Greenberg's parents warned against a career in art, but they also
taught her to think for herself. So when Ruth brushed off the warnings
and followed her ambition, she received their full support. A native
of Connecticut, Ruth was the first American-born child in her family
her parents are from Denmark and South Africa.
Start spreading the news
Ruth Greenberg needed to prove herself in New York City before Portland
would take a chance on her.
"When I started looking for mosaic work, I couldn't get the
top design firms in Portland to hire me," she said. "So
I took a trip to New York, hit the pavement, knocked on doors and
found myself invited in. Now local companies hire me based on references
Prospective clients typically see Ruth's work through their interior
designer, architect or a friend. Then, based on the style of their
house, who they are, what they value and their interests, Ruth creates
a custom design.
"Often it is a somewhat collaborative effort with the client
and the designer," she said, "but usually I come up with
some ideas, draw them up and propose them. The client and designer
say 'we love it, great, proceed' or 'we like this but could we have
more of this and less of this,' or something like that."
After the design is approved, Ruth cuts tiles from wet clay, fires,
glazes and fires again. If the project is local, she then sets the
mosaic on site; if it's not, she pre-installs it on a backing and
ships it to the site so a local tile-setter can set and grout.
at Holy Family Catholic Church in Portland, Ore.
All of Ruth's work, averaging four pieces a year, is on commission.
She now has clients all over the country. Since her art is installed
on site, she doesn't show at galleries.
"Much of the work I do is residential fireplace hearths,
backsplashes, murals, bath details but I've done two university
projects and a mural for a business."
The universities are Yale and Rice. The Yale job came about because
an architect was willing to take a risk with an unknown; Rice hired
Ruth because of the Yale project.
Last month Ruth and local sculptor Dave Laubenthal were chosen
to collaborate on a public art piece for the Alberta
Over the next year, they'll build a large tree that will be solar
lit inside the branches, have a seat or two and be faced in mosaic.
"I was really hoping for this one," she said. "Having
a public art piece locally is pretty exciting."
Direct inspiration for Ruth's work comes from ancient Roman mosaics
in Italy and North Africa. Indirectly, she's inspired by Tiffany
glass and her favorite artists: Vermeer, da Vinci, William Morris,
Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Cornell, Hokusai, Jacques-Henri Lartigue,
Matisse, many self-taught artists of the South and her father.
using fireproof tile.
"My father is especially involved and we often collaborate
on projects," she said. "He once commented that he wished
there was a fireproof tile that could be used inside fireplaces.
I spent two years creating just such a tile."
Ruth's parents influenced her artistic life profoundly. Insisting
that their children be independent, they left them to their own
devices for entertainment. The five siblings combined a lack of
TV with adept use of their imaginations and anything they could
get their hands on to build forts, craft horses and sew dolls.
"My mother tells me that I was using a pencil at seven months,
but who knows," she said. "I do remember being very intimidated
by my older sister's evident drawing talents and also by the high
expectations my parents had of all of us.
"Their mantra was 'it doesn't matter what you choose to do,
but you must be the best at it," she said. "This often
caused me to be too afraid to try anything risky, like exploring
my creativity in a formal way as in drawing, painting or
trying to make a likeness of something. So I would close the door
to my room and do my exploration in private. But even there I felt
Ruth took art classes in high school, though she didn't think her
work was any good.
"I did learn a lot, though," she said. "I had a
great teacher who taught me how to get myself focused when I wanted
to sit down and draw."
Ruth stumbled upon her calling during her second year in college
after an internship in journalism and a few changed majors.
She had registered for a film class, but on the first night all
underclassmen were asked to leave because it was full. She replaced
it with a pottery class on a whim, and on the first night changed
her major to art.
Ruth then took drawing, fiber arts, jewelry-making and "lots
and lots" of ceramics.
"My college offered a unique situation for me as an undergrad,"
she said. "The ceramics professor was world famous and very
gifted. He was also the professor for the graduate ceramics program
at an adjacent grad school, so the undergrad and grad students shared
a workspace, and undergrads could sit in on certain graduate classes.
"People from all over the world wanted to work with my professor,
so he'd invite three or four working artists to the studio each
semester. Visiting artists would teach the first semester each year,
then he taught the second. I loved all of this because I was exposed
to so many artists, techniques and a level of talent and professionalism
that's rare to have as an undergrad."
Ruth's introduction to mosaics came during the summer of her junior
year when she received a grant and studied with a mosaic artist
in New Mexico.
"It was a blast," she said. "We'd spend all day
tiling. She used broken tile to do a mosaic on the outside of her
entire house, yard and fence. It was an incredible project that
has since given her recognition and a sizable grant as one of the
10 unknown national treasures by the Smithsonian Institute.
"But I still thought I'd pursue a career as a ceramic artist
doing sculpture and some functional work."
It wasn't until after Ruth had traveled for a while, gone back to
school for a master's degree in education, moved to Portland and
started her own children's art school, that she returned to mosaics
of Cancer," click to see complete mosaic.
"I got my first commission with the parents of one of my students
and decided that I couldn't break another tile. So I asked the clients
if they would be willing to let me try a new technique and they
agreed. I had enough ceramics background to figure out how to make
my own tile, so I taught myself to do what I do now."
Ruth's dream is a secret in the works.
"I'm not really ready to share my plan with the public,"
she said. "But I'm hopeful you'll soon see it in action!"