Arts & Culture » Visual Art

With a Twist

Illustrator Erin Ruiz's fractured fairy-tales

by

It's hard to find the right words to describe what Erin Ruiz does. Is she a skilled craftsperson? A true artisan? Someone well-trained and disciplined in the art of drawing? A pop surrealist? Well, yes, she is all of these things. Simply put, Erin Ruiz is an illustrator. She has carefully honed her considerable skill. "You're not born with the talent--at least, I wasn't," she says. "It takes discipline. You have to work at it constantly and keep practicing."

It's hard to believe that she wasn't born with it. Ruiz must have worked awfully hard, because she possesses a formidable skill--the sort of talent that makes other illustrators comment emphatically on how much they admire her work. "I know her work and think she is a great illustrator," says fellow artist Jeremy Lanningham. "You can just tell she knows what's up based on her compositions and the line she uses to tell the story."

"I've always drawn, but I can't say it's always been good," states Ruiz. Well over 30 years younger than her MySpace.com portrait claims ("I'm a 60-year-old woman from Boise"), Ruiz has a take on the world that is unique and universal, specific and otherworldly. Her artwork can be heart-wrenching, thought provoking, hilarious and more than mildly disturbing. She works as an illustrator for Boise Weekly and runs a company, Milquetoast Press, where she sells T-shirts of her designs. Ruiz has had her work shown in the Society of Illustrators Annual shows for the past two years. Right now she is doing exactly what she wants to be doing, which is creating illustrations that show her slightly twisted take on the subjects at hand.

Ruiz takes her charge as an illustrator very seriously. "I always want to do the story justice," she explains. But it's not quite that simple. "I'm trying to get back to the idea from the Renaissance that artists have to be extremely educated. I think artists today ought to be equally educated."

Born and bred in Boise, Ruiz graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia in 2004 with a degree in illustration. "It was important for me to leave Boise, to get out of my comfort zone," she says. "And I loved the South, where it snows one day a year and people on the streets act like it's the Apocalypse." In terms of other artists challenging her and helping push along her art, art school provided what she needed. By the time she was through, Ruiz had garnered the award of top female illustrator in the school.

"Basically, my job at Boise Weekly is to take what the article is about and simplify it, so that people can know what the story is about just by looking at the drawing," says Ruiz, who has had four of her illustrations used as covers. In her artist's statement about her drawing "Decaffeinated Agenda," Ruiz explained, "Most of my work is about demonstrating that the absurd and freakish qualities can also be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing."

"Cookie-cut illustrations are just boring," states Ruiz. "I want to get you to look at something a little bit weird. Besides, freaks are just more interesting. I think people respond to them a little bit differently."

Ruiz has also started a business with her sister, Beth. "We always used to start fake businesses when we were growing up," explains Erin. "We had one when we were kids called Scars, Inc., where we made fake scars out of latex and sold them to the other kids. That was a good one."

Now they have a real business with Milquetoast Press. Their T-shirts are handprinted with Erin's illustrations on them, and all of them are slightly different, making each a unique work of art. "I get sick at the thought of having to wear the same shirt as other people," Beth explains. Beth's role is to provide "mental inspiration" and handle the business side of things. "By wearing original designs, you're getting something creative and interesting out there, and not just contributing to giant corporations," says Beth. Things are going well for Milquetoast: they have sold shirts all over the world, while taking things at a reasonable pace. "I have no idea how word is getting out," says Erin. "We haven't even done any advertising yet."

Her work with Milquetoast and illustrating keeps her busy. "I am of the belief that you can sleep when you're dead. I love art more than I love sleep, so I guess sleep is what is lacking in my life right now, " she says. "And food."

Her influences--from late-Renaissance Flemish painters to contemporary artists Mark Ryden and Joe Sorren--are varied and not easy to trace in her work. "I really like the hidden level of art, the idea that you look at the surface and don't see the whole war going on in the canvas," she says. After a mysterious landscape phase in her childhood, Ruiz began to pull influences from a variety of sources. "Old movies and horror books influenced my art and made it kind of bizarre," she says. She was also drawn to the work of comic book artists such as Ashley Wood and Dave McKean. "I really like the tightness of comics," she says. "By the time I finally did a figure drawing, I already understood musculature from comics."

"I like to have a melodic feel to my work, and to know there's something else completely going on." Ruiz also cites Edward Gorey, and admires his ability to tell a twisted tale with his images.

"If I wasn't an artist, I think I'd be a writer," says Ruiz. "I love the story as much as I love the drawing." Her drawings tend to have elaborate backstories, and many are provided with a narrative that extends the scope of the illustration.

Take the drawing on the homepage of Milquetoastpress.com, for example, which is a robot saddened by the sight of a dead bird. Here, then, is Ruiz's description of it:

"On the surface there's clearly something heart-wrenching about it. It was drawn around the time our family dog had died and I wanted to convey the sadness of losing a pet. But ... it's also a commentary on destructive relationships, and on the idea that nature and industry can't coexist; a cute robot who is heartbroken at the loss of his beloved pet bird. I've personified industry and technology into something identifiable, I think, and injected hopes that somewhere deep down, this giant faceless expanding technology is sorry for what it's destroying."Her illustrations have a strong resonance and an interesting thought process that inspires them. Her "Dead Mice" design is a lesson in not falling into the same old traps. "It's from a painting I did called 'Common Conundrum,'" says Ruiz. "It's meant as a reminder not to fall for the cheese."

Ruiz is careful about not over-extending herself, both artistically and with Milquetoast Press. She wants to be able to continue what she's doing for a long, long time. "When I was a kid in school, I remember thinking, 'I hope I never have to do math again,'" she says. "If I could do this forever, I'll be peachy."