Kate Rutter: I shall not survive you, at KINK Contemporary
Tell me the last time you walked into a gallery and the first thing you noticed was the smell.
KINK Contemporary consistently delivers the unexpected, and I shall not survive you by artist/florist Kate Rutter was no exception. This show, which lasted for less than a week, asked us to peer a little deeper and find sweetness in surrender.
Rutter used Victorian floriography, the symbolic language of flowers, to carefully construct an exhibition best described as a heartfelt lesson on ephemerality. Accompanied by a series of collages, Rutter’s floral sculptures told stories of “travel and longing, the blossoming and dissolution of romantic love, and the transience of her son’s father,” according to her artist statement. “If you give someone a flower, it’s like a letter,” Rutter explained. She first read The Language of Flowers by Kate Greenway about ten years ago and uses this practice to communicate emotions through flora.
The entire exhibition for KINK was created within 48 hours. Rutter pre-ordered about half of the flowers, and the rest were “whatever call[ed] out at the market.” “I knew that I had to let them be the guide. The only piece of control was knowing the language of flowers,” she said of the exhibition.
An “intuitive florist,” Rutter makes a weekly pilgrimage to local markets (Mayesh and Kennicott are her favorites) and chooses the blooms that call to her. Each creation depends on what is available at the market that week, and the story arises from whichever flowers she intuitively selects.
Rutter is also a classically trained fine artist, and mother based in Cleveland. She earned her B.F.A. with a concentration in textiles from the Kent State University School of Art in 2007, where she mainly worked with large-scale installations and sculptures. Art school helped nurture the concepts behind her work and allowed her to, in her words, “understand something bigger.” She struggled with finally calling herself an artist, even after art school, and credits her ten years of experience as a hairstylist with helping her learn about color, form, shape, and texture. Mixing every color honed her design skills. She has worked in a variety of media, including photography, jewelry, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, collage, and floristry.
She moved to Portland—and unearthed her future in florals—on a whim. She was walking around her neighborhood looking for job postings when she peered into a floral studio that was not open to the public. The owner spotted her, and Rutter wound up working in the studio, where she pursued an apprenticeship in floral design.
When Rutter became pregnant with her son, she moved back to Ohio from the Pacific Northwest. She did not expect to be a mother by herself. “I felt like I wasn’t going to make it through that time,” she said. “I had a vision for her life that was taken away, which was abrupt and shocking.”
Flowers and their healing potential saved her. She opened her floral business when her son was two months old so she could work from home and raise him. She continues to operate her floral business today. Client notes help her understand who she is creating for, and she believes her arrangements turn out better when they are not forced and when she finds a state of flow.
Operating a floral business in Ohio is challenging during the colder months because everything is imported, driving up the cost of materials. Rutter noted that it is harder to find inspiration from November through April, however, “a lot of good stuff is born when you’re challenged.”
Rutter prioritizes sustainability, so in lieu of floral foam (which is highly toxic, contains formaldehyde, doesn’t decompose, and ends up in waterways), she uses flower frogs. Flower frogs are many tiny nails that stick to the bottom of a vase and allow the florist to create more dynamic shapes. They are more expensive than floral foam but can be reused several times. To preserve floral arrangements, she uses apple cider vinegar and sugar rather than synthetic chemicals, so the arrangements typically last between five and seven days. Although her arrangements are more expensive for a shorter lifespan, her approach honors the fleeting nature of flora. “A rose should have thorns,” she proclaimed.
I shall not survive you honors the fleeting nature of flowers. “When do you stop watering them? When do you let it die?” Rutter ponders. Her medium is inherently an exercise in letting go. “I am not bigger than nature,” she said.
The floral sculptures at KINK wilted and withered as the week trailed on. Rutter recounted lying awake at night worrying that the fruits she incorporated into some of the pieces would attract flies. When she returned to the gallery, I shall not survive you, the exhibition’s titular piece, had developed white fuzz on its blackberries. “The mold looked naughty!” she exclaimed. When each arrangement faced its natural demise, Rutter de-installed each piece and created a compost pile in the garden behind the gallery.
You are Radiant with Charms was Rutter’s favorite piece in the exhibition because, in her eyes, it was the most hopeful. She used found objects, like rocks that her son picked up. By the end of the week, the tallest flowers darkened and bent downward.
Hopeless Love used French tulips, which are so heavy that they don’t stay upright on their own. Tulips are phototropic, meaning that after they are cut, they grow to the light. Part of the life cycle of this piece was how the tulips would gradually lean toward the windows.
Falsehood was one of the most vibrant arrangements in the exhibition, using yellow lilies and oranges. Rutter described it as a “show piece.” “It’s so vibrant. It looked happy and full of life.”
“Maternal Love was the first one to go,” Rutter said. This piece incorporated moss, eggs from her own chickens that were hand-dyed with flower pigments, shells that her son found, and one single flower stem that died within a day. She explains that the one flower on its own represents her, and the flower dying was a reminder that she does not have to do it all by herself. “The flowers are always giving messages,” Rutter said with a smile.
A series of collages accompanied the floral arrangements. Rutter works with collage because it is accessible—it does not require leaving the house and she can work on them with her son. The collages in I shall not survive you were an extension of the project she did with her son’s father. While he lived in Colorado and Rutter lived in Washington, they each made a collage every day for six months. The collages were all made in 2018 and Rutter said she felt like those pieces needed to be shown. She explains that the floral pieces are “bleak but innately beautiful.” She said the collage pieces are sad, but within the floral pieces, there is an exchange between the work and the viewer because the flowers are alive. “It’s kind of the difference between sitting in your victimhood and rising up,” she said.
In Rutter’s opinion, the medium never mattered; it was about getting out something that needed to be released. In other words, her approach is process oriented. I shall not survive you told hundreds of stories through a moment in time, and, like the flora, those memories transformed and faded. Alluring, tragic, and poignantly honest, I shall not survive you was a timely transition into 2023.