Chicago Studio Volunteer Spotlight: Mary Ruppert

May 17, 2019 By catherine-norcott
Two women talking while seated.

Mary Ruppert has had a long term interest in participating in intentional community.  She first explored it as a member of L’Arche communities* in Greater Washington DC, and Toronto, where she lived and worked with adults with intellectual disabilities.  More recently, she moved to Chicago to work for L’Arche USA. Deeply creative and curious, Mary’s practice centers around physical theatre. Her interest in getting to know the creative scene in Chicago inspired her to get involved at Arts of Life last fall.  We all enjoy the lighthearted and gentle presence she brings to the studio on Friday mornings. Curator, artist and member of L’Arche Chicago, Tim Stone sat down with Mary to talk a bit about her experience as a volunteer.

Tim Stone (TS): How did you learn about Arts of Life?  How long have you been volunteering here?

Mary Ruppert (MR):Well, I was working with Mike Marino on the Inclusion Team for L’Arche USA.  That’s a group that meets to think about ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard in L’Arche communities.  When I met Mike, he told me about where he worked, and I thought it was really cool. When I moved to Chicago, I wanted to explore my own creative practice, and I thought that getting involved with the studio would be a great step.  I had read a magazine article about it and watched some youtube videos of some of the songs. I just thought it was awesome!

I have been volunteering just about nine months. I started last September.  

TS: What is something you like about volunteering here?

MR: I like that it is a creative space where people are feeding off of each other’s creative energy.  I feel like it is very generative in that way. And I like being with other people who want to be in community with each other and want to make art together.  It helps with my own creative practice. It feels like there is creative energy bouncing off the walls here. I find that nurturing for myself.  Also, there is an attentiveness to relationship. I find it difficult to make work on my own. It is nice to be around people who recognize that we need each other in our lives but also in our artwork.    

TS: Are you an artist?  

MR: It is hard for me to say “Yes, I am an artist!”.  It is hard to claim that title, but I am. My main practice is doing physical theatre.  I’m a dabbler, so I do a little bit of visual art, sometimes I sing. I’m teaching myself to play the ukulele.  I’m an explorer.

I try to be attentive to the world around me with my senses, with my sight, with my hearing, with my sense of touch.  Like on my drive down here this morning, I was looking at the trees. Before that I was on my phone. I looked up and saw the lake and said to myself, “Put away your phone, Mary”.  Today it is a bit cloudy, and I noticed the green of the lake, how it is a bit lighter than when it is really sunny. And I noticed the green of the trees, how some are really bright, dark green, and some are still growing their baby leaves.  It helps me to remember that what is real is right now. But I also stow those images away. As an artist, it helps to be an observer of the world around you. Whether that is people and how they work or the bend of the trees in the wind. It is all information that can be used later.

TS:  What is it like to work with artists at Arts of Life?

MR: I just love that you don’t have to be an expert here to work together.  One person might have a little bit of knowledge about a particular medium or some way of making art, and another person has a little bit of knowledge about something else.  By working together, you create something new for both of you. You don’t have to know what you are doing when you start. There is an invitation to let go of perfection, and celebrate the beauty of where you are, and develop self-acceptance.

There was one day when Jean asked me to work on something with her.  She had a vision that involved a foray into fabric, not her usual medium, and she knew she needed another head to think it through. Jean worked with textiles years ago, so knows enough about fabric to be dangerous. Did she somehow intuit that my quilter mom had imparted just enough needle-knowledge to make me dangerous, too? With our powers combined, our trust in each other, and our grace for the unexpected bumps, we were able to figure out the structure of the piece so Jean could put it all together with her own flair. This kind of experimentation is Jean’s bread and butter. No big deal. Of course she’s going to make awesome stuff. Diving in head first with her encouraged me in my fledgling artistry. Maybe I can try something new, too – take a baby step into the unknown.

TS: What do you do when you are not at Arts of Life?

MR: I am the manager of donor relations for L’Arche USA.  So I do fundraising for another organization that creates communities for people with and without intellectual disabilities.  And I am an actor and a clown and an aunt. I exercise my creativity in my kitchen too! I love to cook!

TS: What is something you learned in your time at Arts of Life?

MR: This is a re-learning: it takes time to build a relationship with someone, to build the trust that it takes to work together.  Part of that process is just being together. That is hard to do, because I am a person who tends to want to feel busy. In order for me to feel comfortable, I want to have something to DO.  But part of the work here is to be together. Part of what makes this place so special is that the first step is just to show up, to have lunch, to sit beside somebody. That can feel uncomfortable at first, but that is a necessary step and a beautiful gift.  

You can see work by Mary and many other volunteers in How We Make It 2019 at Circle Contemporary through May 31.  You can also find out more about her performance practice at her website or on Facebook.

*To learn more about L’Arche communities across America, you can visit the website for L’Arche USA.  

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