Injured Artist Ginny Ruffner's Alive And Getting Well In New York

It seems ironic, looking back, that a recurring motif in Ginny Ruffner's art was bodies without heads, or with some curious, unrelated object sitting in place of the head. Ironic because, for the past year, Ruffner has been recovering from a head injury that has made her head and her body seem strangely disconnected.

Back in her Seattle studio this week to complete a commission for the Phoenix Art Commission, and to attend tonight's annual fund-raising auction for the Pilchuck Glass School at the Westin Hotel, she still suffers from slurred speech and double vision, but is making steady progress toward recovery. Her sense of humor is quite intact.

"In a wheelchair you get to say anything and get away with it," she said with an amused grin. "People expect you to be wise, like you've gone through this heavy experience, so you're automatically profound." She notes one change: "My tolerance for bull---- is way down."

Ruffner taught aerobics for five years, in addition to doing art. Her physical therapists say she's lucky; because the 40-year-old artist was in excellent physical shape at the time of the accident, her recovery is progressing quickly. In about two years, they say, she'll be fine.

Unlike many who suffer head injury, her memory is intact - except for the day of the accident itself. But she knows what happened.

Last Dec. 22, on a North Carolina freeway, another driver ran her off the road and into oncoming traffic. She wasn't breathing when rescuers found her. By a stroke of luck, a fire truck was passing. Firefighters performed an emergency tracheotomy to get breath moving through her. Her brain, shocked and badly bruised, had shut down. It was the only apparent damage, but it was more than enough: Her brain had stopped sending the proper messages to her body to breathe and function.

She spent five weeks in a coma, and a total of five months in the hospital.

"All my muscles work, but they all went flaccid during the time I was in coma," Ruffner said. "Even the muscles in my eyelids. You wouldn't believe where you have muscles. I'm finding them all the hard way."

She has regular sessions with speech and vision therapists, works out on a stationary bike, and does floor exercises to get back in shape. Always left-handed, she has had to learn to draw and write with her right hand because of prolonged weakness on the left.

"People ask me if I don't want to go to the driver who forced me off the road and just yell at her," Ruffner said. "No, I don't. She was an uninsured 19-year-old welfare mother. Her life is already hell; why bother?"

Since she got out of the hospital last June, Ruffner has been living in a second-floor New York walk-up apartment with an artist friend.

"We'd been dating for about three years, arguing constantly about whether I'd move to New York, or he'd move here," she said. "I had to move to New York the hard way, it seems."

Ruffner says she'll likely continue to live in New York after her recovery is complete. She's giving up her Seattle apartment, but keeping the Seattle studio, where she keeps two assistants busy.

"I can draw and paint, but I can't blow glass because it takes two hands, and it's dangerous. So I think up ideas and tell others what to do." She faxes drawings for her assistants to execute, and makes decisions about color from pictures they fax back to her.

"Fortunately, my bossy complex is still intact," she says.

She and her crew are putting the finishing touches on the Phoenix commission: a 30-foot free standing wall which will provide the barren playground of Machan School there with an "oasis" of shade, seating, drinking water, a sundial, and elements that celebrate the school's ethnic mix. Originally slated for completion last summer, it will be installed in mid-January.

Ruffner plans to be there to supervise Fabrication Specialties in its installation. "We have a long working relationship," she said of the Seattle company. "They always say that if the artist helps with installation, they charge extra.

"That suits me; I'll just point."