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Arts & Culture

Katie Ruiz paints magic portals to reimagine the border

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Katie Ruiz
"Seeking Asylum" is a work of oil and silver leaf on canvas by Katie Ruiz, and will be on view at Keller Gallery Nov. 8 through Dec. 3, 2021.

In a new solo exhibition, a San Diego artist envisions a portal that allows people to cross the border at will — exploring immigration and what it means to feel safe and sheltered.

It's likely that you've seen Katie Ruiz's work in San Diego in recent years. In addition to a children's book, she painted a massive mural at the entrance to the New Children's Museum, and adorned the Oceanside Museum of Art's front facade with a temporary rainbow installation made of hand-made, crowd-sourced yarn pompoms — among other projects. Her work is often community-facing and approachable.

"I didn't really feel that things were accessible to me growing up, except for one version of one story. So I wrote a children's book that deals with death and life cycles because there wasn't one that I could see that resonated with me. And the messages are all the same. The pompom project works with children, adults, everybody, because art is a universal language and I try to find that space where everyone can talk about it," Ruiz said.

Ruiz has a new solo exhibition, "Border Portals," opening this week at Point Loma Nazarene University's Keller Gallery, curated by David Carlson. The exhibition builds on the universality with thirteen new paintings and sculptural works exploring immigration and border issues.

Katie Ruiz: 'Border Portals'
On view Nov. 8 through Dec. 3, 2021
Keller Gallery at PLNU (3900 Lomaland Dr.)
Opening reception: Nov. 9 from 5-7 p.m.
Gallery hours: Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Her work with children and the NCM inspired her to be more playful and creative in her understanding of what welcome means. So she summoned a sense of magic: an imaginary portal.

"I imagined a portal, an imaginary portal that opens at the border to transport people back and forth," Ruiz said.

Many of Ruiz's prior works focus on the use of blankets — often adorned with patterns, and usually covering or obscuring the subject's face. Blankets are often seen as an object of comfort and warmth, sometimes of home or shelter, and sometimes even an ancestral heirloom.

"The original blanket paintings were all about sharing an intimate space under a blanket and feeling safe and warm, and how blankets are used for so many different things and cultures, wrapping your baby in it or carrying a loved one or even burying a loved one. And then the textiles also have a different narrative that can weave — pun intended — into the story," Ruiz said.

In the works in her new exhibition, the blanket in question is an emergency blanket, broadening her themes to cover safety as well as a fragility of belonging: emergency blankets are used in lieu of other safety, in lieu of other warmth or in lieu of a home.

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Katie Ruiz
"American Dream" by Katie Ruiz (oil on canvas with Mylar), on view at Keller Gallery through Dec. 3, 2021.

She was particularly informed by the situation at the US-Mexico border, with countless asylum seekers still awaiting refuge, as well as work she did with asylum seekers at the San Diego Convention Center — and the silvery, metalized plastic (mylar) blankets commonly provided in emergencies.

"So what I ended up thinking about was how fragile that blanket is, the emergency blankets, just this little silver film that is meant to be disposable. And so the first thing I did was take one of those blankets and paint the symbols of traditional textiles that I learned from Oaxaca — protection symbols and some different symbols that I felt were important to put onto the blanket as my way of saying I feel helpless about the situation," Ruiz said.

Several works in Katie Ruiz's "Border Portals" exhibition at Keller Gallery
Katie Ruiz
Several works in Katie Ruiz's "Border Portals" exhibition at Keller Gallery in a Nov. 8, 2021 photo.

Ruiz said that the use of emergency blankets in her work is also intended to consider what blankets mean, whether they're high-tech, disposable or handmade.

"And there are cultures who come from Latin America and from Haiti and from all over who spend hours putting time into embroidering and dying and creating the wool that goes into these blankets only to come to this country and be handed like a 99 cent disposable blanket," she said.

In her previous blanket works, Ruiz painted brightly colored blankets to cover the heads of her subjects — usually two people, sometimes walking together, or sometimes while embracing or in bed. The subjects were obscured on purpose.

"That's why the blankets are over the heads of people, because it makes them autonomous, meaning people can sort of see themselves in the paintings," she said.

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Katie Ruiz
Katie Ruiz's "Moon Portal" is on view through Dec. 3, 2021 at Keller Gallery.

Other works include vivid archways through to stark opposites — raindrops portal to a blue sky, the border fence portals to a serene natural landscape. Ruiz's distinct use of color threads through each piece, and some of the portal paintings are embellished with Mylar or silver leaf, a unifying nod to the emergency blankets.

The exhibition is on view through Dec. 3.