Putting the Pieces Together

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Ruth Greenberg ’89 creates wholeness from fragments. From slabs of clay that she cuts, fires, colors, and arranges, emerge an enchanting underwater scene or a portrayal of Odysseus, Ajax, and Achilles setting sail for Troy.

Greenberg, who intended to be a communications major at Scripps, discovered the world of studio arts when she was turned away from an overenrolled film class. She chose a ceramics class taught by Paul Soldner instead, and found it immensely satisfying. “I loved the way the clay felt in my hands, and I loved what I could do with it.”

In Soldner’s class, students were taught to do the work from the ground up, and that has influenced Greenberg’s style. “We’d mix our own clay and make our own glazes,” she said. “We built our own kilns. I understand ceramics from the most basic level, and that has enabled me to develop new techniques and products.”

In her ceramics classes, Greenberg was exposed to ceramists from around the world who spent time as visiting artists at Scripps. Beverly Magennis-who had gained recognition from the Smithsonian when she decorated the outside of her Baptistry created by Greenberg for the Holy Family Catholic Church in Portland, ORhome in tile-was one of the artists. Greenberg was granted an Esterly award to study with Magennis at her home in Albuquerque between her junior and senior years. The summer of 1988, then, marked the beginning of Greenberg’s career in mosaics.

Realizing that she would need to build her skills as a working artist, Greenberg decided she could support herself in the meantime by teaching. She received a master’s in education at Claremont Graduate University, and used her background, along with her skills as an artist, to open up her own art school for children. Greenberg ran the Hands On Art Center in Portland from 1992-1996 and offered classes in tile, drawing, ceramics, and printmaking. Running a popular and successful art school helped her make inroads into Portland’s art community.

She began receiving commissions to do mosaic work in elementary schools, private homes, universities, and churches. On a project for a local water company, Greenberg decided to forge her own technique. Instead of breaking tile, she began to cut all of her own tile from wet clay. She currently completes and ships four to five commissions a year to clients throughout the U.S.

“I like the way I have to think in mosaic- it’s very detail oriented,” she said. “I love the design element.” She is also interested in the history of mosaic. “Mosaics historically have just been dismissed. They were usually found by accident during the search for frescoes.” Yet as Greenberg points out, the term mosaic, derived from the Greek monseios or “belonging to the muses,” attests to the medium’s historical significance.

Freelance writer Jenny Schroedel contributed to this article.