Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner thinks a lot about the hows and whys of making art, a process at the core of her traveling exhibition "Creativity...

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Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner thinks a lot about the hows and whys of making art, a process at the core of her traveling exhibition “Creativity: The Flowering Tornado,” on view at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.

Ruffner, 53, is a native of Georgia and an innovator in the Northwest studio glass movement who taught the first flame-working class at Pilchuck Glass School in 1984. In the often-macho glass crowd, she stood out with her witty, provocative, lamp-worked sculptures (a technique for heating and shaping rods of glass), which Ruffner favored over the blown-glass vessels Dale Chihuly and many of his followers were making. She devised a distinctive, often sexy style of looping and painting the glass into voluptuously feminine displays that referenced art history and told stories through the arrangements of figures, flowers, fruit and assorted icons.

Devastating setback

Then in 1991, with her national reputation on the rise, Ruffner’s life and career were interrupted. A devastating car wreck left her in a coma for five weeks, in the hospital for five months and in a wheelchair for five years. “Some people need a smack upside the head to pay attention,” Ruffner jokes. “I needed a really big one.”

Doctors, who at first hadn’t expected her to live, later predicted she would never walk or talk again. Boy, were they ever wrong!

“I had to learn to talk so I could tell them to drop dead,” Ruffner says. And that, be assured, is one of her more polite ways of putting it.

Not only did Ruffner have to relearn the basics of movement and speech, but the fundamentals of her personality. She didn’t remember that she was an artist, much less what her work was like or why she made it. She read books about herself, leafing through the pictures, trying to reabsorb the person she had once been.

“Creativity: The Flowering Tornado: Art by Ginny Ruffner,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays- Saturdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays of each month, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 27, Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma; $10 general, $8 seniors, military and students, $4 children, free for members and children under 6 (free admission 5-8 p.m. the third Thursday of each month (866-4MUSEUM or www.museumofglass.org).

“Ginny Ruffner: Recent Sculpture,” 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through July 30, Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery, 2101 Ninth Ave., Seattle (206-622-7243 or woodsidebrasethgallery.com).

“Creativity: The Flowering Tornado” traces the development of Ruffner’s sculptural work since 1994, after she jump-started her career and carried on. The exhibition was initiated in 2003 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama and has been on national tour since. The Museum of Glass is its seventh, and final, venue.

“More about joy”

One piece in the show, “An X-Ray Vision,” from 1988 was selected as an example of Ruff-ner’s pre-accident style, to show how she picked up where she left off with her intricate lamp-worked sculptures.

As she started up again, the 1994 piece, “It’s All in How You View It,” included an image of a wheelchair with a big blue wing that obviously references Ruffner’s physical condition at the time. Yet her motivation in making it was something else. “I really wanted to not make work about recovering, I wanted to make work more about joy,” Ruffner insists. “I prefer to focus on what is possible, what can be done.”

As a glass artist, Ruffner has always relied on a team approach to art making, with studio assistants to help actualize her designs. Since the car wreck, she has been forced to turn over more of the work. “Before the accident, it was choice; after the accident, it was a necessity,” Ruffner says. But she’s quick to add, “Any artist as they get busier requires more help. Most people don’t know that Michelangelo, when he did the Sistine chapel, had 50 assistants.” Ruffner makes do with two part-time artist-assistants.

Much of the sculpture she has created in recent years has gotten bigger and heavier. Ruffner has moved on to organic abstractions fabricated in metal and cradling baubles of blown glass. There’s an inherent tension in the materials, which read as metaphors for the strength and fragility of human body and spirit.

Even without the exuberant color of her earlier work, the metal and glass have a curvy, feminine verve that characterizes Ruffner’s style — not to mention the halo of untamable curls that frames her face.

Loving excess

In one of the recent sculptures on display this month at Woodside/Braseth Gallery in Seattle, Ruffner actually makes the connection between her sculptural imagery and her springy hair. “Self-Portrait in Bronze and Glass” is one of several bronze and glass sculptures that appear to be jazzy riffs on personality.

In home décor and in her art, Ruffner loves excess. She proceeds with an over-the-top abandon that may not suit everybody, but comes straight from the heart.

The main part of the Tacoma show reaches in a new direction for Ruffner. It’s an allegorical, large-scale sculptural installation called “Creativity: The Flowering Tornado,” a symmetrical group of six huge, gold-painted picture frames, each encasing a symbolic object that, for Ruffner, exemplifies the road to creativity. The frames flank a towering, winged tornado — the force of imagination.

For Ruffner, the grand scale of the images is part of the message. “It’s bigger than you. You become a part of the art,” she said. “You cannot possess any one object; you can’t put your arms around an object. You can’t ignore it; you have to deal with it. The installation in general is to let me pontificate about a particular process.”

To harness the unruly force of creativity, Ruffner’s rules are:

• Don’t get tied up in small stuff.

• Avoid self-judgment.

• Be aware of beauty.

• Avoid the trap of fear.

• Have courage with your imagination.

• Put your will into action.

For those who want a handy bit of how-to to take home from the show, Ruffner has a most unexpected exhibition catalog that spells it all out — with the addition of a fantastic pop-up “gallery” of illustrations engineered by Bruce Foster of Houston. Don’t go thinking, though, that because it’s a pop-up book, it’s aimed at children. Ruffner will set you straight.

“It’s like anything that might create awe is bound to be for kids,” she says dismissively. “I thought a pop-up would be perfect because it’s a great combo of two of my favorite things, language and sculptural form. As you know, when you want somebody to pay attention you have to make it unusual.”

Ruffner is the first to admit that she might come across as more than a little didactic in her approach to the subject of creativity. “I am really being bossy with it. I try not to proselytize too much, but I do have a tendency to be bossy,” she says.

I wouldn’t argue with her. But let me add that I have known Ruffner since the late 1980s and watched her roar through life and over incredible obstacles with fierce tenacity and joyful humor, never pausing to fret about the odds of success.

She just goes ahead and makes things happen. In the case of “Creativity: The Flowering Tornado,” her goal is specific — and it involves you and me, or anybody else who sets foot inside the museum to take a look.

“I would like to make the viewer think,” she says. “I don’t want to tell them what to think, just to think … Even if it’s just, what the hell is she trying to say here?”

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com