Where other people see desolation, artist Ginny Ruffner sees hope. That was true in 1991, when she was in a car accident and told she’d never walk or talk again, and it’s true today when she hears dire warnings about impending environmental calamities.
“I’ve found that many young people are really nihilistic, really believe in that dystopian future. That’s just not me,” says Ruffner, 67, who managed to reclaim her abilities to walk and talk and — most important — to create art. “I wanted to put out that, in every kind of trauma or horrible incident, there’s always some hope, there’s always something good. So I thought, ‘How can I roll this all together into something visual?’”
What she came up with is an art installation that combines glasswork, painting, drawing and augmented reality. The piece, “Reforestation of the Imagination,” debuts at the Renwick Gallery on Friday and will be on view through Jan. 5.
At first glance, Ruffner’s installation looks like a barren wasteland — an archipelago of brown islands rising from the floor, each landmass studded with a few glass stumps. But if you download the “Reforestation of the Imagination” app and then hold your phone or tablet up to any of the stumps, a fantastical plant springs to life on your device. This magic happens by way of hand-painted QR codes that looks like tree rings.
To learn more about the flora, visitors can consult a field guide. The booklet, written and illustrated by Ruffner, explains the origins of the strange plants she’s dreamed up, complete with scientific names. For instance, the flapping tulip (Liriodendrum plausus) is a pink flower with fish for leaves — the unintended but lovely result of a 21st-century gene-splicing experiment meant to increase stem flexibility.
Other imaginary plants have adapted to the Anthropocene by beguiling “human pollinators” with their beauty. The double art flower (Digitalis artherium), for instance, looks like a foxglove with modern art painted on its petals. The field guide explains that it blooms once a month, for only one evening — a gentle ribbing of the practice of having art openings about once a month, Ruffner says.
“I put some little jokes in there for people to find,” she says.
The hardest part of creating “Reforestation of the Imagination” was learning how do a little computer programming for the augmented reality component, Ruffner says. “I am not a digital native, but I thought it was important for me to learn,” she says. Most of the AR work was done by Grant Kirkpatrick, a digital artist who, like Ruffner, is based in Seattle. Ruffner, whose mobility is still limited from her accident, also had assistance from other artists who helped her create the glass stumps and islands.
While Ruffner takes joy in the resilience of nature, she isn’t out to ease anyone’s anxiety about climate change — rather, she aims to encourage people to persevere in seemingly hopeless situations.
“You just never know what is going to happen,” she says. “Even if there’s an apocalypse, maybe life will evolve, and maybe it will be really beautiful.”