The Story and Artist Behind the “Women, Ascending” Print
Looking at artist Rachel Levit Ruiz’s illustrations — work that’s often centered around the female form, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed, typically in action: bodies stretching, bending, twisting, crouching, staring, being — one might find an inherently feminist thread. Another might simply see themselves.
“Art becomes part of the world,” she said. Once released, it no longer belongs to the artist alone. “It becomes personal to other people.”
It’s that thoughtfulness, that ability to let art be what an individual needs it to be, that seems to have guided Ruiz’s illustrations across a spectrum of projects that include topical, sometimes difficult themes. She was a participating artist in Amnesty International’s #VivanLasMujeres campaign: “a demand to stop gender violence and femicide,” and her commissions for publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times have touched upon the #MeToo movement, family separation, and mental health.
Ruiz sees art as a way to express her own values and to contribute good to the world. That became clear in our conversation about art-as-action, why representing women in art is inevitably political, and her collaboration with Bonobos in conjunction with Women’s History Month.
Bonobos: Let’s talk about the print. I read an interview you did with It’s Nice That where you described your characters as stoic, with a rich inner life. That sums up the women in this print for me. They look like they’re going somewhere. Where are they going? Do these women have a story? (And is that something you thought about beforehand?)
Levit Ruiz: I like to leave things open for interpretation. It’s not like, “This has
I read on Refinery29 that they said [of the print], “We like to call it, “Women, Ascending.” I loved that because I couldn’t have titled it better. I like to release things, and then [let] people read into it, because it’s all a projection. I’m projecting something as well, but it’s more that I draw women and I’m lucky to work professionally making images about women.
I see a lot of feminist artists on Instagram, which is great. They write it down: “This is what we’re supposed to fight for.” I’m more of a — I don’t say it; I do it or I draw it, and that’s why I do images that are hopefully intriguing, that people curious about, and they can say, “That’s me walking up the stairs.”
The feminist thread that runs through your art: how is that a way for you, personally, to take action?
I think art is my contribution to the world. It’s how I express my values. A lot of [the work I do] for The New Yorker or The New York Times are illustrations for stories about women’s issues — sometimes very sensitive, very political. I’ve also been commissioned for projects related to violence, mental health, social justices, etc. Although they are difficult themes, I tend to connect with them easily. Having a job that allows me to explore some of these issues is a privilege.
I believe in not only reclaiming feminist values, but going deeper by putting them to practice in everyday life. It goes beyond the drawings: because my work centers around women’s issues, I am often approached to donate my time and work for inequality-related causes. I have done this a few times in the past. But recently, I realized that doing projects that raise awareness about women’s rights can be kind of ironic when no one’s paying you. Now I am more aware that if I am asked to help the cause, the work conditions must be congruent with the values that are preached. If you want to pay tribute to [International] Women’s Day, give a woman a job.
You spoke to GrubStreet about the need for female-centric symbols in art that weren’t good looking or sexy, and said that you’re interested in creating symbols that are different and not easy to digest. Why is that important to you?
As an artist, my job is to create images, and I’m interested in representations that challenge conventional beauty because otherwise, it’s very boring. I grew up with icons that were not very nuanced or were about one “ideal” of beauty.
Representing women in art is inevitably political because the art that has been deemed relevant for the past centuries has been made mostly by men. Now we get to represent women through our own gaze. We might take it for granted, but how we represent ourselves matters. Shape, size, color, posture: nothing is arbitrary.
What are you most proud of throughout the body of work that you’ve done?
What I’m proud of is not a single project, but more how I’ve grown throughout the years. You can feel very insecure trying to go into art, and when you’re 21 it’s very uncertain and hard. And I’m proud at this point that I am confident and in myself and in my work, which is not a given. So it’s more about the process and the growth as opposed to where I’ve been published.
What is something you wish someone would ask you about your artwork, or about being an artist? And what is the answer?
I wish people would ask me more about the limits because people don’t often to talk about how boundaries are very important when you are an artist and work for other people.
If you’re starting out, like I was four years ago, you often feel guilty saying no. You want to say yes to everything because it’s like, “Wow, how nice [is it] that somebody wants to work with me?” I think we need to prioritize mental health rather than working endlessly.
It took me a long time [to figure out my own boundaries]. Part of it is trying everything out. You have to remember the feeling of working on something that you really didn’t want to work on so in the future you can pass on similar projects. It’s something that came with age for me. I also moved to a city that is not as expensive as New York; that really helped. It’s different for everyone, and it’s definitely a process that is always changing.
What would you tell your younger self as she’s trying to earn a living, but also find those healthy boundaries?
I would tell her not to worry that much because it’s when you’re insecure that you take on more than you should, or you do things that you don’t want to just because you think you have to. I would tell her to be more balanced and not put all self-worth into work, in the art that you make, or into achievements.
Important women in your life?
My mom. We’re very different, but she let me be an individual. She trusted me and gave me support and freedom. It’s very simple, but I took it for granted until very recently.
Last question: what artists, who happen to be women, should anyone reading this story know about?
Some of my favorites are Rutu Modan, Louise Bourgeois, Anna Koak, Margaret Kilgallen, Ram Han, Naudline Pierre, and Sophie Calle. I went to a museum just recently, and I saw [the work of] this amazing woman, Nancy Spero. It was truly one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen. A lot of her work is about bringing to light women’s forgotten histories through time. She uses ancient-history female motifs to vindicate the overlooked side of history.
Rachel Levit Ruiz’s art can be found in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Marie Claire France, and on DocumentJournal.com. For original art, visit Uprise Art. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and check out her website here.
Amelia Diamond is a writer living in New York City who, despite being a writer, had trouble writing this bio. Follow her on Instagram here.