2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Ruthann Godollei

2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Ruthann Godollei

Published March 31st, 2024 by Russ White

Through text-heavy printmaking and politically conscious installation art, Godollei speaks truth to power and adds her voice — and the voices of others — to history

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the second in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2022 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2022 cohort includes Pao Houa Her, Amanda Lovelee, Lamar Peterson, Emmett Ramstad, and Jonathan Thunder.

This series of written profiles has been developed concurrently with a series of video profiles produced by MCAD, the McKnight Foundation, and Clint Bohaty, available at the bottom of this page.

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Photo by Rik Sferra


Someday, somewhere in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, someone is going to dig up a weird chunk of marble, and Ruthann Godollei is going to laugh and laugh. She’s laughing already, actually, telling me about a series of laser-engraved riffs on the Rosetta Stone she made and buried in undisclosed locations in the Twin Cities suburb. It was an act of protest against their 2010 policy to adopt English as its official language and bar the city from translating public documents into anything else, with some exceptions. Engraved in Godollei's black marble blocks are 16 different languages – including ancient hieroglyphics — all translating variations on the phrase “You are not welcome here.”

“I could have stormed into City Hall and said, ‘You assholes!’” she says. “But I thought, no, I want to play long ball. I look forward to when somebody digs them up and says, 'I can't read this.' Then they're gonna have to talk to somebody who speaks a language other than English."

The power of words is a recurring theme in Godollei’s work. Everywhere you look in her studio, you find agitprop slogans — Ceasefire, Stop Line 3, Justice for George Floyd, Black Lives Matter; it’s both a library of familiar protest phrases and a laboratory for new ones. The shop is called Printland Press, and Godollei describes it fondly as “a palace for printing.” Inside, words abound. In one space off the main studio, an installation of pennant flags hang strung across the room like a used car lot, each orange triangle screenprinted with sardonic, satirical slogans: “Welcome to our town, we value guns more than our children”; “Welcome to our town, a militarized police zone”; “Welcome to our town, we make it very hard to vote”. In the central printing room, parked next to her 150 year old printing press is a vintage circus wagon titled Hellmouth that carries the giant, gaping maw of Donald Trump, spewing out 100 yards of red satin ribbon letterpressed with Trump’s tweets. Just as the original Rosetta Stones (for there were many) were declarations of the pharaoh’s dominion, translated into multiple languages so that all visitors would know who ruled the land, Godollei’s focus is often on those in power as well. Her works, however, are meant not to praise and extol the powerful but to lampoon and lament their dereliction of duty.


Top: Bunting (Welcome to Our Town), Screenprinted plastic pennants, 17 x 11” each. Photo by Russ White. Bottom: Hellmouth Wagon, Inkjet on jigsaw cut plywood, wooden wagon, tiki torches,letterpress tweets on 100 yds of satin ribbon. Dimensions variable. Photo courtesy the artist's website.


There is a long lineage of text-based protest art — Jenny Holzer, Glenn Ligon, Barbara Kruger, John and Yoko’s “War Is Over,” 1968’s “I Am A Man” signs and Dread Scott’s “I Am Not A Man” performance, just to name a few. We talk a lot in the art world about the “language” of painting or the “language” of sculpture, and it would be tempting to say here, in this work, that the language being used is the words. But it’s more than that; it’s also the letters. When you’re substituting typography for brushstrokes, the aesthetics of your letterforms take center stage. Kruger, for instance, used Futura — “the lingua franca of 20th century advertising,” according to graphic design historian Douglas Thomas — as a tool to dismantle and critique advertising culture.

When making her own font choices, Godollei says, “I’ll look at where are these showing, and what they are doing.” For the orange Welcome To Our Town buntings, she says, “I thought, it needs to be declarative.” Bold, all caps, sans serif, no screwing around. On the opposite wall, a series of door knockers explores other typefaces: a frilly, over-elegant “Privilege;” a stark, Times New Roman “Disparity;” a wonky, all-caps “GENDER” with ornamental swashes on the legs of the Es and Rs.

This particular letterform is actually one that Godollei had fontographer Chank digitize from a set of rock maple wooden letterpress blocks made in the 1880s that she found at a flea market in Belgium. They’re part of an extensive collection she has stored in an old wooden typecase — shelf after shelf of a backwards alphabet stained black from years of use. “I love letterforms,” she says. “They say things. They have a voice. They have an era they come from.” And with modern technology, she can create any missing letters in Illustrator and laser-cut replacements as needed. “But the cool thing about the old ones is they have wear. The type feels like, you know, a worn-in motorcycle jacket,” she says with another laugh. “Isn’t it just gorgeous? It's just unbelievably beautiful.”


The 19th century letter blocks Godollei found in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo by Russ White.


With a full alphabet, you can go anywhere and you can say anything, but quite often Godollei uses her tools to amplify other people’s voices instead. During the early days of the Covid lockdowns, she created a piece for the window display gallery at Minnesota Center for Book Arts called The Wish Machine, an old school laundry ringer from which emerges white scrolls of paper speaking local, everyday people’s wishes into existence (in a friendly, curved, sans serif font). “Unity,” “Equity,” and “Selfless World” are mixed in with more specific policy demands like “Release migrant kids,” “No more oil pipelines,” and “Healthcare for all.” At another iteration, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, The Wish Machine installation expanded across three more window bays, collecting the wishes of community members there. The sentiments were largely the same, but new names were added to the calls for justice from police brutality: Neil Stonechild, the Afzaal Family, and Eishia Hudson joined the banners with the names of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Elijah McClain.

At every stop, Godollei would collect the phrases and print two copies of each — one for the gallery and one for the wisher to keep. She also donates prints to causes like Art 4 Shelter, and encourages her students to do the same. “Putting prints in the service of something is really optimistic. But, you know, it's so easy to be generous when you work in multiples.”

There is something to be said for one-offs though, and monoprints are Godollei’s go-to in lieu of sketching or painting. (“Monoprints are super fast,” she explains. “They’re as quick as any drawing.”) They are exquisite exercises in atmospheric, expressionistic mark-making: black ink molded and manipulated into dark scenes of broken chain link fences and feather flags advertising “Free Covid Vax” flapping tattered in the wind. The skies are an imperfect, smeared black, like the very air is made of oil. “It's always night where I’m working,” she laughs.


Top: No Net (Sorry), Monoprint, 22 x 30”. Bottom: El Milagro (A Hole in the Fence), Monoprint. 28 x 21”. Images courtesy of the artist's website.


Still, the words are inescapable, though whose they are changes from print to print. Through a flaming hoop held high, we are implored to JUMP. Behind a violently streaked bullet hole, the phrase EXPLAIN IT TO ME. And above a humble compass pointing true north: COMPASSION, crudely colored in red and blue. They are simple compositions made of sophisticated, energetic marks, often executed with nothing more than a broken q-tip or the artist’s fingers. Look closely: the shards of glass in Explain reverberating out like some abstracted vortex of daggers; the start and stop of the perfect little smears weaving the chain link fence and the crinkling jagged edges where a hole has been cut. The fluid, curving barbed wire lining the top almost seems to spell out a word in cursive. Is it “free”?

Throughout our conversation, the importance of history recurs as well. There is the history of printmaking itself, a medium well suited to message. The technical mastery of Hokusai and Albrecht Dürer, the political wit of Honoré Daumier and Thomas Nast, and the sheer guts of artists John Heartfield and George Grosz who escaped and enraged the Nazis — this deep lineage of printmakers informs Godollei’s work at Printland Press every day. Looking at that work and now adding her own to that continuum is about looking forward. For her, it's “like talking across time to people you don’t know through the artwork you left them.”

Whether the work pushes the needle towards justice or has a quantifiable impact on policy here in the present is a different question. “It’s hard for me to say. I feel like history judges that, so my job is just to work on it.”

“I joke that if the war stopped, and they start using resources for the people that need it most, I could make birdies and sunsets,” she laughs. “And thank god that somebody makes birdies and sunsets, because that helps me, too. It’s just not what I’m doing. And I still have the need to do this; I want to talk about my time, like a landscape artist. This is what I see from where I stand, and I’m just putting it down for all time.”

And what a landscape it is. We talk about optimism and cynicism, and she insists she is a glass-half-empty kind of person. I’m skeptical; for someone with this big a heart, I think that bottom half of water surely does not go unnoticed. But there’s no denying: that emptiness on top certainly animates her work. Godollei grew up riding motorcycles (and is now working on a graphic novel about her experiences), and there are a lot of overlaps with printmaking: getting your hands dirty, learning to fix and maintain old machinery, keeping traditions alive in a culture of disposable consumption. “And then,” she says, “there’s just the sheer cussed pleasure of being contrarian.”

On my way out, Godollei takes me around the building to show off her other ride: a fully-painted Volvo-turned-Art-Car, decked out with green and blue spray-painted patterns and, of course, lots of words. “Peace,” “Forward,” “Ceasefire,” “Fight Nazis.” Not exactly your typical “baby on board” sticker. Godollei has been part of the art car movement for years — she even co-authored a book about it in 2009 — bringing weird, funky, amazing art experiences literally to the streets for everyone to enjoy for free. “Here’s some art that to me is about joy,” she says. “And even though I've put cranky political rants on my car, the joy of it is a huge part of the ethos.”

As the late, great political columnist Molly Ivins wrote in Mother Jones way back in 1993, “Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth.” On one of Godollei’s smaller presses sits a simple print in blue ink of an old timey baseball player dropping his bat, about to run to first base. Above him, in all caps, the artist’s own slogan: “PLAY LONGBALL.” It’s impossible to know what the rest of this year will hold, let alone all of the struggles and sorrows yet to come beyond that; these days, it often feels like that half-empty glass has a crack in the bottom, and the precious water that was there is just bleeding out. But Ruthann Godollei and all the other artists, activists, and do-good shit-kickers out there know something else to be true: there is a lot left worth laughing about, as well. ◼︎ 


Inside Printland Press. Photo by Russ White.


Video profile of Ruthann Godollei, courtesy of MCAD and the McKnight Foundation:

To see more of Ruthann Godollei's work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram @ragodollei.

Banner image: Explain (detail). Monoprint. 15 x 22”.

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