Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- When looking at a finished piece of artwork, thoughts range from appreciation of the piece to what the artist was trying to say to what may have inspired the work.

But where the work was done is an overlooked facet. The environment in which a piece of art is produced also has influences such as the way the artist sees the work as it progresses, the mood that the artist is in and the comfort level.

On Saturday, the Albany Area Arts Council will be giving area residents a chance to see some accomplished local artists in their home environments. The tour, which starts at the Carnegie Library at 215 Jackson St. at 10 a.m., includes transportation, lunch and a tour of the homes and studios of Steve Hinton, who works in pastels, charcoal and oils; Arthur Berry, who works in abstract sculptures, oils, drawings and etchings; John Cumbee, who paints on boards with latex, and Larry Ruis, who does wood turning.

Deborah Loehr, executive director for the arts council, said she had previously visited Hinton and Berry's studios, something that stuck with her when she was developing this year's major fundraiser for the organization that distributes funding to the Albany Museum of Art, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Theatre Albany, Thronateeska Heritage Center and the Albany Chorale.

"Every year we do a major fundraiser. We're constantly trying to think of ways to raise money," Loehr said Wednesday. "It was just interesting to me to see their studios and then their work in their houses."

A preview tour Wednesday included visits with two of the participating artists -- Ruis and Cumbee. Both reside in the rural western side of Dougherty County, neither entered the world of fine art on a conventional career path and each has his own unique way of coaxing art out of a medium that itself influences the work.

Ruis, whose wood-turning studio is in an air-conditioned, metal building located between his white woodframe home and the cypress pond he created decades ago, is a retired certified public accountant. He started the firm Draffin & Tucker in Albany in 1972 and retired in 2000. He and his wife, Jan, also started Wynfield Plantation in the late '80s and '90s, and they were involved with it for the better part of a decade.

Now, he takes woods like box elder, sweetgum, maple, sycamore, cedar and oak and turns them into collectible objects and bowls, many with flowing irregular edges. Some of his work has more practical purposes -- oil lamps, Christmas ornaments and pepper grinders. The abrupt career transition has surprised many a new acquaintance.

"People will say, 'What did you do before in "real life"? And I'll say, 'I was a CPA.' And they'll say, 'And you do this? CPAs aren't supposed to be creative,'" Ruis said with a smile. "I don't know. I guess it (the creative spark) was there and I just didn't know it."

One thing he did know as he neared retirement was he wanted to do some creative work with wood, he just didn't realize he was heading down a wrong track at first.

"I became interested in woodworking back in the early '80s just briefly, didn't have time. But I thought I'd like to make furniture. So when I was deciding what I was going to do after I retired, I decided, 'I'm going to set up a studio and I'm going to make furniture.' I went and bought a ton of equipment."

That lasted until he and his wife were at a woodworking symposium in Atlanta. He'd never seen wood turning before, but he was mesmerized by the exhibition.

"Finally I said, 'Jan, I can do that and that's what I want to do.' So, all this equipment I had in here I sold -- it had never been used," he said. "And I bought a couple of lathes and I started. I'm kind of self-taught, though I have worked with a friend of mine in Atlanta who's also a wood turner and he and I collaborate on ideas and techniques and all that.

"I started out with some very amateurish designs and all that, and it's just progressed to where it is today."

Where it's progressed to is some fine art galleries in places like Atlanta and Franklin, N.C. Some of his work can be found in John Collette Fine Art's catalogue.

While Ruis had an epiphany at that Atlanta show, John Cumbee, a former pharmaceutical company representative, found his motivation in a personal life change and some conveniently located materials.

"I was divorced and I was real bored and I bought a house in Doublegate," he said. "The fellow that left it left a ton of paints -- cans and cans and cans of paint.

"I was fooling around and got a board like when you cut out for a sink and just started pouring on paint. I don't know why I started. I was just out there in that house and had all those paints. I'd go around to where they were building houses and I'd ask the fellows if I could have the boards they had piled in the trash pile."

Now remarried and moved from the house where he started painting about six year ago, he's been splashing, pouring and dribbling latex onto wood ever since. Like Ruis, he's a self-taught artist who relies on the materials he's working with to ultimately direct his work.

"I never had any training," he said, though there could be a genetic disposition. "Of course, my mother was kind of artsy and my grandchildren are artsy."

Standing out by his brick studio with a covered porch that offers a pleasant view into the wooded area behind his and his wife Barbara's house, he exhibits a gentle wit that can be self-depreciating in the finest Southern tradition. He'll tell you pretty quickly that he doesn't have the training to create realistic depictions of subjects.

"I can't draw intricate stuff," he said. "I use a lot of sticks. I hardly ever use a brush. When I do use a brush, I never clean it. I just use more paint."

Instead, he relies on the materials -- latex paint on wooden boards -- and gravity in creating his abstract images.

"A lot of times I just pour, tilt the thing around and something just comes out," he said.

Walking into his studio -- and there's a funny story behind that handsome brick building: It came into being at his wife's insistence after he dropped a paint can and the yellow paint splashed onto her car. "I knew she'd notice it," he said -- the walls are covered with paintings he has produced.

In the center is a flat table where he starts by taking a board -- particle board is a favorite -- and pours on a background color. From there ... well, it's pretty much how the mood strikes him. Like fluffy white clouds on a bright blue sky, images such as his "Dancing Dolphin" emerge. He pointed to one on the wall that he titled "Starbucks."

"I'd go to Starbucks every morning to get a cup of coffee and I'd come home and go out here and tilt the board up and put paint in the coffee cup and hold it up against the board pour it and let it go where it goes," he said. "Then I'd take another color and let it go."

Cumbee takes an informal approach to what he does. He paints "just whenever the mood strikes me" and isn't one for long projects. He said he often finishes a piece in 10 minutes or less. "Twenty minutes would probably be the max," he said, adding he's not the most patient man.

Ruis, by contrast, takes about five days to complete a given piece. Using his lathe and hollowing out pieces so that the piece is equally thick all the way around is a precise job that can't be rushed.

"I usually can rough a piece out in a day, and then I have developed a finishing process that takes four days to do (regardless of the size of a piece)," he said. "Eventually when I get through with them, they're slick and they shine."

His favorite woods to work with are box elder, which often has dramatic red, blue-gray and other colors, and maple. He also uses imported woods from South America and Africa. Oak, he says, is his least favorite to work with.

But perhaps more important than the type of wood is its condition. Ruis likes to use wood that has started decaying. When fungi begin to attack dead wood, the wood becomes spalty, or colorized. The three basic forms of spalting are pigmentation, white rot and zone lines, all of which add character to the piece.

"Spalting is the beginning of the rotting process, put simply," Ruis said. "If you can capture that wood before it's too spalty ... it makes all these beautiful lines and dark spots, it makes all that."

Ruis he always has idea of what he's going to make, but how it will look in the end is uncertain. He does some commission work -- and Atlanta area church got him to make a keepsake large communion cup from a 200-year-old oak it had to cut down -- but prefers not to.

"I just like to let it flow," he said. "Most wood turners will tell you they may have a preconceived notion like, 'I'm going to make a bowl out of this piece.' After they put it on a lathe and it starts turning and you start taking it down, you see the lines and grain formation and all that, and it begins to communicate with you. It changes shape from what you perhaps intended and into the final shape that you hope makes the grain come out and the lines come out more than what you originally started.

"I don't make it what I want. It develops and becomes what the wood tells me it wants to be."

Ruis says he doesn't work every day. Like Cumbee, he has to "feel it." When he does, he goes into his shop from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., not even stopping to eat.

One thing is for certain about his career change. He doesn't look at wood the way he used to.

"I've always enjoyed the outdoors and I've always looked at trees," he said, "but I never saw anything but the bark and the branches. The inside of the tree is where the beauty really is."