Early in life, Ricardo Ruiz recalls internalizing the traditional tales told by elders — La Llorona, El Cucuy, El Chupacabra — and began spinning corresponding legends that sang a different song. These figures of his own creation are the focal point of the work he produces now. He explores the potential of folklore and its propensity for spreading wonder, joy and striking humor.
From ink-drawn comic-style panels to the vibrant hues found in his paintings, Ruiz portrays an expansive world of various original myths that span personal and human experience. “I grew up terrified, terrified by the stories I was told,” Ruiz recalled, “just evil beings who wanted to eat little kids.” A lifelong affinity for comic books, storytelling designed to inspire rather than to traumatize and a macabre yet wondrous sense of humor became the ethos behind the stories Ruiz crafts.
“When I was a little kid, we’d go to Mexico to visit family, where I’d see these little frog tableaus at the mercado, I always wanted one,” Ruiz said. “As an adult I went back and bought a set, and came home and placed them on the table. I’m looking at the cute little frog and I notice it has a stitch between its legs, and another on its mouth. This poor frog had been taxidermied and shellacked. And they suddenly became martyr frogs to me.”
Ruiz began painting his own myths of these frogs — wandering the world, having visions of the apocalypse, fighting devils — setting the foundation for an enduring narrative within his work. Frogs, wooden skeletons, wolves and various elements of Mexican iconography make frequent appearances in Ruiz’s body of work, which spans nearly four decades. These motifs mingle in the space between personal legends stemming from lived experience and the wider culture of folktales.
In producing a piece, Ruiz works from gray to color, sketching loose figures in oil paint sticks to fully bloomed compositions in raw umber, burnt sienna, ochre and crimson that come together to create the signature rich depth of pigment in his paintings. “I never know who I am until the minute I walk into the studio,” Ruiz said of his approach to the process. “I’m influenced by other artists’ work or a conversation, or the weather, and it affects my approach to the work that day. I kind of envy artists who have a set of methodology to their work.” This spirit of spontaneity in the process comes through in each piece.
Since earning his BFA from Del Mar College in 1986, Ruiz continued painting while juggling a family and a demanding career outside the arts. “I got my BFA and four years later, I finished a painting and said to myself: ‘This is a Ricardo Ruiz painting. This is my voice. This is true to me.’ And that’s been my aim ever since,” Ruiz said. “I’m a narrative painter.” Noted by many as a trailblazer for modern Chicano art, Ruiz’s impact is cited by many Chicano artists as a vital push forward for the movement.
Ruiz has enjoyed turning his sights fully toward his craft in recent years, steadfastly expanding his body of work and collection of new South Texas mythology. His work can be found in the prestigious personal collection of notable Chicano art collector and actor Cheech Marin, as well as in the permanent collection at the Art Museum of South Texas.