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March/April 2001


Ruth Funk:
A Wearable Medley of Cultures

Square-cut coat, 1999; Etruscan cloth with trim of cotton velveteen, batik cotton, Indian cotton shibori pieces, fiber panels from Samoa Islands, shells, bamboo and wooden beads, cotton tassels and yarns, cotton netting; cotton batik lining; 51 inches long. Photo: Randall Smith. Model: Angela Eldridge.
Indigo-dyed batik from Japan, turkoman camel tassels from Uzbekistan, pumpkin seeds and raffia from the United States, sheisha mirrors from India, tapa cloth from Samoa, Masai earrings from Africa, molas from the San Blas Islands, kilim carpet from the Middle East, and hand-screened silk from Thailand. Such diverse elements come together as wearable art by Ruth Funk.

Funk began making outfits for herself in the 1980s after retiring from a career as college administrator, gallery owner, and professor of art and interior design. Thirty-eight of her jackets, vests, purses, and necklaces were exhibited last fall in "Fashion, Fun, & Fantasy: Creative Garments by Ruth Funk" at the Maitland [Florida] Art Center.

Funk's jackets and coats begin with a basic square-cut or Othello coat pattern. Her artistic touches come into play during the embellishment of each garment. Whether she uses dried mushrooms from a local Oriental market or glorious antique French fabric donated by a friend, she seldom plans her creations in advance. Each garment is the culmination of an evolutionary design process. Like characters who come alive to their authors, designs reveal themselves to her as she works.

Each creation possesses its own unique flavor: glamorous, sophisticated, tribal; Latin, Japanese, Polynesian. A single garment may contain collected objects from a number of different cultures. What's important to Funk is that all parts make a synchronous contribution to the whole--that the fabrics, spacing, colors, and textures remain true to the spirit of the garment.

While she uses her machine to stitch heavy areas and to complete straight seams, her finishing and decorative work are all hand done. Tassels, buttons, puffs, and other special touches are applied to side slits in her jackets. On some pieces, she uses netting to give visual depth. One garment contains hundreds of hand-applied French knots. Another is made of material she's created by chemically transferring postcard designs from color prints onto fabric. She finishes the inside of each of her pieces; in fact, some of the linings are as colorful and inventive as the exteriors of her garments.

Funk stashes her collection of materials in upright cubbyholes lining the walls of her one-room, in-home studio. This kaleidoscopic convergence of materials reflects her own eclectic background. A Dallas, Texas, native, she majored in art at Texas Women's University. She attributes her understanding of "how things go together" to additional training in occupational therapy. Extensive travels further expanded her knowledge of textiles and cultural artifacts.

A painting student of Hans Hofmann in Province-town, Massachusetts, Funk learned silkscreen and block printing in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and was co-owner of a contemporary art gallery (327 Gallery) in Albany, New York, in the late 1950s. After a stint as Director of Education at the Albany Institute of History and Art, she retired as Director of the Interior Design Program at Russell Sage College in Albany. She now lives in Melbourne, Florida.

Her re-engagement with sewing during retirement echoes the passion she had as a child for making clothing for her dolls. Though that was some years ago, each garment Funk produces today reflects a child's sense of play: of freshness, of experimentation, and of delightful innovation.

- Sara Snyder Crumpacker

Sara Snyder Crumpacker is a management consultant who has written for magazines, books, newspapers, and professional journals.

This profile first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2001

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