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Artist creates the extraordinary out of the ordinary

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, November 1, 2008
— Betty Ruggles doesn't have a traditional artist's story.

She doesn't talk about her first artistic yearnings, or the moment she knew she was an artist.

Ruggles, 61, Evansville, is more likely to talk about her four grown children and her grandchildren and the part she plays in their lives.

Slowly, thoughtfully, she recounts the story of her life—and theirs—because it's so much apart of who she is and what she does.

But Ruggles is extraordinary artist, and her works are a reflection of the way she's lived: Slowly, thoughtfully, with attention to detail and relationships, and with an understanding of how the ordinary can be transformed into something spectacular.

Up until 1990, Ruggles was a farm wife in an "extremely rural" region of southwest North Dakota.

Her duties on the farm kept were pretty much "all consuming," but she had time to sew.

"I didn't make ordinary things; I like to do something different," Ruggles said.

She sewed costumes for the school and community theater events, and her children's Halloween costumes were homemade wonders.

In 1990, with three children in college and a fourth a senior in high school, her husband, Dave, died in a plane crash.

Within a year, she had started school at Dickinson State University, and her family consisted of five college students, all paying their own way.

Based on her sewing skills, she decided to pursue a bachelor's degree in theater with emphasis on costuming.

While at Dickinson, she took a class from sculptor Mary Huether.

"She really motivated me," Ruggles said. "She made me realize I might have some talent."

Ruggles started working with papier-mâché.

"It was one medium that didn't require special materials, just newspaper and paste," Ruggles said. "And the thing with paper is that you can go really large."

And with newspaper and paste, Ruggles has created some astonishing items: A life-sized pig flying a hang glider, an elephant, an old fashioned newsboy hawking his wares and a 7-foot, 6-inch tall giraffe accompanied by its calf.

Strips and bits of newspaper are tenderly transformed into the complex web of flesh and wrinkles that makes up an elephant's hide and the hoods that hang over its brooding eyes.

In the newsboy, which now has a permanent home at Janesville Gazette Printing & Distribution plant, features argyle socks made with alternating patterns of dark and light newspaper copy. The lighter diamonds alternate between crossword puzzle squares and clues. The boy's shirt, rumbled in all the right places, is made with comics pages.

His face, lit with a salesman's eager smile, glows through the newsprint.

"I worked really hard on his face," Ruggles said. "I used to come down the stairs and say, ‘Hi,' to him. Somebody said, ‘I hope he doesn't say, "Hi," back.'"

More than anything, her creations require patience. Each layer of papier-mâché has to dry before the next can be applied. A work such as the elephant or the paperboy requires more than a dozen layers.

Ruggles isn't working on anything particular right now.

In fact, Ruggles usually gets to her art between other projects or family duties: She's helping one daughter remodel her home and helping the other with her children.

"Oh I like to do this," Ruggles said of the remodeling. "If you do it yourself, you get what you want—I guess that's the artist in me."

And, of course, she loves her grandchildren.

"If someone needs an ice cream sandwich for breakfast, grandma can do that," Ruggles said with a gentle laugh.

Recently, her daughter in Evansville suggested they create a studio in the basement of their home, and they're working on the project together.

When everything comes together, Ruggles hopes to work on a regular basis and perhaps give classes.

Last updated: 11:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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