If you could put love in a frame, what would it look like? Hearts and flowers? Dark and foreboding? Silly and ironic? It turns out that for artists Erin Ruiz and Beth Bojarski, the answer is all of the above.
The two women - Ruiz in Boise, Bojarski in Milwaukee - were given a commission last year by Jane Brumfield of Brumfield's Gallery in Hyde Park to create a body of work focused on love.
"It's one of the strongest human emotions," Brumfield says. "In the abstract, we talk about love in celebratory and happy terms, but on a personal level most of us find it scary. That's real rich territory for artists."
The show "Love Story" opens Feb. 8.
Both Ruiz and Bojarski found the project a bit intimidating.
"I laughed at first," Ruiz says. "Asking someone like myself to do a show on love is quite comical. I'm not terribly, well, I'm not a cynic - but I guess I'm a realistic romantic, so this was a challenge, and I enjoy a challenge."
Ruiz, who describes her personal love status at the time as "this bird enjoys flying solo," worked to reach beyond her personal experience with love.
As part of her process for any project, Ruiz started with music. She put together a playlist of old-school and contemporary love songs - from blues ballads to today's alt-pop songs - to give her ideas.
"I wasn't listening to Adele or anything like that," she says. "Stuff that is a little more edgy is my style."
As an illustrator and artist, Ruiz creates quirky, character-based images that range from oddly comical to slightly disturbing.
These pieces, she says, range from tongue-in-cheek to darkly haunting.
She also talked to people she knows about their experience.
"I found that everyone has a love story," she says.
Each of her six pieces tells a different love story - though some are related. One diptych shows a man holding a bouquet of flowers. The next panel shows a woman drowning in those flowers.
"The flowers in the first panel overwhelm him, just like love can overwhelm - and then overtake someone," she says.
"I approached it jokingly - I mean, who knows anything about love? But over time, the more I started to think about it and talked to people - it seems like everyone has a sad love story - I wanted to have some positive stuff in there. We all keep looking for love and falling in love."
After all this, Ruiz is no closer to understanding love, but that's OK, she says.
"I don't think you ever find the answer, but it's worth the journey to explore it," Ruiz says.
FLIP SIDE OF LOVE
Bojarski came at the question of love from the opposite side of things. Happy in her 21-year relationship and soon to be married, she had to do a bit of work to find the darker side, she says.
"You're given the word 'love' and what are the first five words or images that come to mind?" she asks. "My list had 'heart,' 'couple,' 'sweet,' 'warm embraces' and 'forever.' What do I do with that?"
After contemplating it, she came to the idea of "unexpected."
"That's what love is," she says. When it's good and when it's not, either way, it's unexpected.
Bojarski lives and works in Milwaukee and shows mostly art fairs, and does just a few gallery exhibits each year. So stepping out of the norm, and having a commission to work with, led her to a different process, she says.
"When I paint I don't have any ideas," she says. "I don't plan out or sketch. I just start putting color on a (wood surface) and moving it around. I search for shapes in the color and pull things out based on what I'm seeing. So, I'll find a face and go from there. It's all reactionary."
Her theme of "unexpected" let her focus more directly on the board (Bojarski paints on wood panels) but allowed her the reactive exploration that works for her.
"I was trying to simplify things to the point that all the out-of-the-ordinary stories were actually just ordinary," she says. "All love stories are weird. They're complicated and questionable, messy, funny and fleeting."
Each of Bojarski's pieces tells a different story.
One titled "Lies and Love" shows a man wearing a false beard while on the telephone. At first you might think it reveals a deception. "But what is the lie, exactly? Is he hiding behind the beard to get what he wants or is he protecting himself from being too vulnerable?"
Most of her pieces have a mystery in them, she says.
In another, there's a guy flying in the air with a squirrel flying by his side. What does that mean?
"It's for the viewer to decide," she says. "My pieces are ambiguous enough that you can have your own impression of what you see. I like when people can interact with the art."
Creating these kinds of narratives in the gallery is a goal Brumfield set when she moved from the old Basement Gallery location at the Idanha Building to a larger space in Hyde Park in 2012.
"I wanted to have the gallery have a real direction," she says. "For me that's having a sense of narrative that engages the viewer in a way that lets their imagination run wild."
This is the first of Brumfield's narrative shows. Look for more in the future, such as "Fantastic Narrative," an exploration of the crossover between illustration and fine art, and "Gothic Fiction and Dark Romantics," which will explore the darker side of human attitude and emotion - with a touch of humor.