At the end of August, one of my favorite Ypsilanti artists, Rita Jane Riggs, will be packing up and heading west to see what the universe has in store for her. Please join me in wishing her well on her journey.
MARK: What first brought you to Ypsilanti, or were you born here?
RITA: I grew up in Ypsi and Ann Arbor. Mom in Ypsi – Dad in Ann Arbor. I was always in the Normal Park area.
MARK: What kind of kid were you?
RITA: Brave and fierce and full of stories. I was always dancing and singing and wearing costumes. I played alone mostly, and I was never lonely or bored.
MARK: If you were to tell the story of your time in Ypsi in a series of vignettes, what would that look like?
RITA: In my backyard, as a kid, acting out all the characters from Children of the Corn. Me as a teenager trudging through snow with a bottle of vodka I’d stolen from my grandparents. Me as a performance artist at Dreamland. Me as an honors student at EMU, a girlfriend, and a terrible roommate who never did the dishes. Then, me as a single adult – living alone for the first time in a gorgeous victorian house with my art and my cats.
RITA: My family traces its history back pretty far in the Upper Peninsula, as well as in mid-Michigan. Woodsmen and farmers mostly.
MARK: And where are you headed off to now?
RITA: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
MARK: Why Albuquerque?
RITA: My mom took me to New Mexico a few years ago. I didn’t even know what New Mexico was. When she informed me that we were going there, I said, “But mom, I don’t have a passport…” After spending a week there, the magic of the space took me over. New Mexico does something to my soul… to my body… my energy. It’s like a world of vortices, ghosts, angels and talking animals. I truly feel like I’m on another planet when I’m there. About a month ago, I used my tax return money to take the train back there. I have a weird, fantastic uncle in Santa Fe who I stayed with. Initially I thought I would live in Santa Fe, but I was really curious about ABQ because I like city energy. On the train, I met a magic boy named Jacob who is my same age… We instantly became great friends, and, surprisingly, the lives in ABQ. So, during my recent trip, Jacob showed me around ABQ, and I realized that, as an artist, it would be most beneficial for me to live in the city because of all its options for work, shows, play and easy transportation without a car.
MARK: Have you watched Breaking Bad?
RITA: Ha, ha, ha… nope. I’ve heard it was filmed there though.
MARK: Yeah, the landscapes are really breathtaking, if you can look beyond the blood and the meth.
RITA: The blood and the meth is everywhere. Death is all around us, darkness too, and beauty and laughter. Lots of contrast here on earth. Lots of things to look at no matter where you are. I saw a squirrel get hit by a car today, its blood splattered everywhere, and I sobbed. Then I turned and the sun was setting over downtown Ann Arbor, and it was gorgeous, and I sobbed.
RITA: I like to think of my work as stoic. I take people whom I admire – that spark my fascination – and I turn them into saints or icons of the modern age. My art is also super playful. I love cartoons, color and design. Everything gets a bright halo – even coffee cups get a halo.
MARK: Where do you think the religious iconography comes from? Did you grow up Catholic?
RITA: I didn’t grow up Catholic. I grew up with Jungian Pagan parents. One side of my family is Catholic… my Dad’s side. He actually trained in seminary when he was younger, but strongly rejects the Catholic church these days. My mom studied Comparative Religion in college, as did I.
MARK: So where do you think your fascination with iconography comes from?
RITA: The religious references come in for two reasons. The first being that my main source of inspiration for my work was from my best friend Robert Spier. When I was a little girl (he was a bit older than me) he would draw figures that had a fallen angel quality to them. His characters are still the central focus of his work, and they hold this incredible power, as if they are otherworldly. Being so moved by his work at such a young age, and having him as my primary sounding board these days, the icon, or the fallen saint, has somehow been cemented into my consciousness… It’s a great thing for us to connect over because it’s nuanced. It’s challenging to draw icons without making them feel hokey or too graphic.
The second reason I use the religious iconography is due to my own strong connection to all things spiritual. I believe that we are souls that are visiting this earth to learn. I believe in God and reincarnation, angels, demons, Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Krishna, fairies, plant and animal spirits, multidimensional realities, psychic abilities, astrology, tarot, ghosts, extraterrestrials, spirit guides… I’m constantly, obsessively studying spiritual life and trying to take what I learn and apply it to my life. I watch a lot of lectures by metaphysical teachers like Doreen Virtue, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle and Ram Dass and I’m also completely in love with studying near death experiences. I pray and meditate everyday, and I would say my life is devoted to my spiritual practice… My art is a way for me to take all the people I admire, and to show them as a part of my spiritual journey – to explore their incarnation and what I take from it. I see people as archetypes – the different iconography implies different influences they have had on my incarnation. The people I draw are my spirit guides. My spiritual fellows dressed up in human suits.
RITA: I will miss the ability to connect with people who are here. My mom lives down the street, and it’s so easy to go and sit on her couch, and drink coffee, and chat about anything. Michael Reedy is an art professor at EMU who has really influenced my work. I’ll miss randomly bumping into him, and hearing hilarious stories of drawings gone awry. There are tons and tons of amazing people in this weird comic book town. I don’t find the area itself to be special aside from the people. If you took all these incredible humans out of it, it would be another midwest town, but this town has magic because there are a lot of humans trying to experiment with the ways they can live. Mmmmmmmm… also the Krishna House. The Krishna House is a super cool new element that has popped up. It’s an open community house where people can host classes and lectures on productive, beautiful and creative things that aren’t necessarily about Krishna consciousness, while also functioning as a Krishna consciousness spiritual space. The house itself is so warm and creative. It’s such an inviting place to go. I regret not spending more time there.
MARK: So you don’t ascribe to the belief that there’s some kind of magic here, in this place… a kind of innovative spirit that somehow contributed toward the brilliance of folks like Elijah McCoy, Preston Tucker, Winsor McKay, Phyllis Diller and Iggy Pop?
RITA: I think there is magic everywhere – in everything – different strokes for different folks – my blinders are probably up around here from being here for so long. The midwest isn’t my thing so much. But rock ‘n roll is very cool.
RITA: It just keeps getting better. Better and better. Pearl Yoga, The Rocket, Bona Sera, Beezy’s, The Ugly Mug, Model Cave… these were all things that didn’t exist when I was a kid. It’s super rad that people are opening such creative spaces. First Fridays, how cool. The community has grown immensely, and it’s so tight.
MARK: Is there anything, in your opinion, that we could do to make it better?
RITA: I’d suggest a “Townie Amature Night” at the Deja Vu, where all the local business owners would have to perform stripteases in the theme of their business… Just putting that out there.
MARK: “In the theme of their business…” So, like Bee would be dancing in a baby pool full of sausage gravy?
RITA: Her striptease would certainly involve her entire staff at some point, like an old Rockettes line dance… Bacon strip g-strings and a giant martini glass filled with gravy… At the end, she serves everyone coffee, and gives us all a big sloppy gravy hi-five!
MARK: Am I right that you studied art at EMU? What did you take away from that experience?
RITA: Ha, ha, ha, ha…. I learned how to not be terribad at drawing. Ive always had an ability to create images that tap into the emotions of the viewer, but my technical ability skyrocketed thanks to my amazing professors. I mean AMAZING professors. Michael Reedy, Amy Sacksteder, Chris Hyndman, Jason Ferguson, Leslie Atzmon, Brian Spolans and Ryan Molloy – these people literally blow my mind. They are above and beyond what anyone could want from an art educator, it’s like a secret treasure. In weird little Ypsilanti, Michigan, we happen to have a fine art staff worthy of any Ivy League school. I can’t say enough about them. But also, spookily, I felt as if they were placed here specifically for me. Each one had some specific skill set, whether with art, or with life in general… some lesson that I needed to learn. I care about the experience of art school, and I’m immensely grateful for the time I spent there with them. Those professors, and those classes, taught me how to be an adult, to be serious about what I’m doing, how to have backbone about my ideas, and how to feel comfortable and confident in my strangeness. It was perfect.
MARK: Where do you see yourself in another ten years?
RITA: If you want some anxiety, get a future. If you want some depression, get a past. I trust that by staying in the now, connected to my higher power, I will be led to exactly where the universe needs me to be. I am now, and always have been, in exactly the right place at the right time. I’ve never been let down by this.
MARK: Any regrets? Anything that you would have liked to have done in Ypsi that you just never got around to?
RITA: No. I really feel like I beat the level. Like, if this was a videogame, I got all the coins and my energy is high, and now I’m just kind of wandering around looking at the cool graphics.
MARK: If there were going to be a Rita Jane Riggs statue erected in Ypsi, where would it be, and what would the accompanying plaque say?
RITA: You know how, by The Ugly Mug, there’s that Mary statue? I’d like to be on the ground in front of her, in the same position, but covered from head to toe in hamsters. Climbing all over me. My mouth would be open like I’m laughing, and it would be like those halloween decorations where, when you walk by it, it makes a sound at you. When you walk by my sculpture, it would laugh super loud. I have this insane laugh that I can’t control. People claim they can find me in a crowded room because of it. My plaque would say:
“IN WATERMELON SUGAR the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I’ll, tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.
Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.”
It’s a quote from my favorite book, In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan. The Plaque wouldn’t even have my name on it. Just the quote.
RITA: I have this hang up about innocents. The purity of small creatures gets to me. They can’t do much damage in the bigger picture, but people are disgusted by them. The creatures in my paintings are rats. I relate to rats, hamsters, mice, all those little beings that are treated like vermin, but are also quite intelligent, innocent and cute…There’s no denying that they have a sneakiness to them. I am absolutely obsessed with the combination of something intelligent and seemingly innocent, but also a little bit sneaky and unpredictable. I relate to those qualities.
MARK: Let’s say that, when you leave Ypsi, you stay away until you’re 100 years old, at which point you decide to come back one last time, just to look around… What would you like to see?
RITA: I assume that everyone will be made of this sort of clear gooey material. Floating in blobs, but we all still wear hats, and decorations like bow ties and necklaces. People are still attracted to each other even though we have these clear bodies. People still go on dates. Beezy’s in popping with clear body dates. When you eat food, you can just see the food floating inside of your clear bodies. it doesn’t digest… it just disappears eventually, which is when you need to eat again. The reason that everyone looks like this is because the Huron River got super toxic in like 2055, but everyone decided to keep going tubing down it, and their bodies all transformed. But it wasn’t that big of a deal, as they also go the powers of invisibility, and can now eat pizza whenever they want without getting fat, because everyone’s just clear, and gooey, and cute.
MARK: Do you have a job lined up in Albuquerque, or is the plan just to show up and see what the universe hands you?
RITA: I don’t have a job yet. I’ve got some savings, though, so I plan to make artwork for a while without distractions. There is a gallery down there called Stranger Factory and I plan to harass them a lot. I’d love to show work there, as well as work there. An artist named Brandt Peters owns it. He’s doing the type of work I’d like to do. It would be fantastic to work under him and learn from him.
MARK: What sound or noise do you love?
RITA: The sounds of a male voice cracking out of passion or anger. Kurt Cobain’s voice does that a lot. And Damon Albarn’s too. And T- Hardy Morris. In this one song called Shit In The Wind by T- Hardy Morris, his voice cracks in this mad excellent way. I’m actually really obsessed with that sound, that moment, that vocal effect. I hunt it out. If I could paint that sound I would. It’s pretty common for me to listen to one little 50 second part of a song over and over while drawing… I just want to stay there in that combined moment of strength and weakness.
RITA: The sound of styrofoam rubbing against cardboard. That shit is terrible.
MARK: If you could relive one day, what day would it be?
RITA: So my best friend Robert Spier, who I mentioned before, we actually met online when I was 11. He lived in Georgia and I was in Michigan. Before Facebook there was a website called Melodramtic.com that was all journaling and art images. He’s a bit older than me and I admired the hell out of him. I copied all his drawings and journal entries. He was super patient, authentic, safe and kind to me. We exchanged letters in the mail, sketchbooks, emails, drawings and photos for 9 or 10 years. He knew me better than anyone else. When I was 21, I decided to buy a plane ticket to Georgia and find him. It was a pivotal moment for me, coming face-to-face with the person I was most close with, but had never even seen walk across a room. I had never heard his voice, but it was like I had always known his being. He knew everything I had felt, thought and lived since I was 11 years old.
So the day I would relive would be the day I walked into his tattoo shop. He was just finishing a tattoo, and was wrapping someone’s arm up. His back was to me and I was so nervous I couldn’t feel my body. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and hide from the intensity. It was around 100-degrees, and the sun was shining super bright. I was wearing a vintage black dress like I was attending a funeral. The tattoo shop was in an old house that was sort of falling apart. The porch I was standing on was wooden and rickety. It was like time was speeding up and slowing down. I was hyper aware of everything. The door creaked and he stepped out into the sunny day. He had short red hair and glasses. He’s really thin and small, looks a lot like a teenager, but forever. He was wearing a black t-shirt and dirty jeans. We just looked at each other and smiled in this weird moment of time and space collapsing into a single instant. And he said, “Hey.”
That day he tattooed an image on me that he had drawn when he was probably about 18. I was obsessed with the image. To this day it’s the single the most influential piece of work to me. The image is of him, with small wings… he’s ripped off his own face, and he’s holding it in one hand while using his other hand to paint it with a paintbrush. It was his representation of the sin Vanity. I always saw the image as my guardian angel when I was young. When my life would become scary or messy, I wrote epic stories about this character and I having adventures. I’d fall into this character for safety.
When I sat down to get tattooed, Spier turned to the stereo and when he pressed play, the song that came out was Otherworldly Dreamer by Dax Riggs (no relation). This song was, to say the least, the exact soundtrack tune for my relationship to Spier. I have always held that song as the one song the represented the powerful and loving space he held for me for all those years, but I had never told him that this song meant that to me. It was one of those creepy synchronistic moments. I remember crying really silently because I was so ecstatic and overwhelmed with the surreal nature of the experience. You could have cut the energy in that room with a knife. It was heavy and magical.
MARK: What’s your first memory?
RITA: Feeling so safe and warm wrapped in my childhood blanket, whose name is Binkie, who is actually next to me as I’m writing this. Don’t judge.
[Curious as to why people are leaving this place we call home? Check out the Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview archive.]