Ruth Mergi’s journey from law to full-time artist is inspiring.
I was a stay-at-home mom for fourteen years before I decided to try my hand at blogging, writing and photography. It took me a long time to listen to my inner voice and drum up the courage to take the leap and act on my creative endeavors.
Ruth’s heart has always belonged to art. She’s been painting and cutting paper for more than twenty years. These days she devotes herself full-time to creating exquisite works of hand-cut and laser-cut paper art ketubot, home blessings, and fine art.
I hope after you read my interview with Ruth you’ll be inspired to follow your passion in life and work, whatever it may be.
Also, it’s my wedding anniversary today (and Shavuot!). After 17 years, he’s still the guy for me, but pouring over images of Ruth’s beautiful ketubot all week, I’m longing for one of my own. Maybe for our 20th?
Ruth and I spoke last month, and I’m thrilled to share with you some of her art and her life.
Were you always artistic? I’d love to hear about your journey from studying law to committing to making art full time.
I’ve always loved to draw, from childhood and throughout my schooling and young adult years. Art never took center stage for me, however. I did very well in school and was consistently encouraged to dedicate myself to “more serious” pursuits. I remember rather timidly suggesting to my high school guidance counselor that I apply to the Rhode Island School of Design along with all of the Ivy League schools to which I applied (and was not accepted). “You need to apply to ‘real’ schools,” she said.
Once I made it to college—I was lucky enough to eventually attend UC Berkeley—I took advantage of the liberal arts program and made a point of taking as many art classes as I could apart from regular course requirements. I had one instructor, John McNamara, who particularly influenced my work and my thinking about art. He told us to be mindful when painting—and when washing the dishes. Zen and the art of…art. I will never forget him taking me aside one day to chat. He looked me in the eye, and said, “You can do this, you know.” I was not thinking at all at the time about an art career, but John’s conviction and faith in me made a huge impression.
The path from student to law to art was…eclectic, to say the least. It took me more than ten years to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, after I graduated college.
In college, I had majored in rhetoric, which is sort of like philosophy and is just about as practical. After graduating, I moved to Israel, worked at odd jobs for a year, traveled through Europe and India, later moved back to Israel, worked in high tech. I drew and painted constantly. I still have many sketches from that period. I briefly considered applying to Bezalel, the art academy in Jerusalem, but had no portfolio to speak of. Instead I got a job at ABC News, worked on the news desk for a few years, and then decided I wanted to get a PhD. I didn’t trust myself to make it through a master’s and dissertation, however, so I applied to law school instead, figuring it was the shortest path to an academic degree.
I liked law school very much, the intellectual challenge and rigor. I found that I could work harder and at a more sustained pace than I had thought. I particularly enjoyed my legal philosophy classes. But I was never really interested in practicing law. I liked thinking dreamy abstract thoughts and hoped to eventually teach.
And then the kids came along. My son was born the summer before my last semester in law school; we moved back to Israel as soon as I graduated. I spent a year doing some research at Tel Aviv U on a Fulbright, but my heart wasn’t in it. Then my daughter came along, and then another daughter two years later. All along I knew it was time to settle on a career, but I’d lost my taste for academia, and language was a bit of a barrier as well. I looked for work in the nonprofit sector, but nothing seemed a good fit. I knew I wanted to make art—I *needed* to make art—but I didn’t believe that I could really do it.
Then, one day—it was Yom Kippur, actually, 2009—a switch flipped in my head. I just knew “yes, you can.” I made my choice, and I haven’t looked back since.
Where did you grow up? When did you move to Israel?
I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. I spent a gap year in Israel after graduating high school, and then moved to California for college. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I returned to Israel as a counselor for a summer teen tour. That’s when I met my husband, who grew up here.
I returned to Israel after graduating college, and then traveled around for a while. I officially became a citizen in 1999, but then decamped to the US for law school in 2001. We returned in 2005, just over ten years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.
When and how did you decide to design ketubot?
Well, before I decided to make ketubot, I first decided on papercutting. I had first learned papercutting in a high school seminar taught by Maryland artist Tamar Fischman. It was love at first cut. Another papercut artist, Jeanette Kuvin-Oren, who is immensely talented, had designed my sister’s bat mitzvah invitation at around the same time. Then, in college, I did a massive papercut in one of my drawing courses with the gates of Jerusalem’s old city. So I had explored the medium a bit and was open to its possibilities, both in terms of work-for-pay and in creative terms, as well.
At that point, I had three very small children at home, and as much as I loved painting, I chose papercutting as my medium for the very pedestrian reason that paper is a dry medium. I could easily pick up where I’d left off when the babies were napping.
I knew from the start that I was not going to be a hobby artist. I was thirty-five years old and had three children and a mortgage to pay. I was exposed to papercutting as a Jewish cultural art form, and so it was natural for me to look to the Judaica market as a place to sell my art. So I began cutting—with art taking center stage for the first time in my life—and learned as much as I could as quickly as I could, really dedicating myself to a studio practice and exploring the medium.
As luck would have it, not long after I began cutting paper, my sister got engaged, as did my husband’s sister. I made ketubot for them both. That was the start.
Your work is so intricate and beautiful. Can you tell me about your process?
The process definitely starts in my head, long before I enter the studio. Lots of people have asked me over the years about how a lawyer ends up as an artist, and the link is really philosophy, abstraction.
But I’m not a conceptual artist, not by a long shot. I’m not into critique or deconstructing this or that. I studied post-structuralism in college, and it’s clever but horribly tedious as an intellectual pursuit. So I’m not going into the studio with an order to make a point or even ask particular questions. For the most part, my design concept is substantially meditative: I try to clear out the clutter, open my mind, and then stay very disciplined about what I allow in.
All of my designs are studies. I’m testing, if not entirely scientifically. I want to know how basic forms like lines and circles interact. I want to see what happens when we change a variable, when we follow a basic set of rules, such as geometric rules. What happens when we multiply a basic form into a pattern? Math is a significant source of inspiration—math, of course, being closely tied to philosophy. Beauty and truth are closely linked.
I’m always thinking of ways to give physical expression to whatever it is on my mind and trying to allow my mind to form visual thoughts. Those visuals are filtered through the limitations and possibilities of available techniques and media. I’m still just starting out, really, so I try to keep it very simple, very restrained. I’ll let myself go wild one day, but I don’t yet have the vocabulary—or budget!— — to do that effectively. So I puzzle out a design concept that I like, that I can execute. And then I take it into the studio.
Most of my papercutting starts with a drawing, either drawing by hand or rendered digitally. I experiment a lot before picking a design to cut, but my choices are pretty random. It might just depend on my mood on a given day.
Then, all that’s left is the time-consuming work of putting knife to paper. I don’t use any special tools, just a scalpel and a cutting mat. Sometimes cutting is a meditative process, and the time flies by. Sometimes it’s agonizingly tedious. Some work can be completed in a day or a week; some pieces take months to cut out.
How do you manage your time between making art, managing a business, being a mother, wife, etc?
My kids are all in elementary school, so it’s not terribly difficult to balance things at this point. It was much, much harder a few years ago! When they head out to school every morning, I head into the studio. I work nonstop until its time to pick them up in the afternoons. I don’t even stop for lunch! There is too much to do, and I’m pretty driven. Often I pick up where I left off in the evenings, once the mommy shift is done for the day. Although the older they get, the later they go to sleep. So instead I try to fit things in while flitting about from soccer practice to piano lessons and try to use the nighttime to actually get some sleep myself.
My husband, Erez, is a chef. He has a restaurant in Jerusalem and works very long hours. So much of the household work and child-rearing is left to me. On the other hand, I’ve just about stopped cooking. He brings simple food for us to heat and cook during the week, and on the weekends, I let him have the kitchen to himself!
There is always a great deal to do in the studio. Much of the work is not art-making at all, of course. Ruth Mergi Ltd is an LLC, and much of my time is spent running the actual business. I have an assistant, Esther, who helps with most every aspect of the ketubah business, from providing excellent customer service to our clients to packing and shipping ketubahs to couples around the globe. We are also in constant development, upgrading our website or order-processing software. I’m a compulsive researcher—this is the academic background—and make a point to develop some level of expertise in whatever we do. So working might involve exploring some arcane point of Jewish law or testing adhesives or reviewing our email marketing materials. Anyone who runs a small business knows that you have to wear a great many hats and wear them well. I am an artist and designer, but I am also CEO of my little company and am committed to growing the business and providing my clients with the best possible experience.
As the business grows and stabilizes, I’m able to eek out more studio time, which is really wonderful. I am both very driven and highly self-critical—most artists are, I believe. So I’m constantly pushing myself to work harder and produce more interesting, well-developed work. It’s true that I see my works substantially as tests and not particularly high-concept ones, at that. But those tests are part of developing a visual language, which is equal parts technique and design. So the real point is just to develop further, to deepen my explorations. And it takes time to do that.
I have some really exciting work in the pipeline right now and big ideas about how to eventually take things to the next level. The only way to make all of that happen is through hard work and a consistent studio practice, so that’s what I aim for. At the same time, when I’m not working, I’ve learned to really switch off. I spend a lot of time with my children and am very lucky to have a career that makes that possible.
Who inspires you?
My husband inspires me. He’s incredibly hardworking, humble, and decent. We’re both artisans, in a way. We joke that we both work with knives—mine in the studio, and his in the kitchen. Erez’s approach to cooking is very straightforward. He uses the best ingredients and is precise and disciplined in the kitchen. He never lets his ambitions or ego get in the way of the food. Everything he cooks is delicious and accessible: you don’t need to be a “foodie” to appreciate what he cooks. There’s no snobbery or “catch” to it. But if you are a foodie, you’ll be impressed by his focus and restraint, by the seamless execution, by the food-driven approach he takes to cooking: It’s not about some fancy concept. It’s about making a wonderful, memorable, delicious dinner.
This is a wonderful model for art-making, I think. I try to make work that is accessible to everyone, where you don’t need some special cultural knowledge to make sense of it or be in on the joke. Knowledge can deepen your appreciation for art, but beauty is universal. I’m also inspired by my husband’s work ethic and humility and try to live up to the example he sets.
As for artistic inspiration, anything at all can inspire. I see patterns and common threads, and I see them everywhere, whether in nature or when hanging out with my kids or in politics or religion or other artists’ work. I’m inspired by big themes, like Creation and Revelation. But I’m not about to try to express such massive themes in my work! In Hebrew we say, “Gadol Alai.” Too big for me. I am confident of my abilities, on one hand, but on the other, Creation? Revelation? The bigger the idea, the more humility is called for. So, like I said, I’m hoping to develop a personal visual language that gets me to “Aleph, ”the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Not a treatise, not a thesis, not a paragraph or even a word. But if one day, I can develop enough in order to offer up a sort of suspended space, a moment of beauty, just an inward breath, then I’ll have accomplished what I set out to do.
This may be many, many years away, but I am inspired by the journey.
Who are your favorite artists?
Oh, good question! If we’re talking paper artists, Matt Shlian and Jen Stark have done some wonderful work in the past few years. Amy Eisenfeld Gesner, Lane Twitchell, Caroline Jane Harris, Rogan Brown, Tomoko Shioyasu, Bovey Lee, Kris Trappeniers. Faig Ahmed, Yasmin Alaoui, and Anila Quayyum Agha are contemporary artists whose work features Islamic themes—really wonderful work. Of course there are many Islamic geometers whose names I do not know but whose work I study: Eric Broug was the first who introduced me to this field. Alan Adams has deepened my understanding. There are of course many mathematicians and graphic designers whose work I study and consume online, but whose names I cannot know. I love Michael Cina’s work, Andy Gilmore. Tersita Fernandez, who is in another league entirely. For Judaica, I learned a lot from studying Archie Granot’s work. Amalya Nini, Danny Azoulay, Enya Keshet—these are the masters. Agam, of course, is a wonderful inspiration. And Chagall. Matisse. Picasso. There are too many to list.
I thought you might enjoy this video of Ruth talking about her work. For more information check out Ruth’s website at http://www.RuthMergi.com as well as her Etsy shop.