NEW! | THRIVE: Alumni Q&A

The Savannah College of Art and Design Painting Department is pleased to announce the launch of THRIVE: A student-centered initiative featuring interviews with SCAD alumni who earned a BFA, MFA or MA in Painting and are currently working in the professional field. Engaging students’ intellects and imaginations with on-going conversations between students currently enrolled at SCAD and the global SCAD alumni network.

In honor of alumni weekend (April 25-26) the first interview with SCAD Alumnus William Ruller can be found below and under the About>Alumni>THRIVE: Alumni Q&A tabs found at the top of the Painting Department Blog.


Crash and Burn, or Do Something With It: A Conversation with SCAD Alumnus William Ruller

Funerary5 William Ruller, Funerary 5, 52 x 80 inches, Mixed media on paper, 2013

By Madeleine Peck Wagner

William Ruller received his MFA in Painting from SCAD, Savannah, GA in 2013. Directly after school, he went to Eugene Contemporary Art’s artist residency, Public Process 5 in Eugene, Oregon. Ruller, whose works are an investigation and meditation on industry, decay, and nostalgia, said that for him, the residency was an important part of moving away from the feedback of students and faculty and into the realm of personal responsibility.

Materially, Ruller primarily uses paper, oil pigment, and clay. His works are often large scale, edging towards the monolithic, as he notes in his thesis “I wanted something that looked like I had actually just dragged it out of the earth, or peeled it off a wall.” Atmospheric, with subtle shifts in color and texture, the new works were displayed with a thin self of detritus just below them. The effect is one of accumulation and preservation, serving to reinforce the ruined yet compassionate aspect of his work.

Below is the edited transcript of a conversation with Ruller about his residency, and his work. Like him, the conversation is straightforward and devoid of extraneous flourishes—almost monastic.

MPW:  The residency you had was in Eugene, Oregon. Can you talk about how you got the residency, and why it was important for you to do this, just as you finished your graduate degree?

Ruller:  I got the residency by applying for it. The application process was rather simple. You just had to come up with a proposal and send in some images, if they liked what they saw they went with it. As far as its importance, I would have to say that getting out of the confines of the school was important to me. As a grad student, I think you can become very dependent on feedback from student and faculty. So for me I wanted to be forced into a situation that made me make work under pressure, this wasn’t for a grade it was real, and to see if I would crash and burn or do something with it.

MPW:  You are a highly productive artist. Can you talk about your strategy for working at the residency…How did you prepare, what did you bring? 

Ruller:  I produced the base layers of the painting in Savannah because I didn’t want to walk in blind with no real sense of where the work should go. And I had a lot of drawings and notes about ideas of what the end result should be. Doing this allowed me to walk in the door and start working that day. I had my paint and some brushes shipped, so they were there when I got there. I think you should be prepared to work. You are allotted this amount of time to make something and to squander that is just a waste.

MPW:  In your thesis you talk about sludge and glory; youth and homecoming; failure and monastic immersion. Can you talk about these ideas in relation to the work you produced while in Eugene? 

Ruller:  In the Eugene Residency you are alone to do something with the space, so the monastic aspect was fully there. I was alone in the space every morning at 8 a.m. and left at 5 p.m. The aspects of youth and homecoming didn’t play any real role in the work I did there. I was more interested in the juxtaposition of Eugene and its neighboring town Springfield and how industry had collapsed and killed Springfield, whereas Eugene thrived. This idea was connected to my thesis work but for the residency became much more site specific.

MPW:  Can you talk a little more about the Eugene, Springfield connection/disconnect?

Ruller:  The city of Springfield was, from what I assume, the more blue-collar area. Most of the logging mills and other factories use to be there, like most places in the 1980’s after the economic downturn it all dried up and moved overseas leaving empty buildings and an economic roof on most of the households. Eugene, on the other hand, due to the University of Oregon stayed this middle-upper class area, coffee shops, boutiques and whatnot. Where literally Springfield has nothing but strip clubs. Visually the places are also very different Eugene is very green and seemingly happy, Springfield, on the other hand, is just grey even on a sunny day its just sad, like a cloud of melancholy just hangs over it.

MPW:  Building off the above topics, your practice involves several steps and specific materials used in a specific manner…Can you talk about how you set up a temporary workspace while your process might be seen to be grounded in the need for specific things, you also talk a lot about risk-taking in the work itself…how does this translate in a new space? 

Ruller:  My materials are for the most part pretty easy to come across. I can find clay and oil paint mostly anywhere. I didn’t have access to a ceramics studio, so I altered the clay by hand as opposed to a wheel, which is usually what I do. The process itself changed a little but not by much. I had a space, paint and something to paint on, so I didn’t really need anything else. The work, on the other hand, I wanted to be my work and in the way I make it but not the outcome that I usually have. I felt that being in a new space gave me a certain freedom to just change a little. I started building structures in the work ground it more into actual landscape. Where as before I feel I always painted a landscape of a memory. Which to me was so exciting and different that I haven’t changed since. I don’t know if that answered your question or not.

MPW:  You mentioned building structures into the work, is this an organic evolution, or something you put off until after grad school?

Ruller:  Grad School was amazing for me. I had 24 hour access to a studio, so I was able to work through ideas that I feel I had been sitting on for years but didn’t really understand were there. With the idea of waiting until I was done or almost done to investigate structures within my work really was more out of the change of place. Working within an environment that becomes home or a place you feel okay with sometimes—and I think its true in my case—becomes safe. I need something or someplace that makes me feel not at home to push me to get something started. Which is why I chose SCAD, the south to me was the best place to feel uncomfortable. So I think I waited for the time to be right to make a shift.                     

MPW:  What did you take away from the experience that was most resonant for you? What was the most unexpected aspect of it? 

Ruller:  The most important thing I took away from the residency was realizing how much I could actually produce. Besides doing the work for the residency, I did a wood firing of some work along with producing a bunch of work for some people up in Portland. Having these deadlines while also being very critical about the work gave me a real understanding of what was possible. And it sounds very corny but it’s very true. You can make work that you fully believe in and then present it in the manner that you and I want to emphasize you, want it. This gets you to think not just about the work in the studio but what it will be once its, given out to the world. Gaining a real understanding about myself artistically to me is the most important thing that I got out of the residency.

MPW:  So, where are you now, and what are you doing?

Ruller:  At the moment I am in Santa Fe working for a glass company dealing with their kilns and selling glass to rich middle-age folk who need a hobby. I am still working; I have a studio off my apartment, and I paint pretty regularly. Career wise, I am just pushing along. I lost my representation I had in Portland but have been doing group shows and whatnot.

The need and desire to make work outside of the structure of school is an eventuality that every student must face. Largely, it is a solitary problem requiring a solitary solution. The idea of a residency-as-solution is elegant and smart, shifting the focus away from the classroom model, yet still within a supportive, intellectually curious, and challenging environment. It is that balance, between curiosity and productivity that is so supported in school, that must be propagated in the wider world. In fact, that is the charge and duty of the artist: to always find a way.

For more information on William Ruller, visit or pick up the newest issue of New American Paintings, volume #111.

Madeleine Peck-Wagner (United States, 1977) received an BFA from Clark University and is currently a candidate for an MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her practice focuses on drawing, and currently she an assistant editor for the SCAD Painting Department’s blog and digital publishing platforms including THRIVE: A student-centered initiative featuring interviews with SCAD alumni.

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