An ‘epoptic’ revelation

  • Artist Peter Ruhf stands with one of his larger paintings entitled “Epoptic Revelation” on a recent afternoon outside his studio in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings created by Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls.

  • Paintings created by artist Peter Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings created by artist Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls.

  • Paintings created by artist Peter Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings created by Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings created by artist Peter Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings shown during the exhibit Magic Realist Paintings by artist Peter Ruhf at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings shown during the exhibit Magic Realist Paintings by artist Peter Ruhf at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings shown during the exhibit Magic Realist Paintings by artist Peter Ruhf at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Paintings shown during the exhibit Magic Realist Paintings by Ruhf at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Tools of the trade for artist Peter Ruhf at his studio in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Ruhf stands with one of his larger paintings entitled “Epoptic Revelation” outside his studio in Shelburne Falls.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2019 8:24:56 AM

Art has a special purpose, according to Shelburne Falls painter Peter Ruhf. It shows us parts of the psyche that are hidden or missing from our culture. A visionary artist ventures beyond everyday life, “back and forth to antiquity,” Rufh says, and “brings in visions of the future or of old culture.”

“Only art can get there. Machines and technology cannot get there. It’s a void,” Ruhf says.

Now 72 years old, Ruhf’s artistic sensibility was largely shaped as an art student at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s — “the era of cannabis and psychedelics,” he mentions.

Having come from an artistic family, Ruhf learned the technical skills of painting and drawing at a young age, but he didn’t understand his calling as an artist until his sophomore year of college. He grew up in rural eastern Pennsylvania with a mother who had studied hex signs — the large, mandala-like designs found on the walls of Pennsylvania Dutch barns. By the time Ruhf was in grade school, he could paint them himself.

He learned about major canonical artists from his grandfather, Walter Baum, who founded an art school in Allentown, PA. Early favorites were Salvador Dali, Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake. Two uncles on his mother’s side had traveled extensively in Australia: one became an expert on indigenous art and religion, the other helped to popularize boomerangs as a sport and a toy in the West. (Ruhf later went into business with this uncle, and it led to him setting a world record in the ‘80s for the longest boomerang throw ever. More on that later.)

During his sophomore year in college, Ruhf had surgery on his foot. While he was recovering in the hospital, his friends brought him cannabis, which he had never tried before. He immediately recognized its usefulness to an artist. Thinking back now, he says it made him aware for the first time of his imagination. Experiences with psychedelic drugs followed, bringing his art beyond sheer technical skill to “inner landscapes of the soul.”

“I could draw and paint, but I didn’t have my own world, my own vision,” Ruhf says. “Introducing myself to psychedelic drugs, I realized that there’s more to human perception than reality may seem.”

As a matter of historical fact, Ruhf suspects that he may be one of the first psychedelic artists. In college, he was the only art student who could paint while tripping, he says, which he put to use for a few large-scale paintings.

One was “Epoptic Revelation,” a six-by-four-foot painting that Ruhf painted in the fall of 1969, his senior year in college, and that he still has at his home studio in Shelburne Falls. He went into it with no plan, except to ready his painting supplies, take mescaline and paint what he saw. The result is a wide overhead view of a somewhat earthly landscape of unearthly bright colors, plants, pools of water, humanoid figures, all of it warped as if seen through a melting lens. Overhead a figure hovers, looking down at it, away from the viewer. It’s a representation of what Ruhf says he saw in that trip: a spirit dropping from a higher dimension into the physical world.

Ruhf ended up painting most of “Epoptic Revelation” in one night while listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony, then adding details and secrets over the following months. The title came to him later, he doesn’t know how or why, he didn’t even know what it meant at the time.

Beyond psychedelics, Ruhf draws inspiration from a kaleidoscope of interests and past experiences. After graduating college, he went into business with his uncle, who by that time was importing boomerangs from Australia. In high school, Ruhf was a champion wrestler. Even now, sports are important to him.

“(Sport) is just as important as my art. It drives my art,” he says. “A wrestler is a warrior, and a visionary is like a cultural warrior. … They are the deepest forms of expression that I know of.”

At that time in the 1970s, boomerang was establishing itself as a competitive sport, and Ruhf was becoming involved in the competition circuits. In addition to importing boomerangs, he started designing his own, optimizing them to the needs of competitive boomerang sport.

It worked.

In 1982 in Syndey, Australia, Ruhf set the world record for the longest boomerang throw ever — 125 meters — with the Australian boomerang team spotting him to make it official. (That record has since been broken, but Ruhf’s throw remains the longest ever with a wooden boomerang.)

Following his record-setting throw, Ruhf soon set up his own artisan boomerang business, featuring his handcrafted designs. Land’s End, which had sponsored his team on the trip to Australia, hired him as a model.

“I became a deity hero,” he says.

Until around 2000, Ruhf’s working life was primarily devoted to boomerangs. He set up a factory and traveled to fairs to sell his boomerangs. He created a show that he performed at schools — “Boomerangs: Stone Age to Space Age” — which covered the history of boomerangs and the physics of how they work. During those years, he still painted but he wasn’t pursuing an artist’s career, he says.

“It fed me spiritually and physically and emotionally for a long time,” Ruhf says. “But when you put so much of your life into something, sometimes it just wears out. Boomerangs did for me.”

Now, starting about 15 years ago, Ruhf devotes himself primarily to his art, having pretty much picked up where he left off. In subject matter, much of his work focuses on mythological and religious themes. In his studio, he has his own rendition of Aphrodite in a half-shell, scenes and characters from the New Testament and a recent painting of the Hindu god Ganesh. He also does work he considers relatively conventional, like portraits and landscapes.

Part of what Ruhf does now is to coach younger artists to help them develop their own artistic practice. These range from grade school-age kids who have an interest and technical skill but no experience, to adults in their 30s and 40s who haven’t been able to develop a practice because of other obligations.

And in our heavily technological culture, Ruhf says the purpose of his art is as relevant as ever.

“I think the zeitgeist needs it now, to heal the planet from greed and anger and violence,” Ruhf says. “There’s time for people to contemplate who and what they are as human beings and the reasons we’re here. The arts, like music and poetry and dance and painting, is all part of it.”

■See more of Peter Ruhf’s art and his contact information at peterruhfdesigns.weebly.com.

Max Marcus covers Montague, Gill and Erving. He can be reached at 413-772-0362, ext. 261.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2019 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy