The wonders of Ruth Rippon

Sacramento ceramicist helped elevate clay into the fine-art world

Ruth Rippon (center) teaching majolica techniques to students at Sacramento State, circa 1960.

Ruth Rippon (center) teaching majolica techniques to students at Sacramento State, circa 1960.

Photo courtesy of crocker art museUm

The Robert Else Gallery will host an opening reception for The Legacy of Ruth Rippon at 5 p.m. Thursday, December 7. The show will be up through December 15. Exuberant Earth will be up at the Crocker through February 4.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the impact Ruth Rippon has had on the art world in her 90 years. As a longtime ceramicist, her body of work is enormous. Sacramentans would be most familiar with Rippon’s towering sculptures of happy old ladies at UC Davis Medical Center and the Pavilions Shopping Center, which she lovingly calls Lollies. As a professor at Sacramento State, she built the ceramics department from the ground up, fighting to create an institutional space for a medium hardly considered art at the time. She mentored generations of students who launched their own careers.

Rippon’s low-key status as a Sacramento-raised artistic treasure is currently being celebrated at two art venues: Robert Else Gallery at Sac State and the Crocker Art Museum.

At the Crocker, Exuberant Earth: Ceramics by Ruth Rippon showcases 90 pieces to mark Rippon’s 90th birthday this year. The exhibit is organized chronologically, so viewers follow the path of her life, entering a new era of work every few steps.

“There could be 10 art exhibits represented in this show,” says curator Kristina Gilmore. “She was always inspired by things in the outside world but brought in her own voice.”

Her early works Europa the Bull, The Judgment of Paris and If the Clouds Be Full of Rain reflect mythological and Biblical influences. They’re also a demonstration of her application of the innovative sgraffito technique, in which she scrapes away the outer layer of clay to reveal a contrasting color underneath. Early on, this was one of her strengths: pushing past the idea that clay was primarily functional by playing with her pieces.

“It was important for her to explore what the medium could do,” says Susan Willoughby, a close friend and colleague of Rippon’s. “She didn’t see why you couldn’t use [a] vessel as a canvas.”

Rippon had started out as a painter, which inspired that artistic lens when she entered the world of ceramics.

“She felt drawn to ceramics most completely,” Willoughby says, adding that it was by a fluke that she discovered clay. Her parents agreed to fund her arts degree if she enrolled in more general courses like metal and clay work—a demand that led to a lifelong love affair with ceramics.

Rippon began teaching at Sac State in 1956 and successfully tackled the challenges of being the only woman in the arts department while competing for studio space.

“It was tough—it was a male world at that time,” Willoughby says. “She had to be really strong, and she had to push back, because in art department faculties, everybody’s fighting for space.”

Around the same time, Rippon, Willoughby and eight other women artists founded the Creative Arts League of Sacramento. They wanted to provide more spaces for artists to show their work and to promote craft as fine art. Still active today, the group raised the money to organize the Crocker show and fund a companion book that illustrates Rippon’s life and artistic evolution.

“This one became important to the organization—to pull together Ruth’s life,” says Willoughby, who organized the photo shoots and other aspects for the book. “If you don’t do it now, when she’s 90, it’s going to be really hard to pull it all together later.”

The Sac State show, The Legacy of Ruth Rippon, will exhibit works by her former students, including Cosumnes River College professor Yoshio Taylor. Like Rippon, Taylor also began as a painter, but became captivated by ceramics in college.

“As soon as I saw people throwing pots on the wheel, I was pretty taken by it,” he remembers, and was drawn to Rippon’s rigorous classes.

“[She] had a reputation for being very strict and very hard,” but his Japanese education prepared him for demanding classes. “So, I signed up … and slowly devoted myself to clay work.”

Teaching at a time when conceptual and minimalist art was popular, Rippon took a page from her parents’ playbook: She demanded her students learn the technical skills. Before they could meander into the artistic styles that valued the idea behind a work over aesthetics or function, they had to learn to throw a pot. Yoshio worked under Rippon as a teacher’s aide and absorbed her work ethic and teaching styles as a result.

“I’ve been teaching 37 years, and I realized that my style and philosophy of teaching is pretty much the same way she was back then,” he says. “I have high expectations for all my students, and she was the same way.”

It was Rippon who encouraged him to take up teaching.

“She encouraged me and convinced me that I have the know-how and the passion to do it,” he says.

Rippon retired from art in the early 2000s, just as she took her artwork to a larger scale with figurtive pieces like the Lollies and Mermaids.

Taylor and Rippon still keep in touch; it would be hard not to.

“She lives across the street from me,” he says with a laugh.

During a recent visit, Taylor mentioned that he had restored three of her pieces for Exuberant Earth.

“She said, ’Yes, I saw them and they were wonderfully done,’” he says. “I jokingly asked her, ’So Ruth, I passed?’” She smiled, approving, and gave him a big hug.