Kelly Ruth is a textile artist whose work has been exhibited at galleries throughout Winnipeg. She is also a musician, adept at trumpet, French horn and bass guitar.
In November 2013, Ruth was in her living room, weaving fabric on a loom — a device she began working with after attending a pair of week-long weaving courses, one in Winnipeg and another in North Carolina. At some point during the morning, she became intrigued by the rhythmic clicks and clacks coming out of her wooden unit, as she wound thread back and forth through its heddles.
"I’m really addicted to sounds," Ruth says, offering a visitor a cup of tea and an assortment of cheese, crackers and pickled beets. "I carry my iPhone practically everywhere I go — especially when I’m travelling — and the same way people take pictures of their surroundings, I record noises."
To document what she was hearing, Ruth put together a quick, 30-second recording. Later, she texted the sound file to Natanielle Felicitas, a professional cellist she had collaborated with in the past, along with a message, "Hey, we should do something with this."
A few months later, the two women — Felicitas on cello and Ruth on loom — performed at Cluster 2014, a contemporary music and arts festival.
You’ve heard of new wave music? This was more like new weave.
"We got a really great reception, and that was definitely the catalyst to keep going," Ruth says.
Ruth laughs and says no, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever hear her crank out Brown Eyed Girl on the loom.
"There isn’t a lot of melody involved; it’s definitely percussive in nature," she explains, noting her "music" is created by a contact microphone that picks up reverberations while she weaves and transfers those hums and drones to a loop pedal — the same type of device electronic music artists use to create loops, or short, repeating sections of sound. When Ruth’s loops are projected through a guitar amplifier, an echo effect is created — almost as if her loom is a living, breathing entity.
"Every so often I’ll scrape scissors against a piece of metal and get these little screechy beats," she says, noting she has a collection of looms, each with its own unique clatter. "Or I might get into something a little more metronomic that comes across like military marching. There are many moods I can create, whether it’s for a piece that’s a few minutes long or one that lasts for hours."
Yeah, about that: Ruth’s second public performance — a solo effort — occurred Sept. 27, 2014, as part of Nuit Blanche. At 1 p.m. that afternoon, Ruth set up her loom in a back lane adjacent to ArtsJunktion on William Avenue. For the next 12 hours, she played a "durational piece," only taking breaks twice during that span to field questions from curious onlookers.
"The intention wasn’t for people to sit there and listen to me for 12 hours straight, but rather to come and go as they pleased," says Ruth, who was dressed like an Industrial Revolution-era factory worker for the occasion, a nod to the Exchange District’s historical ties to the garment industry. "There were double-takes for sure. Some teenagers even danced, which was fun. But almost everybody seemed very interested in what I was doing."
Ruth’s latest project is Civvie, a three-piece group comprising herself, Felicitas and Alex Eastley, principal bassoon for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
The three women have been playing together for about a year. They practise two or three times a month at Ruth’s homey, inner-city two-storey, where their Monday-night audience usually consists of Dora, Ruth’s St. Bernard cross and Magpie, her tabby cat.
"Most of what we do is improvised, but the best way to describe it is we’re having a three-way conversation," Ruth says, mentioning she and her bandmates have applied to new-music festivals around the world in a quest to take their show on the road. "I wouldn’t say we ever play anything that’s too happy or upbeat. I think the three of us have a certain melancholy that always comes out in what we’re doing. There are lots of themes we’re exploring and lots of dynamics we can create."
Michael Falk, co-owner of Paintbox Recording on Shaftesbury Boulevard, is producing Civvie’s debut album, which is expected to be released this summer.
"I have done a fair amount of recording with non-traditional instruments — I’ve used old, wooden desks for percussion, for example — so (the loom) wasn’t a complete curveball," says Falk, who has worked with acts such as Moses Mayes, Les Jupes and Alfa. "But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a moment or two when I thought, ‘How am I going to approach this?’"
Civvie recorded approximately eight hours worth of material with Falk, all of it composed on the spot.
"My guess is they’ll whittle that down to 40 minutes or so for the album. As with any genre of music, especially stuff that’s done off the cuff, not everything is a home run. But when the magic happens, it’s a wonderful thing, and they definitely hit a few out of the park; there were a lot of really beautiful songs they came up with."
Besides her tuneful endeavours, Ruth, founder of Kelly Ruth Wearable, a line of women’s wear that incorporates eco-friendly fabrics and natural dyes into its designs, continues to use her loom for conventional purposes.
She belongs to Manitoba Fibre Artists & Weavers, an organization that includes a fair number of "mature women" who have been weaving for decades, she says.
Last year, Ruth put together a presentation for the guild’s monthly show-and-tell. She discussed her musical venture then played a video of her and her loom in action. Her cohorts were fascinated, she says — enough that it got her thinking about what could turn out to be her most noteworthy undertaking, yet.
"There’s been a suggestion that I get together an orchestra of weavers and compose and conduct something," Ruth says. "Anybody who’s been to a factory that has a bunch of people working... that cadence of all those weavers working at the same time is pretty incredible.
"It’s overwhelming to imagine the logistics of it but we’ll see... it might happen at some point."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.