Fiber arts admirer's passion lives on after her death in 'Alabaster Blast' at Fe Arts Gallery

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 8:01 p.m.

It's an unusual art exhibit with an unusual name, but “Alabaster Blast” is worth checking out if you have an interest in fiber art. The show contains work by 13 international fiber artists, and two reside right here in our own backyard, Pittsburgh.

The thread that runs from Pittsburgh to the Czech Republic to Italy, then to San Francisco on to Slovakia and back to Pittsburgh, connecting these artists is Jacqueline Ruyak (1946-2011), an art critic and ardent baseball fan.

“She was a huge advocate of fiber art and a dedicated fan of baseball,” says Jill Larson, an independent curator and Fe Gallery's founder who returned to the gallery recently to organize this exhibit.

Ruyak, who died in 2011, was a freelancer writer, art critic and fiber arts aficionado who spent 15 years living in Japan. She wrote for Fiberarts Magazine, Surface Design Journal and Ornament Magazine, among several other international fiber- and art-related periodicals.

“Jacqueline published Fe's first national review (in Surface Design Journal) along with writing articles and reviews for decades of the artists whose work are in this exhibit, often launching their careers ‘out of the park,' ” Larson says.

Ruyak's love of baseball is reflected in the exhibit's name. The term “Alabaster Blast” was coined by Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Bob Prince to describe a base hit that would go higher than normal due to the extraordinarily hard infield at Forbes Field. Larson also included a dozen baseball scorebooks scribbled in by Ruyak, one of which is from a Pirates game Larson attended with Ruyak.

Like Larson, many of the artists have stories about Ruyak.

For example, Lorraine Glessner, of Brooklyn, N.Y. — who has two works on display, “soon, soon, we will dance on the moon I” and “gestures, inclinations, intimations” — says, “Jacqueline came to Philadelphia in 2006 to interview me for an article for the Surface Design Journal. She had explained that she was an admirer of my work, and I was honored that she wanted to write about my process. When we finally met, we found we shared many things in common and spoke for a few hours. I enjoyed speaking with her and was struck by her strong spirit, easy laugh and great sense of humor.”

On display opposite Glessner's pieces is “Wind Traveler II” by Priscilla Otani of San Francisco, who Ruyak met at Columbia University in 1975. After meeting Ruyak, Otani says, “We were constant friends through correspondence, visits to each other's homes, trips to major and minor league baseball games, meetups in Japan, and mail art.”

Otani's piece uses Edo-period Japanese Haiku poet Matsuo Basho's last poem, which she handwrote on cheap calligraphy paper in Japanese and English. “I also used joss paper, which the Chinese burn as offerings to the dead,” Otani says.

The many pod shapes in the installation represent breasts, which are a symbol of life and fecundity in Tono, Japan, one of Ruyak's favorite places to live. “This piece is intended to decay over the course of the exhibition,” Otani says, “and whatever is left at the end should be burned.”

Slovakian artist Jozef Bajus, who currently is an associate professor of design and coordinator of the fibers program at Buffalo State College, first met Ruyak in 1999.

“She came to Bratislava to do my interview for Fiberarts Magazine,” Bajus says. “She took many photographs and took notes. We spent together three to four hours, and it was already midnight when she was leaving my studio.

“Jacqueline was interested very much in my mixed-media artworks and, especially at that time, recent work (from my) Kosovo Series project,” he says. “The theme was war and innocent people — refugees, bloody conflict which was spreading very quickly and effected everybody in that part of Europe and beyond. She found my series of five artworks very moving. To my surprise, later came that wonderful review, which opened door for me as an artist to North America, as well as to the fiber-art world.”

The inspiration for Bajus' two pieces in this exhibit — “Prayer for Jacqueline #1” and “Prayer for Jacqueline #2” — came from a trip to Japan in October 2011. “I was praying for Jacqueline's health at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, tying my prayer to the wall of prayers,” he says. “She passed away a few days before that, which I found out when I got back.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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