Reynold Ruffins: Turning to the Easel

lllustration by Reynold Ruffins.
Illustration by Reynold Ruffins.

By Annette Hinkle

The art of Reynold Ruffins is unmistakable. An illustrator by trade, a painter by passion, Ruffins was the artist behind the often quirky and always iconic imagery used in literature and posters advertising events for the now defunct organization CONPOSH (Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor).

This month, 20 or so of Ruffins colorful illustrations are on view in an exhibition at the John Jermain Memorial Library on West Water Street in Sag Harbor. A reception for the show, “A Retrospective of Illustrations,” will be held this Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m.

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” says Ruffins when asked if it was his first career choice. “Luckily, my father encouraged it. He didn’t ever think I’d make a living at it though, so on his death bed he said to take the civil service exams for the fire department and the police department.”

But as a senior in high school, Ruffins also took the two admission tests required for Cooper Union. His father died between the time of the first test and the second test.

“I was talking to him the whole time, saying this is for you Dad,” recalls Ruffins.

Though Ruffins is known locally as the CONPOSH artist, his real claim to fame was as a founder of the renowned Push Pin Studios, a graphic design and illustration studio formed by a group of Cooper Union graduates in New York City in 1954. As an African-American, Ruffins was something of a rarity in the world of illustration back then, and the nature of the work meant that often Ruffins was hired sight unseen on the strength of his portfolio.

“After finishing a job I’d go meet an art director and there would be some surprises,” grins Ruffins. “One time I finished a big job — both physically and financially — and had my portfolio under my arm. I was feeling so good. The receptionist looked up and said, ‘The mailroom’s that way.’’

“The assumption was if you were black, you were delivering something,” he adds.

These days, Ruffins is well known in the world of illustration — but it’s a form he is no longer actively producing. Now he’d rather focus on what he refers to as “easel painting.”

“The difference between illustration and easel painting is that illustration grows out of a need to accompany an already existing story or text of some sort,” explains Ruffins. “It could be stained glass windows or the masterpieces from cathedrals — there’s a story behind all of that wonderful work.”

“Most of those people were commissioned and followed a text or a story,” he adds. “That’s what the modern illustrators do too. They are augmenting a text.”

Because of that, illustration today can be fun and whimsical — but it has a serious job to do and that is complete a writer’s vision.

“You’re fulfilling someone else’s desire or needs, so you have a responsibility of following their story, unlike the easel painter who chooses his own subject and feelings at any particular time,” says Ruffins.

In many ways, the two are mutually exclusive. Being confined by the story, the audience, the publication or consistency required of illustration can actually be liberating in some sense notes Ruffins — the constraints are in place which helps define the vision.

“A painter has the hard job of finding what it is that will most closely express the way they’re feeling at the time with no external constraints,” says Ruffins. “It was important to me not to have my illustration work mixed at all with my painting. When I was illustrating, I thought, ‘I’ll illustrate during the week and paint on the weekends’ — and that doesn’t work because I think to do either one well, you have to be fully involved and a weekend is not long enough to be fully involved in a painting.”

So during his long career as an illustrator — for children’s books, trade magazines, advertisements and posters — Ruffins didn’t work as a painter at all.

“I didn’t consciously put it off, it just didn’t work so I didn’t do it,” he says. “I was in a different mindset. For years I was in the habit and trained to not second guess, but interpret what the client needed. Whatever I was doing had some relationship to a story that had to be told. To think abstractly and not have what I was doing detached from a narrative, I found difficult.”

The transition from illustrator to easel painter came 20 years ago or so when Ruffins and his late wife, Joan, moved to Sag Harbor.

“I guess maybe I’d say I gave up illustration 15 years ago,” notes Ruffins. “By ‘gave it up’ I mean I wasn’t getting any new work and I wasn’t looking for any.”

While Ruffins illustrations are nearly always figurative in nature — bright and busy parade scenes, cheerful streetscapes or artfully rendered imagery of animals and fanciful creatures, the themes of his easel paintings are anything but representational.

“Often they are just abstractions with no narrative,” he says. “On the other hand, there’s almost always a theme lurking in the back of my mind. They tend to be in series. I’m not wedded to one style, but I do see similarity in my own work.”

When asked if he finds his work therapeutic, Ruffins responds, “I’ve had the good fortune of almost always enjoying my work, some less of course than others. I probably work harder at easel painting than I did as illustrator because I had the constraints and the need to satisfy the client.”

“although it can be helpful to know what you can’t do,” he adds thoughtfully.

 “A Retrospective of Illustrations” Reynold Ruffins is on view through January 17 at the John Jermain Memorial Library, 4 West Water Street, Sag Harbor. The show opens with a reception this Saturday, December 14, 2013 from 3 to 5 p.m. Call 725-0049 for more information.