His and hers collection

Mike Hess and Ruth Hess

Mike and Ruth Hess lend one another a helping hand when they are stuck on a piece.

Mike and Ruth Hess lend one another a helping hand when they are stuck on a piece.

Photo By David Robert

He paints Native Americans. She paints colorful gourds. When together in their studio, he might lend a hand if she is stuck on a piece. She returns the favor with a textured pattern along the sides of his canvas, adding another dimension altogether. This is how Mike and Ruth Hess, a retired couple together for 26 years, create their art.

“If Mike runs into a problem,” Ruth says, “he turns to me and asks what it could use—and I give my two cents.”

The pair must be doing something right, as both Mike and Ruth are already selling work from their new exhibition, Spirit of the Warrior. The show includes a display of the Hess couple’s latest creations and a culmination of their collaborative work ethic.

Mike Hess, a wildlife biologist for 30 years, found that after his retirement five years ago, he could devote more time to painting. He began painting landscapes and selling them at local craft fairs. Ruth Hess was at the booths as well, and it was there, while helping to peddle her husband’s wares, that she discovered her passion for art, gourd-making in particular.

“I never considered myself to be very artistic,” Ruth says, “but if I had to sit there selling art, I wondered what I could do.”

What she did was to learn the procedure of growing and harvesting gourds, a process that can take more than a year. Once the gourds are dry, Ruth paints intricate linear patterns and an array of animal forms over them, allowing the variations in surface texture and shape to determine the outcome. Because gourds are fibrous, different parts absorb the dyes separately, and each endeavor makes for a unique result. But according to Ruth, the real enjoyment is in the process.

“Mike laughs when I talk about gourds. He says I describe them in an almost sensual way: the texture, the smell—even the taste.” It is Ruth’s careful attention to detail that makes her gourds so attractive.

As for her husband, Ruth would say he is a very good artist. After three years of painting the Truckee River, Mike, who is mostly self-taught, tried his hand at indoor paintings, specifically portraiture. Surprised that the results were recognizable, he ultimately settled on appropriating to canvas a number of historic photographs of Native Americans. While many of them are warriors or chiefs, Mike’s decisions about whom to paint are based solely on facial features.

“I get fascinated by the ruggedness of the faces,” he says. “They show some real character.”

Energetic and oddly captivating, Mike’s portraits command one’s attention not only because of their ghostly quality, but also by historically informative captions that accompany each work, lending a documentary feel to his half of the show.

But Mike Hess’ paintings are not entirely realistic, as one might suspect. Some have a looser, more impressionistic approach, and each one is awash in vivid color. In fact, these otherwise uniform portraits have a “pop” sensibility to them, enhanced by their repetitive iconography. The result is an interesting and refreshing look at a traditional subject.

While Ruth admits that not everyone might have room for Native American art in their house, she hopes that her and Mike’s interpretations are unique enough. Her husband agrees.

“This is all a big experiment for us …” says Mike, “just to see if it works.”

For this pair of artists, things seem to be working just fine.