To look at ceramic artist Meryl Ruth’s current work, you may assume that she has been blessed with a life of ease and bountiful happiness. In fact, her award‐winning, highly whimsical series of teapots is inspired by her sister, who recently died of breast cancer. The 57‐year‐old artist explains, “In my family, we use humor in the face of adversity.” (June – October 2010)
For Meryl Ruth there was never any question of what she would be when she grew up. She always knew that she was an artist, from her earliest memory.
Born in Staten Island, New York, Meryl’s parents always nurtured her artistic talent. As a teenager, she had her own art studio in her home.
Meryl believes that art saved her life. Yet following a suicide attempt at age 19, she stopped creating art. During a long period of therapy and recovery, she recalls, “I didn’t want to go there for years because my art was associated with bad stuff.”
For most of her life, Meryl was a painter. She switched to ceramic art 12 years ago after taking a class at Maine College of Art. Laughing, she calls herself a “princess” and was surprised that she “fell in love with having clay all over my clothes and in my hair.”
For the past year, Meryl’s studio, Porcelain Grace, was located in the North Dam Mill in Biddeford, Maine. During that time, she became friends with fellow ceramic artist Cheryl Lichwell. With Cheryl’s studio, Out of the Ark, located just down the hall, the two artists frequently visited with each other.
After Meryl’s new house with a home studio was completed in May, she split her time working in the two studio locations for several months. When her lease at the mill ended in September, Meryl, ex‐husband James (Randy) Phillips (center), and husband Fred Wolff (right) worked to prepare for the movers.
Art is a very spiritual process for Meryl. Although Jewish, she considers herself more spiritual than religious. Meryl believes that meditation, which she does for 30 minutes every morning, allows her to access an infinite source of creativity. According to Meryl, “There is no thinking in that place. It’s subliminal, God stuff.”
Meryl teaches art at Deering High School in Portland, Maine. She remembers an art teacher who she greatly admired and tries to make her classroom a haven for any students who may not be safe at home. “Teaching is a big part of who I am,” she says. “I tell people that I am an artist and a teacher.”
After teaching art for 27 years, one major change Meryl notices recently is that in this age of text messaging and instant gratification many of her students simply do not have the patience to create art that requires many hours of work by hand. She notes that ceramic art especially requires a great deal of patience and a lot of waiting.
Meryl’s advice for aspiring artists: find a mentor who you respect to give you feedback, put your ego aside because rejection hurts, and don’t let what sells move your art in a different direction. According to Meryl, “An artist really has to want it, to love it, because it’s a lot of hard work.”
Meryl chooses to create teapots because they are the most challenging functional vessel a ceramic artist can make with as many as five distinct components. “I do everything the hard way. The easy way is not an option in my brain,” Meryl says.
When she learned that her older sister had breast cancer, Meryl began creating a new series of whimsical teapots. Using the initials from her sisters name (Lynn Alice Friedman), all of the pieces Meryl creates for this LAF Line are humorous. “I had a powerless feeling and wanted to do something to honor her,” Meryl says. “In my family, we use humor in the face of adversity.”
As they were growing up, Meryl describes an environment of competition between her and Lynn. When Lynn got cancer, the two sisters became very close for the first time. “We really grew up together during those five years,” Meryl says.
There is one teapot that Meryl was working on when Lynn died in February 2009. She still has not been able to finish it. Meryl says at times she feels guilty that she is so happy in her life when Lynn had to suffer so much.
Meryl has a daughter Julianna, 24, who lives in Florida. Exceptionally close, they talk to each other on the phone every day. In August, when she learned that Julianna had thyroid cancer and would need surgery and radiation treatments, Meryl was devastated with worry and anguish.
Meryl admits she is compulsive about having her apron match her outfit. This particular apron has special sentimental value because her son Joshua made it for her while in college. He is 27 and lives in North Carolina.
A ballet dancer as a young girl, Meryl enjoys being physically active and using her whole body. She loves to swim, hike, workout, and run. Another frequent activity is kayaking on Forest Lake, which her new home in Cumberland, Maine overlooks.
Meryl says her dog Lily is the “love of her life.” Just hanging out with the 3‐year‐old Chihuahua is one of Meryl’s favorite things to do.
Acting as a Muse in the studio, Lily also reminds Meryl to take breaks every few hours. When Lily needs to go outside, Meryl has an opportunity to step away from the work briefly and come back with fresh eyes, which can be helpful.
Because she brings a background as a painter and multi‐media art teacher, Meryl’s ceramic work is unique because of the multi‐faceted surface design. Each piece includes intricate levels of detail, varied textures, multiple glazes, and a rich palette of colors applied with china paint.
For Meryl, an idea for new teapot usually begins with a sketch or a photo in a magazine. While some finished pieces look very much like the initial sketch, many do not. Throughout the entire process of creating, Meryl says she remains open to new ideas of where to go with each one‐of‐a‐kind piece.
Meryl’s preferred style of creating is to have three or four pieces in progress simultaneously in all different stages. During her time in the studio each day, she moves fluidly from working on one piece to another. She recognizes that her creative process requires allowing time for each piece to unfold as new ideas brew.
Because judging for art exhibitions and gallery shows is based on photographs and not the actual three‐dimensional piece, Meryl demands exceptional high quality photographs of her work. She schedules and attends monthly photo shoots with photographer Bernard Blais, Momento Photography, in Biddeford, Maine.
While Meryl loves all of her pieces, she admits that she has favorites. She likes to tell the story of one of her pieces that was not accepted for a particular juried art exhibition. A few months later, the same piece was not only accepted but was featured on the marketing material for another exhibition and won a prize.
For Meryl, her father’s opinion of her work matters to her the most. “Because he is a great artist. He’s brilliant. He respects my work and gets what I am trying to do. I love him, and he loves me.”