Baltimore artist Paul Rucker tackles racism and justice, turns heads nationwide

The visual artist and musician Paul Rucker has a secret sauce.

That’s no metaphor — there’s a brown-gold liquid in a clear glass bottle sitting on a work table in Rucker’s studio at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance, where he’s an artist in residence. He’s spent the past four years refining the concoction, which he calls “Harmony Food Sauce.” It’s based on a salad dressing he once ate and couldn’t stop thinking about. One version has notes of cayenne and another, of wasabi. Rucker says it tastes good on everything — bacon, seafood, eggs, you name it.

“People get really addicted to it,” says the 49-year-old, who divides time his between Baltimore and Seattle. “I want to create a company to market this sauce. Maybe I’ll do it as an art project, and use the label to talk about the 34,000 youth incarcerated in the U.S. in juvenile and adult prisons.”

He’s not joking. And it’s just possible that Rucker’s secret sauce provides a clue to his — well, secret sauce, the distinctive mix of qualities that’s enabled him to stand out in Baltimore’s and Seattle’s rich artistic communities.

Rucker isn’t merely a gifted amateur chef. He’s also an installation artist, composer and musician who’s won awards — most recently, a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship — and high-profile admirers in both fields. (He’s performed his original cello compositions at the invitation of “Twin Peaks” creator David Lynch and has recorded with Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard.)

For Rucker, these are all methods of exploring the topic that consumes him: how the aftereffects of slavery and racism continue to wreak havoc throughout the United States. Sometimes music is the right tool to make his point. At other times, it’s a video or art installation. And sometimes, it’s a condiment.

“Someone once said I should create a life slogan for myself,” Rucker says. “The one I came up with is ‘moving beyond the limits of expectations.’ ”

Earlier this spring, when Rucker picked up the Guggenheim fellowship, it was the most significant in a series of accolades and grants he has won over the past 15 years. Taken as a whole, they point to an artist who may be in the early stages of a major career.

Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, thinks Rucker has the potential to create work that will win him a national name.

“Paul is an extremely sophisticated conceptual artist and a startling intellect,” said Bedford, who encountered Rucker’s work this year during a tour of Baltimore artists’ studios. “He uses art and live performance and objects to slide sideways into very difficult discussions about racism and slavery and guilt and responsibility.”

Already, Rucker has created works for the city of Tacoma and Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He’ll be included in a group show that will inaugurate Virginia Commonwealth University’s new museum when it opens in the spring of 2018.

And “REWIND,” Rucker’s exhibit of life-sized mannequins wearing a series of outlandish Ku Klux Klan robes has spent the past three years touring the nation, and was on view earlier this month in Ferguson, Mo.

“I don’t create art to make anyone feel good,” he says.

“My biggest concern right now is not guys in pointy hats. It’s white liberals who don’t understand that they’re benefiting from racism as much as — if not more than — rural conservatives.”

For the inaugural Light City Baltimore festival of illuminated artworks, Rucker shone the spotlight quite literally on slavery, lighting up specific locations around the city where African men, women and children were once sold. The artist also composed and performed a different cello solo at each site.

Another artwork consists of a video showing a map of the U.S. that starts out entirely black. As Rucker’s cello plays in the background, the map gradually fills with glowing dots illustrating the rampant growth of the U.S. prison industrial complex during the past century.

The artist’s studio at Creative Alliance is filled with his extensive collection of slavery books. Artifacts are everywhere you look: 19th-century shackles, racist sheet music, a Confederate $100 bill that depicts slaves picking cotton.

“A lot of my work deals with the transition from slavery to the modern-day prison system,” he said. “Our society went seamlessly from one to the other.”

The Rucker exhibit currently in the greatest demand is his Klan robes, each more bizarre than the next. Some robe and hood sets are fashioned in fetching pastel prints. One is accessorized with a child’s superhero cape while another is belted with a satin sash. A handful of the mannequins, pointedly, are black.

“Some black people think I'm giving white people a pass by making this art,” Rucker acknowledges.

“But three of the police officers who went on trial for Freddie Gray’s death were black and the police chief was black. Our current mayor [Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh], who is black, went against [raising] the minimum wage. There’s no guaranty that you’re going to be protected by members of your own race.”

Baltimore artist Joyce Scott thinks Rucker is a throwback to Renaissance figures who excelled in a variety of disciplines.

“Paul can do it all,” she says. “He’s played with symphony orchestras all over the world, and he can also be improvisational. He can be lyrical and he can be classical. He can deal with beauty and with horror. This is someone with the elan to take Ku Klux Klan robes and turn them a fashion show. That’s some some neat jumping.”

Rucker’s accomplishments would be impressive for an artist with degrees from music conservatories or art schools. They’re even more noteworthy when they appear on the resume of someone who, like Rucker, is almost entirely self-taught.

Though he received basic musical instruction on the double bass from the public school system in South Carolina, where he was raised, Rucker taught himself to play the cello, now his instrument of choice. He has yet to take his first art class.

In this respect, he modeled himself on his mother.

“My mom is a church organist,” Rucker said. “She taught herself music through a mail order course. She’d get a lesson a week in the mail. I was 11 when she finished her lessons. She had a stage built and put on this big recital at her church. The doggedness and determination I definitely get from her.”

Music also is entwined with what Rucker remembers as his first encounter with racism. During a trip to Charleston, S.C., to participate in a state competition with his middle-school band, young Paul had been scheduled to stay overnight with a local couple. But when it came time to pick him up, they declined to host the preteen because of his skin color.

“I was this innocent young kid,” he said. “It put me into a tailspin. It really hurt.”

Rucker earned a music scholarship to the University of South Carolina but didn’t graduate. After more than a decade supporting himself as a freelance musician, Rucker moved to Seattle in 1998 and temporarily put down his double bass.

“I’d been working nonstop since high school, and I was burned out,” he said. “I needed to take a break from music for a while.”

He took a job as a janitor for the Seattle Art Museum at a time the institution was presenting a show of Cindy Sherman’s artwork. Rucker was fascinated by the way the photographer used portraiture as a form of social critique.

“I swept the floors up and cleaned up, and I’d see that show every night,” he said. In successive months, he encountered Chuck Close’s photorealist creations and Christian Marclay’s experiments combining video with sound. For the first time, Rucker began to think about expressing his views visually.

In 2003, he created his first piece of conceptual art, an interactive sound and video installation. That’s also about the time he picked up the cello and developed his signature “extended technique,” in which Rucker incorporates sounds into his compositions not traditionally thought of as musical. For instance, he’ll scrape the bow over the cello’s wooden body instead of the strings, or slap his body.

The resulting pieces began attracting attention — and lots of it.

In 2006, Rucker won a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study music in Bellagio, Italy. In 2012, he was the recipient of a “life-changing” Creative Capital grant that provided him with funding and career development services valued at $95,000. And in 2015, he picked up a $25,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize.

“For me, music and art are different delivery methods,” Rucker said. “When I’m playing live for you, I’m playing with your energy. One of the most magical things about performing is that everyone brings their story to you.

“I can’t play a sculpture. It doesn’t involve interaction with a living person. But when it’s finished, I can leave it behind on the wall.”

Five years ago, Rucker was one of nearly four dozen artists who performed five-minute presentations during a Creative Capital retreat. Jane Brown, president of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, was in the audience.

“Everyone who performed was incredible,” she recalled. “Then Paul came on and began to play his cello and present his amazing animation of the prison system. I knew right away that he had to come to Baltimore.”

Brown arranged for Rucker to have a two-year residency at the Maryland Institute College of Art beginning in 2013. Since then, he has become firmly established in Baltimore, and considers it and Seattle as his home bases. Baltimore is where his partner, the educator Carla Finkelstein, lives. Baltimore is where he is mentoring younger artists. And Baltimore is where he’s thinking about how to combine his artwork with social practice.

Rucker hopes to start a company to manufacture and distribute small batches of his secret sauce that would be staffed by recent inmates. He’d finance the project with his own money and some grants.

“Our recidivism rate is high,” he said. “Getting a job is hard enough if you’re black, but if you’re black and have a criminal record? Even harder.

“On the back of the label I could put statistics I’m getting from the Prison Policy Initiative. For instance, there are 2,500 youth in the U.S. who are incarcerated in adult prisons. People could read about it while they’re eating their food sauce.”

Paul Rucker

Age: 49

Career: Visual artist and musician

Residence: Baltimore and Seattle

Birthplace: South Carolina

Most recent accomplishment: Selected as a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow

Education: Attended University of South Carolina

Personal: His partner is the educator Carla Finkelstein

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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