Ruth Ellen Hoag’s professional life didn’t begin with a paintbrush. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, she turned to watercolors and acrylics only after winding down a 30-year orchestral career that brought her — and her French horn — to venues across the country, including in New York, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. In fact, it was while playing first horn in the orchestra in a 1975 production of West Side Story at the Lobero Theatre that Hoag met her husband, Richard.
“He was Riff, the leader of the Jets,” she recalled.
When her husband’s work took him to Japan in 1989, Hoag joined him. Little did she know that sojourn would represent the first steps toward a new career, this one as a fine artist. “I really wanted to go, but there was no point in taking my horn,” she said. “What would I do with it there? So, I left it behind, conscious of the fact that I’d probably never play professionally again.”
In Japan, Hoag, who had always enjoyed drawing, directed her artistic attention toward calligraphy. Upon returning to the U.S. a little more than a year later, she turned to painting. She allowed herself two years of working exclusively on her art to see if she could make a go of it.
And make a go of it she has. That brief experiment has resulted in a vast body of award-winning work, decades as a painting instructor, and three years as the owner of REH Contemporary Gallery in the Funk Zone (she closed the gallery in 2022 to devote herself to painting).
This month, her circuitous journey brings her to the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, where a solo show representing her work over the past 20 years is on exhibit through January 5. My Journey So Far, which opened last month, features 20 pieces done in Hoag’s signature watercolor or acrylic. With vibrant colors and slightly abstract figures — or characters, as Hoag refers to the individuals who populate her work — each painting tells its own unique story.
“When you get an idea for a painting it’s never the one that comes out in the end,” she said. “It’s the kernel of a story about the people, about what’s going on with them. You start drawing them, and then you’re figuring out how they go together. They didn’t start out together but came together in the painting.”
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Hoag knew early on that she wanted to do figurative work and, as she said, took every figure drawing and anatomy course she could find to hone her skills and develop her technique. “I’ve never lost my desire to paint people,” she noted. “But they’ve always had an abstract quality to them. I think of all my work as being abstract, but people don’t see it that way because they can see the figures; they can see the story.”
Hoag has shown her work with the International Society of Acrylic Painters and the Annual National Juried Exhibition of Works on Paper, among others. In addition, she holds signature status with the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society, San Diego Watercolor Society, Rocky Mountain National Watermedia, California Watercolor Association, and Watercolor West.
When she began painting, Hoag’s medium was primarily watercolor and India ink. “Then I got the mural commission, and it had to be in acrylic,” she said. The commission, titled “East of Yesterday” and located at 10 East Yanonali St., consists of two large, vivid pieces that depict the history of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. Painted in 2016, the murals received the Santa Barbara Beautiful 2019 Hugh Petersen Award for Art in Public Places.
Despite her accomplishments, Hoag is humble about her work. When “Retrospective,” a piece currently featured in the show at Thomas Reynolds Gallery, took top honors at the San Diego Watercolor Society’s annual international show in 2012, Hoag was more than a little surprised. In writing about it, the judge noted the quality of the work and Hoag’s unique point of view. “It was a clue to trust myself and not judge myself too harshly,” she said.
That is a piece of wisdom she shares with the students in the painting classes she has taught for nearly 20 years. “Trust that what you’re doing has value,” she said, “and stick with it long enough to have it become your voice.”
And when her students have moments of self-doubt, she urges them to keep working. “I tell them, ‘You’re just not done yet,’” she said. “If the painting’s not quite together, you’re just not done yet. Don’t throw it away. Keep going until you have wrenched out every ounce of juice you can. And either it works, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you do it again.”
Ruth Ellen Hoag, My Journey So Far is on view at Thomas Reynolds Gallery (1331 State St. )through January 5, 2023.