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Hometown Heroes: Artist Ellen Rutt

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OK, it’s official: We love Detroit—and not just because our new store is opening there (nudge nudge). We’ve also met so many inspiring locals like Ellen Rutt, who makes incredible art of all kinds—wall murals, prints, sweatshirts, live performances, to name a few. We visited her dream of a studio to talk about creative process, advice for people just starting out and more.

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Have you always been an artist? What made you decide to pursue it full time?

I’ve always loved making things but didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a capital “A” Artist. I’ve often wondered what makes something art or not. Who decides? Ultimately, I’m pretty sure the secret is that it’s art if you say it’s art.

I decided to become a full-time artist when I was working as a graphic designer in a windowless cubicle doing brochure layouts and thought, “I gotta get outta here.” Discomfort is a pretty incredible motivator. That job taught me how to be disciplined and make time for my art, even when I was exhausted, which eventually enabled me to pursue my own creative practice full time.

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We love how your work ranges from huge wall murals to small pillows and prints. Do you prefer large scale projects over small scale, or vice versa?

Everything exists in an infinitely reinforcing spiral for me—a pile of scrap paper in my studio inspires a pillow design, which turns into part of a mural and then the mural is reincarnated as a sweatshirt which is worn during a performance, and on and on in an endless conversation between materials and movement, places and process.

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We love that idea. So what’s a typical day in the studio like?

I wake up around 8am, make coffee, write in my journal, check emails and listen to the news. I do this part at home and then head into my studio where I immediately spend a few minutes distracting my studio mate Patrick, a genius computer-brained person who makes mind-blowing LED art!

Then depending on what projects are coming up I spend the rest of the day designing murals, cutting wood, sewing costumes or making paintings, collages and other 2-D works.

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Is there anything special you like to have around while you work? Music, snacks, visitors?

I live in Detroit—we have the best music in the world here! I might be biased, but I truly believe that. I mostly listen to house, soul, funk and jazz. My partner runs an incredible recording space called Assemble Sound out of an old church, so I also get a lot of sneaky private SoundCloud links to unreleased music.

Besides music, what’s been inspiring you lately?

Costume design, videos of people dancing, being outside, taking breaks from the internet. I quit drinking about a year ago so I’ve been reading a lot about changing habits. I’m really inspired by all the people who have overcome their addictions. Quitting is hard.

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Any parting advice for people who want to get their art out there?

Learn how to improvise. The conditions will be different than you expected. You will drop your phone in a bucket of water. You will be called to do a job you don’t think you’re ready for. Your scissor lift will get stuck in the mud. If you can learn to respond to the situation at hand, to the best of your ability, with the resources at your disposal and not freak out (that much) you will be successful. From what I can tell, success is about putting in the work and then being in the right place at the right time. And you never know when that will be.

Thanks, Ellen. Get to know more of our Hometown Heroes right here.