Artist Ellen Rutt Is Painting Detroit, and the Rest of the World, Too

From abandoned structures to basketball courts, Rutt prefers painting concrete over canvas
Photograph Courtesy of Ellen Rutt

Ellen Rutt’s multimedia collages can be found in some of the most unlikely places: take the bathroom tiles in Grand Rapids’ Calder Plaza, for example, or the basketball courts in Campus Martius. The 29-year-old Detroit artist favors concrete floors and ceramic slate over an easel and canvas. Her large scale, geometric, and warm-colored murals are scattered around world, in places like Saint Nazaire, France, Chicago and New York City — which have earned her a following of 24,000 Instagrammers, many of them snapping pictures in front of her creations. She got her big start in the spring of 2013 at Detroit’s Red Bull House of Art, an artist residency program that exposed Rutt’s work to locals. In 2015, the artist joined the team of Detroit’s 1xRun, which prints limited-edition time-released art prints and originals. She was assigned to envision the branding for Eastern Market’s mural festival, Mural in the Market, in 2016, along with designing her own space in the showing. It was after this assignment that Rutt pursued being a full-time artist. We caught up with Rutt to learn more about her creative process.

Hour Detroit: Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Ellen Rutt: I have always loved making things, from the time I was little. Throughout elementary and middle school, I received a Waldorf education — a curriculum that focuses on developing artistic abilities, along with practical skills, and intellectuality. Spending a lot of time outside, gardening and knitting, things like that, fostered my interest in creating. For a long time, I definitely felt uncomfortable calling myself an artist with a capital “A.” It’s a label that I continue to struggle with. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with it.

Why are you apprehensive to call yourself an artist?
Well, I should say that I’ve become more comfortable with the idea. As someone who didn’t grow up in an affluent family, the artists that I would see in museums as a child were, and still are, predominantly white males that are part of a world that seems totally unattainable. What I was making didn’t necessarily resemble what I saw. In my mind, in order to be an artist, you had to have a big gallery show, been published and featured in museums, received recognition … things like that. Even a great list of contacts seemed so prestigious.

How did you develop your own artistic style?
At the University of Michigan, I specialized in painting and graphic design — a hybrid that has remained steadfast is my aesthetic. What I mean by that is there’s a design approach to what I do, and there’s this free-form art approach. The design side of my brain likes to sketch something out and then execute a plan. On the other side, there is a part of me that really enjoys just starting somewhere and then making a mark and responding to that. In the end, I have no idea what it’s going to look like. I think that the marriage of those two is the crux of what I find to be relevant in both my life and my work.

What does your method of creation look like? 
I integrate a lot of painting and collage elements together. My compositions exist both on a two-dimensional plane on a canvas, and then are extruded into the three-dimensional field, where they are brought into real space. Using plywood and materials that have a larger scale and bigger presence than just paint on canvas is something that interests me. I’ve created a vocabulary of shapes that can be used over and over again to create different meaning in a different context.

You eventually transitioned to large spaces and building exteriors, painting basketball courts and bathroom tiles. Do you prefer these over a wooden canvas?
Working on strange surfaces is what I enjoy the most. Public art shows that the city is cared for, it’s an expression that a space is loved, or that people are investing in it. When people have historically abandoned Detroit or neglected it, artwork is way of saying that Detroit is still valuable.

What metro Detroit artists do you love? Tell us in the comments below?

Related: Exploring MOCAD’s Upcoming Exhibit Useless Utility