I first met Ruthie Ballen (aka The Wayward Elf) in 2012 at Alpine Alley Coffee Shop in Mountainair. I had moved to the outskirts of town two weeks earlier and had learned that the coffee shop was a good place to meet people. So, I drove into town for a cup of coffee and breakfast. Halfway through the meal a petite, vivacious woman dressed in bright clothing, red shoes, and a thoroughly adorned hat walked through the front door.
“Hi Ruthie,” called some people from nearby tables. She smiled widely, her eyes wrinkling at the edges and waved. Ruthie Ballen approached the counter and looked my way. Not recognizing me, she immediately approached. I told her that she looked fabulous, something I would end up saying a thousand times in the years to come, and she giggled and leaned in to give me a kiss on the cheek with her bright pink lipsticked lips. I asked her if she had left a mark on my cheek, and she inspected it. “Yes, but I can wipe it off.”
“No, leave it on,” I replied. “I want everyone to know that I met Ruthie.”
Tiny in stature, Ruthie is iconic in Mountainair. Her vibrant outfits, from shoes to hand-adorned hats, worn daily because everyday is a special occasion, make it easy to pick her out in a crowd. Her personality is equally colorful, spreading joy and laughter wherever she goes. “What’s the point of anything else?” she queries if someone asks why she is always so happy.
Ruthie Ballen was born and raised in Utah. As a young adult she moved to Los Angeles, a dream she shared with a girlfriend of hers, where she spent five years before moving to New York City in the 1960s. There she worked as an administrative assistant. She had an upstairs neighbor, Joseph Yznaga Regan. He was a classical painter who invited her to museums, influenced her home decorating style and gifted her with her first piece of original art. He was complimentary of the clothing she sewed for herself (Ruthie’s creativity in the early days centered around sewing and doll making) and she was able to observe him painting and watch how his work developed under his skillful brush. That friendship would eventually influence her life in Mountainair.
After New York City, she returned to Los Angeles to marry her sweetheart. Her focus there was on fashion and sewing clothing for herself and others. She had a public fashion show where her garments were modeled on the runway. Ruthie and her husband had talked about moving away from the city when they were retired but he passed away before they could fulfill that dream together. In 2004, after having made a few trips to New Mexico, Ruthie followed a good friend out to Mountainair to fulfill the dream she had once shared with her husband.
“Mountainair feels like the small Utah town where I was born,” she explained. “Broadway feels like the main street in town where I grew up. The pace is slow. I felt at home immediately. And the move, everything just fell into place. I was meant to come here, to meet the people I have met. I’ve never had a single moment of regret.”
Ruthie told me there was a group of women who used to meet in town weekly to paint. While there was no formal instruction, there was quite a bit of support from the other participants and some of the artists would lead workshops with varying mediums. Ruthie painted with “Art Etcetera” for about three years and began showing her work publicly at the Mountainair Sunflower Festival.
Artists in the group would sometimes trade paintings or give their work away as gifts but she never sold anything until after she was invited to hang work at Alpine Alley.
She tells a story about a man visiting Mountainair from the east coast who checked out much of the artwork in town and settled on buying one of her pieces. “Shipping cost more than that art piece did at the time. But he still has it,” she said. “It’s hanging somewhere in the Carolinas.”
Ruthie has now been painting with oils for 15 years. She says that she does not paint all the time and takes breaks from it, but she is always thinking about painting. “I look at the world like a painter now, I think, often wondering, ‘how can I paint that?’” she explained.
Ruthie Ballen will have over 20 paintings hanging in the lobby of the Shaffer Hotel, a space that the owner of the hotel, Ed Von Kutzleben, now generously shares with La Galería @ The Shaffer.
For the opening of Ruthie’s show on Dec. 4, the lobby will appear as if it were Ruthie’s living room, complete with sequined pillows, throws and boot-wearing furniture from her own home.
That’s part of the reason the show is named “Down the Rabbit Hole with Ruthie Ballen.” We will be inviting attendees to a magical, quirky, elvish fantasy land. It will be like no other art show you have ever attended, unless you have been to Meow Wolf. “It’s sort of like that but better,” Ruthie says. Certainly, the show will be nothing the town of Mountainair has ever experienced.
“Down the Rabbit Hole with Ruthie Ballen” will open on Dec. 4 from 4-7 p.m. Black’s Smuggler Winery will be serving their wares in the lobby so you can buy a glass of wine and have it while perusing the gallery or dining at The Shaffer Café.
Ruthie Ballen will be available throughout the evening to answer questions and spread her joy as will many of the other artist who show their art at La Galería @ The Shaffer. Her artwork will hang through February 2022.
In preparation for the show, La Galería @ The Shaffer will be closed all day Dec. 3, and will reopen Dec. 4 at 3 p.m., just before the reception.