Mind Over Matter -- The Amazing Brain Of Ginny Ruffner

DELVING INTO THE brain of Seattle glass artist Ginny Ruffner is like browsing at a garage sale held by Steven Hawking, Bette Midler and Liberace. Stuff, amazing stuff, crammed in every cranny. OK, so maybe you're not sure exactly what it is or how it works, but you know it's something good, something you'll marvel at once you get it home and figure it out.

Under Ruffner's tornado of hair is a tangle of brain waves where ideas careen through the cranium on a roller coaster to outer space. Look! Over there, by the visual cortex, a glass fish in pink-rhinestone spectacles. And there, under that flashing synapse, assorted musings about quantum physics, the origin of the universe, the essence of beauty. Up above, the planets and a flying saucer and . . . what's that? A can of Comet! Wacky humor. Mensa intelligence. An appreciation for everything from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to cowboy boots handstitched with little red hearts.

The artist once wrote an essay explaining how her garage sale of ideas gets transformed into internationally reknown glass sculptures. "Mostly I notice (the ideas) in a corner of my consciousness, waiting for the music to start. Some are wallflowers and require a little coaxing; some are dancing fools jitterbugging across the synapses, flailing their skinny double-helix arms, shaking their light-bulb heads and screaming "make me, make me" - whole ideas and partial ones - even Siamese twin ideas. Some come from the left side of the brain - the trickle down, supply side. The rest strut in from the right side of the frontal lobe tracks, from that cranial juke joint - the brain stem. They are all flirts. And when they get together in that ambidextrous dance palace between the ears, the results are like a dating service from Mars."

No one marvels at the inner workings of Ginny Ruffner's mind more than Ginny Ruffner herself. Not because she is particularly egotistical. Not because she's not. ("I've always been highly intelligent," she says). What's marvelous, to Ruffner, is the brain itself. "You don't realize how much it does until it doesn't."

Three and a half years ago, after the car wreck, Ruffner's brain didn't. Didn't do anything, didn't feel anything, didn't know anything. Did not make her lungs breathe or her heart beat or her eyelids twitch. That December day in 1991, as Ruffner skimmed down the North Carolina interstate in her parents' big white Thunderbird, brain bebopping to the jazz of her cranial jukebox, a car merged from an on-ramp and kept merging. Ruffner swerved to avoid it, crossed the median. Two cars hit her, head-on. Inside her skull, gray matter crashed back and forth like Jell-O slamdancing in a telephone booth. Synapses fizzled, light bulbs shattered, jitterbugging fools collapsed. The right half of Ruffner's brain had been severed from the left, leaving her cognitive dance hall eerily empty. The artist was in a coma for five weeks.

In the intensive-care unit they screwed bolts through her skull, drained fluids, hooked up needles, tubes, shunts, monitors, a respirator. They waited. The doctors cleared their throats. Statistically, most people who are unconscious for more than a few days will never be able to walk or talk or pull themselves out of bed; many never wake up. They waited. The doctors inquired as to whether the 39-year-old had made a living will. No one knew.

Ruffner's mom phoned back to Seattle, but the bank refused to divulge even if her daughter had a safe-deposit box. No one dared guess what the artist would have wanted. Her thoughts on that, on everything, remained locked up.

IT WAS COLD and windy the night Manhattan artist Steve Kursh met Ruffner after a party at the Chicago Art Fair, two years pre-wreck. Ruffner was getting into a cab with a couple friends so his 10-second impression of her was mostly hair, a mess of curls pushed up on her head. They met again at another party, danced all night, became a couple.

Statistically, if you sample Ruffner's friends and acquaintances, odds are they will describe her at some party or another. Because Ruffner was a star. She'd make her entrance wearing something truly fantastic - six-inch lipstick-red stiletto heels with leopard-print leggings, a chenille top made from an old bedspread, leather jacket, funky sculpted earrings. Then she'd launch into a philosophical conversation about female nudes and the gaze in art history, or comic books and man-made worlds, or chaos theory and cotton prices and the beauty of fractals.

"She has the intelligence of science with the wackiness of a carnival," says Marge Levy, director of the Pilchuck Glass School. "When some people do something to excess, it can only look excessive. When Ginny does something to excess, it becomes glorious."

So it's no surprise that when Ruffner was in a coma, Kursh dreamed his girlfriend was at a party. The party was in a glass room in a beautiful ornate building. Kursh could see her surrounded by friends, crowned by her wild hair, and wearing, well, wearing nothing. Kursh couldn't get into the glass room, but at least he could see Ruffner was fine and having a good time. She was fine.

The weeks went on. The doctors cleared their throats. They said when Ruffner woke up she might have the mind of a 2-year-old. Kursh said, "Unh-unh. I wasn't going to sit still for that kind of idea. I just knew she was going to be all right."

Turned out to be like some kind of B movie. Patient wakes up despite abysmal prognosis. Eventually talks, walks a few steps, continues career as one of the world's pre-eminent glass artists. Except that leaves out the part about the double vision, the memory loss, the loneliness of forgetting who you once were. And it leaves out the part about Ruffner's incredible inner will.

Ruffner has always been of her own mind. In college she told her father, an FBI agent, and her mother, a typing and accounting teacher, that she wanted to major in art. She was smart enough to do anything, they thought, so maybe she ought to use her brain to make a living. "Ya know Ginny, you really ought of think of doing something else and take the art as a sideline," her mom said. "She just didn't give you a whole lot of an argument. She just went ahead and did it, whatever it was."

Ruffner slowly swam out of the coma, every muscle flaccid, every neuron frazzled. Even the pupils of her eyes were too weak to properly constrict in sunlight. It took thousands of hours of therapy to get to where Ruffner is now. She still sees double but can read with difficulty. She can walk a few steps with assistance and draw wobbily with her right hand. (The artist is left-handed, but the left side of her body doesn't work well). Her speech is slurred; her wit is quick. Ruffner, who taught aerobics at the Seattle Club for five years pre-wreck, reached a milestone this spring when she walked down 88 stairs in her downtown apartment building, opened the front door and stepped outside. It was the first time she had been out by herself in four years. Her body is slowly coming back.

The brain does not heal itself well. Once brain cells are damaged, they're gone for good and most scientists believe the body does not make more. Fortunately, most people only use 10 percent of their brain, so there's 90 percent left - if, that is, you can figure out how to get access. Somewhere along the line, someone told Ruffner artists recover faster from brain injuries than other people because they have trained their brains to work in different ways. Ruffner believed. She ordered her neurons to forge new pathways. She forced herself to memorize numbers, letters, recite the alphabet backward. Whenever she forgot a word or a name, she stared her brain down until it coughed up what she wanted. And so it went. Until came the day when her mind was well enough to look around and realize the jitterbugging fools had not returned.

What is an artist without creativity?

Ginny Ruffner had forgotten who she was. What kind of clothes she wore. Why she had been so moved by Marcel Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even that she decided to work in glass. Ruffner couldn't figure out why she once thought coffee tasted good, let alone why Boticelli paintings are beautiful. How can artist create art without knowing what she likes?

Creativity is sort of a mysterious drifter in the brain. It seems to have full run of the cranial city, but no permanent home or office. When her brain was bombed, it was as if Ruffner's creativity had gone underground, and, in time, could be coaxed out of hiding. The problem was to figure out how.

Four months after the accident, a therapist in the Charlotte rehabilitation hospital happened to see Ruffner's apartment featured in Self magazine. Ruffner had forgotten about the photo spread. In fact, she had forgotten about her apartment. There it was on the glossy pages: a stuffed rattlesnake poised to strike from the coffee table, eight-foot windows with a view of Elliott Bay and the Olympics, a just-finished glass sculpture of a figure reclining under a cascade of 500 pickup sticks.

"I burst into tears," Ruffner says. She missed her old life, even things she could not remember.

It was time to get back to work. After five months in the hospital, she went to live with Kursh in Manhattan. She drew every day. At first, the drawings were simple. A flower or two. A piece of fruit. Then, bunches of grapes started to appear along with areas of color, pairs of dice. She got out catalogs from her old shows and pored over them. The user-friendly sculptures "that wear too much eye makeup but really know how to have a good time in a bar" slowly drifted back into focus. When Ruffner moved back to Seattle last year, the dancing fools began to keep her up late at night, carousing. At last the artist had company backstage in her brain. She e-mailed her friend, Linda Stone:

I'm having a nice quiet Saturday with Studley (the artist's cat). It's the first time in several years I've enjoyed being alone. The reason that's a big deal is that prior to the wreck, I loved being alone. But ever since then it's made me lonely and bored. 2 things I'd rarely felt. So I view this recent turn of events as a sign that my brain is getting back to normal. Whew. You can't imagine how strange it feels (and profoundly lonely) to feel estranged from your own brain.

Asked to explain his patient's recovery, Dr. Michael Weinstein says, "Willpower. Could somebody else who's been in a coma for five weeks have such a recovery? No."

THE HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY Principle deals with teeny tiny particles smaller than a millionth of a millionth of an inch. This law of quantum physics says you can measure either a particle's mass or its velocity, but not both at the same time. The more you know about one measurement, the less you can be sure about the other. Thus, there is a certain randomness in science, unpredictability in life.

Ruffner loves the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle because the viewer gets to decide which way to measure the particle. You want mass? Or you want velocity? Take yer pick! Dealer's choice! Reality, to Ruffner, is a matter of perception. We each determine how to look at life.

Einstein hated the Uncertainty Principle. Although he received a Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory, the physicist was always bothered by the idea that the universe is governed by chance. "God," he said, "does not play dice."

Ruffner, of course, loves dice. They roll through her work. In Nurture and Nature, from Ruffner's new series about balancing life and body, a martian balances a single die on his head while holding a DNA helix in one hand and an open book in the other. "Wasn't it Mick Jagger who said: The dice are always rolling, always changing?" Ruffner asks. "That's the one constant in the universe. Change."

Therefore, according to the Ruffner Theorem, the accident on the North Carolina interstate was just that, an accident, an unlucky crapshoot, a random act of the universe. "I feel like life said to me: You want a challenge? Try this."

NEWTON'S FIRST LAW SAYS that whenever a body is not acted on by any force, it will keep moving in a straight line.

Ginny Ruffner's life, pre-wreck: In 1991 alone, she was a commissioner on the Seattle Arts Commission, a trustee of Pilchuck Glass School, curator of a major glass show at the Tacoma Art Museum, president of the Glass Art Society. Her work was featured in three solo and 14 group exhibitions in France, Japan, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Memphis, Michigan. The artist and her assistants created about 60 new pieces - huge public art installations and paintings on aluminum and canvas as well as flameworked glass sculptures. Her work is now in 17 museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and museums in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Japan. Collectors pay between $8,000 and $12,000 per piece.

And then there were the shoes. Every time Ruffner had something to celebrate - like being the first woman artist commissioned to do an Absolut Vodka ad - she treated herself to shoes. Ruffner had more than 300 pairs.

Newton's second law says a body will change its speed at a rate proportional to the force exerted upon it. Big forces create big changes. So imagine the impact of five tons of steel at 55 miles an hour on a North Carolina interstate. Then ask Ruffner how life would have been different, if not for the wreck.

Her answer surprises. "I would have had more wrinkles," she says. Life was going too fast, too much stress. Ruffner's Theorem about the uncertainty of the universe has a corollary: You get to decide how to deal with what life brings.

"You have the ability to turn your (manure) into fertilizer," she says. "I have enough fertilizer for the whole state of Kansas for six years. Like, what's good about being in a chair? You don't wear out your shoes. What's good about not remembering the books you read? I've got a whole library waiting for me. What's good about not being able to work in the way you normally would? It forces you to be creative."

Critics say it's hard to tell if the car wreck changed Ruffner's art because it was always so diverse in content and style, always evolving. "Her pieces are little bombs coated in M&M wrappers," says Susanne Frantz, a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass. "They look easy, they slide down easily but they're very serious."

The artist's latest series is called Envisioning. It features a green Martian wearing a black-and-white striped T-shirt and it's about how life looks different depending on how you think about it. In one piece, brain waves radiating from the Martian's head are attached to skyscrapers. If you look at the piece from the Martian's point of view, the buildings are golden and glorious. But it you look at the city from the side the Martian can't see, the skyline is gray, grimy and gross.

Ruffner chose a Martian because she feels like an alien, sitting in a wheelchair, speaking in a weird croaky voice. The wild brain waves are because Ruffner values thinking above all else and also because they resemble her own unruly tresses which, well, once a guy walked up to the artist on the street and told her she had bedroom hair. The city is golden because that is how Ruffner looks at life.

RUFFNER HAS GIVEN herself five years to fully recover. Five years from the five-week coma and the five-month stay in the hospital to discard her wheelchair, to talk in Southern-Seattle lilt, to paint with her left hand, maybe take an aerobics class. "I fully expect to . . ." she says, and fills in the blank with whatever task of the moment she is unable to do. Someone told her 14 or 15 years is more likely than five, but the artist says she doesn't want to wait that long. Doctors clear their throats. Statistically, as time passes for former coma patients like Ruffner, progress becomes exponentially slower.

An interesting thing about exponential decay is that you never really reach zero. As you get closer, walking from integers to fractions to irrational numbers with long snaky tails, you end up taking smaller and smaller steps, at some point realizing you'll never get there because you're on the road to infinity. Ruffner was so taken by this idea of infinity she created a piece called "What's Really in the Space Between Integers." It's got an infinity sign made of vermilion glow worms, colorful glass ribbons patterned with paintings by Klee and Kandinsky, a voluptuous orange lily. Klee and Kandinsky because Ruffner likes how they use color and humor. The orange lily because the artist thinks lilies are beautiful, like infinity.

The beautiful thing about infinity is that if you think about it one way, Ruffner has an incredibly long way to go. But life, as she sees it, is all a matter of perception. So if you look at it another way, then the artist is already there.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Magazine writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.