Karen Ruane Lets Go With Fluid Art

karen ruane, the wilds

For artist Karen Ruane, marbling is a meditative art

written by Sheila G. Miller photos by Charlotte DuPont

karen ruane, the wilds To watch Karen Ruane work with paint and ink is to go into a sort of trance. Her hands gracefully manipulate the liquids, every motion fluid. She works quickly but thoughtfully, no hesitation or jerky starts and stops. Working primarily in marbling and alcohol ink, this is a woman who knows how to let go.

Ruane makes her work look easy, but it’s a product of years of study and practice. Art was in her blood from the start.

“I was that high school chick dressed all in black with paint all over my boots,” she said recently at The Wilds, a creative co-working space in Bend. She looked down at her spattered boots. “I guess I still am!”

At the University of Arizona, Ruane first studied art education before switching to focus on studio art and graphic design. From there, she married and started a family. Fifteen years later she has two children—13 and 6—but art always occupied a big spot in her life.

“I always did something,” Ruane said. “I was compelled to be creative.”

About three years ago, she decided to try to make her way as a full-time artist. She began devoting at least six hours a day to her craft.

In her early days as a teen and college-aged artist, Ruane focused on traditional painting. She found herself becoming obsessed—she had to finish her paintings in one session, so she’d end up sitting for twelve hours in front of a canvas. Besides leaving her with an aching back, an empty stomach and a pounding headache, she also knew she couldn’t put in that sort of uninterrupted time when she had kids. About five years ago, Ruane was at a street fair when she saw a live marbling demonstration. She was mesmerized, she said. “Watching the paint move, the colors push against each other without mixing, I just fell in love with the fact that I’m in control of what I put down, and then I have to let go.”

After moving to Bend from California, Ruane co-founded The Wilds in October 2015 and worked with her marbling supplies in a studio space there. Shortly thereafter, the marketing manager at Deschutes Brewery came by for a tour, and Ruane showed him the various studios. She initially skipped hers, thinking he wouldn’t be interested. Nonetheless, he spotted her work and she explained the process. Soon thereafter, he offered her the opportunity to create the brewery’s Jubelale label.

The annual Jubelale label is Central Oregonians’ sign that winter is coming. Since 1995, the brewery has commissioned a regional artist to create original artwork for the labels of the seasonal ale.

Ruane’s 2016 Jubelale label is an enchanting marbling design of blues, greys and whites, with hints of red, orange and yellow mixed in. It feels like a snowy evening spent in front of a fire outside a local brewery.

“I got a lot of good attention,” Ruane said of the beer label. “Now I have to learn to say no to some things. I really want to love the work I’m doing.”

Marbling is beautiful, but it isn’t cheap or easy. Artists create patterns with tools pushing around colors floating on a viscous solution, then transferring it to absorbent paper. It requires a variety of chemicals and it takes two days for Ruane to set up, then two days before the solution starts to stink. 

Ruane decided she wanted to find something that would provide a bit more instant gratification but something that had the same fluid feeling. She quickly picked up alcohol inks.

With alcohol inks, she can finish pieces in less time. Recently, she made three pieces she thought might sell. Using her Instagram account, she put them up for sale. They sold in ten minutes. She did the same thing the next day, and again they sold quickly. Two and a half weeks later, she’d made twenty of the paintings and sold all of them. Now she’s moved into commissions.

While Ruane does a number of different types of art, she always comes back to what she calls “fluid media.”

“You don’t have a lot of control over how it comes together,” she said.

“You have to let go of it. I’m a type A personality, and this forces me to go with the flow. The art is like a meditation to me.”

karen ruane, the wilds

She has added First Friday shows and solo shows around Bend, recently performed live marbling at a Worlds Fair Nano event in San Francisco. She’s hoping to branch out to show her work in Portland and back in San Francisco.

Ruane is now letting her art run across other forms, launching a lifestyle brand using her marbling designs—kimonos, yoga gear, table runners. ““I don’t want to look like I’m a creative scatterbrain,” she said. “I want my work to be cohesive. I have what I call creative wanderlust.” But she’ll always come back to marbling. “Marbling is my base. It’s therapeutic.”


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