Ruth Chase has made a career of bringing people together. While this is metaphorically true of many artists, it is literally true of Chase: her art is defined by her community.
This intersection of art and community is the basis of her newest project, “Belonging,” a multimedia initiative funded by a prestigious grant from the California Arts Council as part of its Artists Activating Communities Program.
“We were really excited that we got it,” said Chase, a Nevada County Arts Council artist-in-residence. “When you’re an artist in a small town, it’s amazing to get a grant like this.”
The grant, one of the most competitive among artists in California, has allowed Chase the freedom to do what she loves — connect with her community for the sake of art. Indeed, for Chase, connecting with her community is her art.
“I see myself centered in communities where the gaps are bridged by artwork,” she said. “It’s all about community.”
The short film and series of paintings that make up “Belonging” are meant to be one such bridge for Nevada County, where Chase says there is great variety but also great unity. The project is designed to explore and celebrate both.
“There’s always a bridge to be built between groups that don’t usually coexist,” Chase said. “That bridge can make a community better.”
In the case of Nevada County, Chase sees a diverse group of people with different habits, livelihoods, and dreams all connected by our vulnerable mountain home. The project is, among many things, an exploration of what it means to live together on this unique patch of land.
“We all appreciate the beauty and the terrain,” Chase said. “It isn’t always easy to live in Nevada County — it doesn’t offer what big cities offer — but it is beautiful. I built the project around the idea of belonging to that. That’s really the core of the project.”
A HISTORY OF COMMUNITY ART
Chase is no stranger to how places and people mutually shape one another. The Venice Beach native discovered that phenomena in her previous art project, “West of Lincoln,” an award winning assessment of and reaction to her hometown.
“Venice was undergoing a tremendous amount of gentrification at that time,” said Chase, who interviewed and painted portraits of many Venice Beach natives during the two year project. “While that’s not as intense here in Nevada County, it still exists. We are so spread out.”
“Belonging” came to fruition because of her work on “West of Lincoln,” and in many ways is its spiritual sequel, another installment in the artistic investigation of community.
“I had never seen anything like ‘West of Lincoln,'” said Eliza Tudor, executive director of the Nevada County Arts Council. “Ruth has an obvious capacity to mobilize the community. Part of our role is to touch the lives of people who would never consider that art might be relevant to them. With ‘Belonging,’ Ruth has gone to some of our most remote and wild places to pick up on stories that are deeply relevant to our everyday lives.”
“Ruth is extraordinary,” Tudor added. “She’s really touched the lives of a lot of people.”
BRINGING “BELONGING” TO LIFE
The tools of artistic expression that Chase used to accomplish “Belonging” are similar to those used in “West of Lincoln” — community engagement, in-depth discussion, and lots of paint — but “Belonging” goes even further.
In partnership with local cinematographer Radu Sava, Chase interviewed 10 diverse subjects unified by the land to which they have dedicated their lives, among them a rancher, a Cal Fire captain, and a spokesperson for the Nisenan Indians.
The resulting 10 minute film summarizes Chase’s artistic vision of Nevada County: a community of people who have more in common than they don’t.
Chase also found this to be true over the course of a yearlong Facebook initiative, in which each week she posed a question related to “Belonging.” The ensuing discussion, she said, shaped her entire project.
“I’m interacting with real life people who have real life feelings,” she said. “I get to be the participant and the curator at the same time, but it’s totally spontaneous. It has to happen organically.”
“Ultimately, the conversations on Facebook helped with what I chose to portray in the film,” she added. “My most powerful tool as an artist in the community has nothing to do with any of the materials I use. It has to do with communication.”
HOW TO SEE “BELONGING”
The culmination of her project, however, comes down to the first artistic tool to which she gave her life, and for which she is best known: her paintbrush.
“Everything filters through me and sifts down into the paintings,” she said.
These paintings — portraits of her interview subjects and filtered reactions to the subject matter — will be on display at Summer Thyme’s Bakery and Deli in Nevada City from May 2 to July 30.
The exhibition grand opening, during which the short film will be screened, takes place May 20 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Summer Thyme’s. The event is open to the public.
As for Chase, she is just as excited now by the idea of community art as she was back in Venice Beach.
“I see myself continuing on this path,” she said. “I love working in the community and I know my best tool for doing that is though art.”
For more information about Ruth Chase, including her work past and present, visit her website at http://www.ruthchase.com.
Michael Rohm is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.