Connecting thread – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

Christina Ruhaak’s inviting, sunny University Avenue studio serves many purposes: It gives her a place to work, a space to house her many ongoing projects, and room to store her abundant collection of found and purchased textiles from near and far.

Ruhaak, who is also a mother of two, started renting this space in 2020, and quickly realized the value of having her own private play zone. “You can put down anything you want and nobody touches it. You can leave your ideas around so you can come back to them later.” The studio is walking distance from her house, making it easy for her to get into the groove.

Textiles have long been a part of Ruhaak’s life. Her mother was an interior designer, and both of her grandmothers sewed their own clothes. “I’ve always been surrounded by wonderful textiles,” she says. She graduated with a master of fine arts degree in textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has taught classes at UW-Madison and the Textile Arts Center of Madison.

Globe-trotting is also in Ruhaak’s DNA. She has grandparents who served in World War I and World War II. Her uncle is a Navy vet, and her dad was in the Air Force. Later, he became the vice president of advertising at a major U.S. airline, which let Ruhaak travel the world at a young age. “We were able to fly anywhere the company’s planes went,” she says.

This international exposure shows in Ruhaak’s collection. She loves searching for unexpected textiles from throughout the world. Hemp from Korea, yak hair fabric from Tibet, and couture silk peony flowers from Paris are some of her proudest finds. She seldom buys anything new. “There’s some lovely spirit in the sharing in the bits of people’s lives.”

A majority of her studio commissions are custom-designed carpets. Ruhaak creates the patterns by hand through painting, collaging or knitting. That design is then sent to Nepal for production. “The carpets are all hand-knotted and the wool can also be hand-spun and dyed. It is a very labor intensive process but the carpets are some of the best made in the world and they will last several lifetimes,” she says. Ruhaak works with an organization called GoodWeave that certifies that carpets are made without child or forced labor practices.

Standing in her studio, it’s easy to guess the main art project she’s been working on over the last few years. Everywhere you look is a small green army figure, wrapped in scraps of fabric and string. She began this exercise as a way to deal with the ongoing Ukraine war, and the meaning is open to interpretation. “Are these fathers, sons, husbands and uncles sent into battle lovingly wrapped and protected by the cobbled-together, domestic fabrics? Or has the civilian population rendered the invading army’s camouflage flamboyantly irrelevant, binding and restricting their movements?” her artist statement says. 

Her platoon of army men will be on display at Overture Center Gallery I starting Sept. 3.

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