Interview: Ruth Kates, Newton artist

Shop Girl by Kitty Kaufman

Ruth Kates is a master of life drawing. A necessary discipline for artists, her drop-in figure drawing sessions at the Brookline Arts Center are termed "the best." Other open classes come and go having to contend with unreliable models, institutions and scheduling. Hers, however, endure drawing a mix of serious artists.

Kates also paints and she describes her style as contemporary impressionism. She says that she loves the color of the Impressionists but "I don't paint like that. And you change. I was much freer, much looser years ago." She went back to school at 46 earning an undergrad degree in painting and a graduate degree in teaching from Mass College of Art.

Although she may not agree, I see the influence of Manet, Degas and Sargent in her work. Like theirs, her paintings are bright, filled with primary colors capturing great light. Her portraits in charcoal, pastels and oil render warmth, sensitivity and consummate attention to detail. Many were done in a minute or two and they are, she says, "fast poses."

Ruth Kates: Are you a painter?

KK: No, I'm a tap dancer.

When did you know you were an artist?
When I was a little kid in Chelsea, the principal called my mother in and asked if she was willing to send me to the Museum School on Saturdays. She said yes and so I went there by myself. Maybe I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. Kitty, let me explain something to you. When I was young, there was no money, nothing. I never had a doll, I never had a bicycle so I had a pencil and I had paper. I started drawing.

When I graduated from Chelsea high school, I was given a scholarship to Mass College of Art. I didn't take it, I went to work. Then I got married and had my children. Many years later, I ran into a classmate who had been at the Museum School with me. His name was Tom O'Hara. He had become a professor at Mass Art and he asked, "Why don't you try to get in now?" I said I can't do it full-time. Essentially, I was a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a wife, and mother and that consumed me. The College asked me to give it a try so I did. That was in the seventies.

Saturday mornings, O'Hara also suggested taking Margaret Fitzhugh Browne's classes on Ipswich Street. My husband took care of the kids. The first year I painted 11 portraits. I got all my relatives in: my father, my mother, and my nieces. They got to pose. Miss Browne said I could come back in the afternoon and she would set up a still life for me, so I got to paint all day Saturday.

Who gives you inspiration?
Paul Rahilly is my mentor. We met when his wife Janet Monafo was painting with me at Mass Art. I was so intrigued with him and his work.

What is it about his work?
Well, he painted like [John Singer] Sargent at that time.

Your life drawing class at the Brookline Arts Center: in the course listing it says "no instruction."
There is no instruction. It's a drop-in group for artists. We start with fast poses - we go from two minutes to a half-hour.

Someone told me you run the best figure drawing sessions: one of the oldest ongoing classes.
It is. We have a good time. We have a small, comfortable, serious group that keeps coming back.

Where do they find models?
I do that. There are lists of people who model and I only hire the ones who are responsible. Some of them have been with me for years. One woman disappointed me twice; I would never hire her again. I could write a book on models.

What makes a good model?
A dancer, of course, and last week we had a pregnant woman; it's kind of fun to do a pregnant woman. Most people say, 'How could she?' How could you do nude people? You don't look at the genitals, you look at the movement. It's a whole different concept when an artist looks at a nude model. It's interesting because years ago, men had to wear jock straps and now they don't. But women didn't.

So artists aren't uncomfortable with nude models and the models don't mind?
When I was taking life classes in the '70s, I remember there was this guy, a model, who would oil his whole body up and then during rest periods, he would walk all around the students.

To see what they were doing or to show off?
No, to show off. So he was a nut case.

Any other good model stories?
I have one guy now. He is a great model. He thinks he's Jesus Christ. And you know I still have a drawing of Rosalie who was a life model at BU. She started in the '40s, she was very serious and modeled for all the schools. BU honored her when she retired.

Why did she retire?
She was too old! You know, she would pose naked but she always wore Oxfords. Do you know what Oxfords are? It was hysterical. Rosalie was Jewish, how many Jewish models do you think there are? Not many.

This art really appeals to me. I can see your collection some place special. If you could have your dream, what is it?
A museum, of course, that's everyone's dream.

So when I leave, will you start painting?
No, I have other things to do. I was brought up, you're probably too young to know, that you had to do what you had to do before you could do what you want to do.

Maybe that makes it more special?
You know what? Right now I am dying to paint. There's a lot going on this year. I wish I could work every day but I can't.

© Spring 2007 for Our Town Brookline
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