seeing beneath the surface.”
But she is still interested in technical drawing and in figuration, and in the science of colour theory.
“I’ve been trying really hard to get into more tonal experimentation,” she says. “Like in the painting of Casper asleep on the black paper.”
She shows me the image. It is a picture of her son, Casper, sleeping, arms open wide, on a black background.
“I did it in gouache and I actually painted it from a photo, which I don’t do,” she says. The vast majority of her paintings, in her trademark traditionalist style, are from life. She qualifies, “I respect people who paint from photographs, I just… I underestimate myself or my ability to transfer the image onto paper in an interesting way.”
“But I guess with that painting, doing it from a photo was helpful because I was concerned with the light and the tone and not so much the form,” she says, “so my form actually came out as being pretty expressive and then putting colour in was a secondary concern.”
The process of working on black and trying to replicate the lighter tones was almost like working backwards for her. “That painting was actually like doing a really difficult crossword puzzle.”
“I really like those paintings which are challenging and afterwards you feel mentally exhausted because you’ve tried so hard to figure out the problem,” she pauses to think for a second. “I think that’s what a lot of my practise is- trying to figure out problems.”
Ruby is a self-confessed stalwart in terms of her choice of materials. Embracing that there is a conscious conceptual basis to her work was difficult in and of itself.
“It took me a long time to accept that my work was conceptual. I always said, ‘Oh, I don’t have a concept, I don’t think about it,’ but in reality I do, and I don’t need to apologise for using traditional mediums for that.”
“I think there’s still a place for traditional painters and makers,” she says, with a trace of defiance. Inevitably, it is time to ask her about the future. Excited, she begins to speak more rapidly, her eyes growing wide.
“What I really want to start doing is more sculptural stuff,” she says. Her father initially went to art school, she says, to study sculpture before he chose painting. So she feels an affinity for it.
“It’s physical, it’s got the mark of the hand,” she says. “I like working with clay, and I like working with found materials.”
She pauses, then starts again; “I’d also like to do some more woodwork. We built a cubby house for Casper, and I loved doing that. I’d love to build a house, I’d like to build cubby houses, and a chook house.”
“I had a teacher who asked me if I was going to use the pink and orange quilt that I made, and I looked at her and I said, “What do you mean? Of course I’m going to use it,” and she said, ‘you should think about just keeping it on the wall.’”
“And I’d never thought about that,” she says, incredulously. The eternal pragmatist, Ruby had never considered the notion of treating something that she had crafted as an art object.
That is why, she says, she has started making miniature doll quilts. To attempt to make something utilitarian-looking that couldn’t possibly be used, in a day-to-day sense. She has, however, she admits, been letting Casper play with them in his dollhouse.
“I think I’m getting there,” she says, then questions herself, “Or do I even have to get there?”
She pauses. “It is really interesting to think about it.”
And you can tell she will think about it, meditate on it, with the same care she does with her practice. But, of course, she says, she’s going to keep on painting. It’s something that she now couldn’t imagine not doing, even though it’s not something she has been doing for so long.
Before Ruby completed her degree at Concordia University, her funding ran out. She pinpoints her passion for painting awakening around this time.
“I really only started painting when I went to Montreal and I learnt how to paint at school, in ‘Painting 101’,” she says. “My painting teacher was the hardest bitch, and she was so harsh and she hated me.”
“That meant that in the critiques everyone was really, really nasty to me about my paintings,” she says, with an exhausted sigh, “And they were crap because I didn’t care and I hated her and I didn’t want to even be there.”
The teacher gave her an abstract painting assignment so she built an enormous canvas and went into the studios in the middle of the night, the night before it was due. “I painted in this crazy trance, I think I was really hung over from the night before,” she says. It was a crazy painting, she says, with a “million colours.”
“It was the first time that I tapped into that part of my brain that I never have before”, she says. The next day she went into the studio and was horrified, thinking “Oh fuck, this is so bad, what have I done?”
She had her class the next period, so she had no choice but to walk in and put it up on the wall in front of everyone.
“The teacher stood there and said, ‘What does everyone think?’ and everyone knew that she hated me so they all said ‘It’s really undeveloped, it’s really slapdash, we really don’t like it.’”
“Then she interrupted them and said ‘No, this is the best painting in the critique,’ and then everyone went ‘Well, oh well, actually, no it’s really good, we really like it’.”
“But I think that was when I learnt how to paint. It was that night when I painted that painting,” she says.
She doesn’t even have the painting, anymore, or have a photo of it. She can remember parts, but she didn’t even think it was “that good of a painting.” Its value, as with most things with Ruby, is “symbolic.”
“It was more about that feeling that I had that night, because I was so out of it and so stressed that I wasn’t going to get it done and then the feeling the next day that it was so bad, and then I had this redemption from the teacher after a year of her hating my paintings,” she says, pausing thoughtfully.
“I guess it was enough.”
“I decided then that I was just going to keep painting, even if I didn’t go to school again,” she says. “I’ll be a painter forever. And I’ll sew forever.”
And I am very much compelled to believe her. When I sat down to talk to Ruby I wasn’t sure if I could see a method to the madness of Ruby’s home, her life, and her paintings. But when she speaks a spellbinding conviction seeps into her every word. She hypnotises you, until you know, beyond a doubt, that everything she is and everything she creates has been willed into existence with a distinct purpose in mind. Every piece of her being has a vital role to play in the future she has carefully prescribed.
And with Ruby Hoppen, you know there will be no accident about it.
You can view Ruby’s craft and life blog, Oh Snail here. You can see more of her works here. This is her Facebook page. Her show, The Red Thread opens at First Site Gallery in Melbourne on the 23rd of July and continues until the 2nd of August.