You may see a tired man leaning back in a restaurant booth or standing lazily in line at a store. At his side, way down below him, is his daughter. She tries desperately to get his attention. He ignores her, and her pleas can be painful to watch.
But you will never know that earlier that morning, they bonded. He sat with his legs wrapped around her, combing out the cat fight in her hair as she waited patiently.
Ruth Goens can convey what we don't usually see. In one sculpture, she can express love and hate, exhaustion and passion. Maybe it has something to do with movement. Her figures twist and bend like modern dancers twitching to show off the energy they store within. In clay, terra-cotta and bronze, Goens turns the human psyche outward. A woman whose body leans forward implies that she's resigned, but a slightly turned cheek suggests she's not yet ready to give up.
Her sculpture comes from "a real nitty-gritty place," Goens says, populated by strong yet stressed spirits. These are people in her neighborhood, on the streets and on porches: flamboyant, heavy women "waiting around for their meat"; haggard retirees doing nothing, a gang of boys bonding and "the arrogant homeless."
"These people aren't pretty," she adds. Goens seems like she doesn't like to be wrong, but she's wrong about that. The kind of honesty that makes her bust of Malcolm X look angry, not composed, is brutally beautiful. Some young buck may lift his heels as he walks down the street, but on the bus, in a quiet moment, Goens takes the time to notice how he hangs his head and his hopes real low. "I hold it in my mind, and when I get back to the house, I go at it."
She calls herself a loner, and she'll preach about it. "Most people talk about nothing. I can't have it. I don't have time for it. It's selfish, but people eat up your time. I don't have time to waste ... Period." But her small place on Detroit's northeast side looks like a non-stop party. Small scale sculptures strike poses in every corner of her home and studio. The daring faces of African masks look down in the front room and what little space is left is plastered with photos of friends, musicians and animals. Polar bears, on calendars and postcards and cut from magazines, are everywhere. "I figure I might as well like them. They won't be around for too much longer."
Music is a major part of her life, so it shares space with art in her crowded studio. Goens, who's played piano since she was 7, teaches lessons and has played organ at United Methodist Church on Conant Avenue for about 15 years. She grew up as family friend of renowned pianist Tommy Flanagan, and even met her husband Maurice, a balladeer, when they were both professional jazz musicians. Maurice played with well-known tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson before he became famous. Trumpeter Donald Byrd is another friend who owns Goens' art, and even organized a show in 1998 in which her work was featured as part of a traveling exhibit that stopped at Detroit's Focus: Hope.
Goens practices at least an hour and a half every day on a piano piled with songbooks, keeping her fingers and hands agile enough to attack sculpture with the same virtuosity she does Gershwin or Chopin. This here is a woman in love with clay: She pulls limbs long and mannered, grabbing intentionally or not at a host of art history in her work. Figures in her blues series are like Archibald Motley's characters: melancholy dames and dudes of the Harlem Renaissance sitting at a bar, shoved to the side of a drunken, dancing crowd. Some pieces are postured like those by German abstract expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck. And yet her art also seems like a distant relative to a family of folk art down South.
"After I got the basics I went off on my own. You've got to break away," Goen says. She explains she has Jay Holland, her former sculpture instructor at what is now the College for Creative Studies, to thank for that. Goens has been taking classes there for more than 25 years. "You can't be afraid to see what you can do. It takes courage but that's the excitement. If you have a talent and you don't use it, you ignore it, it's a sin."
Her distinctive style has gotten her some recognition. Goen's been commissioned to create a life-sized bust of Paul Robeson for the Charles H. Wright Museum and has won awards, including, in 2004, a prize in the Scarab Club's sculpture exhibition and a Michelin award from the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center. But recently we've not seen a major solo show of Goen's work. She deserves it, and her subjects deserve to holler.
Ruth Goens is currently working on independent projects.
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