Bless this painting

When Ruth Mayer first heard from the Vatican, she brushed it off as a hoax.

"'I'll be in my gallery in two weeks,'" she recalled saying into her kitchen phone. "I heard a chuckle and thought, 'Oh, definitely a joke!' I didn't think any more about it."

Just like clockwork, however, a fortnight passed and two priests arrived on the scene.

After showing them around her eponymous gallery and asking them to bless the space, Mayer was requested to paint a portrait of Pope John Paul II, which would be auctioned to benefit children's charities. After she agreed and was flown to Rome, Mayer, as part of her background research, had the chance to sit where the Pope studied Latin, worship in his temple and talk to people who had interacted closely with him.

While there, Mayer found herself seated at a table rubbing shoulders with archbishops and cardinals, trying "to decide what they wanted to see in her painting."

"I was so far into my art that I wasn't intimidated by their station and told them, 'You'll need to get a new artist,'" she recounted with a chortle. "There was stone silence and I thought, 'OK, I just slit my throat.' Suddenly, they all burst out laughing. So I said, 'God gives me my images. I can't do what I do if someone tells me what to put in it.'"

Mayer's "Song of a Beautiful Soul" was unveiled at the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican on Nov. 20, 2004 and has toured the world since. Mayer said the painting is currently in transition.

Today, the artist distributes smaller-sized posters of the image to patrons in exchange for a promise to help children in need. She has also sold reproductions of the painting to raise funds for charity. At last count, the original has a bid for $1,000,100, but Mayer would like more.

"This is a project to help children," she said of the painting that received a thumbs-up from the late Pope. "I'm not selling it just yet. If possible, I'd like it to go up to even $1,000,200."


Mayer, 78, runs two successful art galleries, one in Laguna Beach and the other on Catalina Island. Described by her grandson and gallery manager Samuel Reed Mayer as "the glue that holds [the family] together," Mayer raised 10 children, one of whom she and her husband adopted, while being a full-time artist.

"I remember living on four and five hours of sleep so I could spend time with my family, but I couldn't give up my art," she said. "My mother was an artist too and she told me, 'Never stop. Don't put it aside.'"

According to Mayer, art isn't just one among several patches that mesh to form the tapestry of her life.

"Art is my life," she said. "I don't know what I would do without it."

Even as a child, Mayer recalls constantly drawing while her friends cavorted and played games.

"I could not not draw," she said. "God gives people different gifts, and this is mine. I was born an artist."


Visitors at Ruth Mayer Fine Art Gallery at 380 S. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach are often misled by the assortment of images on display, according to Mayer. The various painting styles evoke the feeling that the space houses multiple artists, when, in reality, each one is a reflection of Mayer's diversified creative aesthetic.

While the subject matter of her paintings varies from the Beatles to Jerusalem to the Tournament of Roses, Mayer attributes each one's inspiration to the same source: her religion.

"I created my paintings due to my faith in God," said Mayer, who sometimes awakens from her sleep to put down a sketch on paper. "I credit my visions to His spirit moving through me. Images come to me — sometimes even in the middle of the night — as a result of my life and emotions."

That's why Mayer believes she was able to create one of her most talked-about paintings, "I Love New York," which depicts Manhattan's skyline with an angel stretching out its arms behind the World Trade Center. What ups the emotional value of this piece, made solely by utilizing a small knife, is that it was completed a year and a half before the terrorist attacks.

Moved to the front of the gallery after 9/11, the horizontal painting, with Broadway depictions placed in the Hudson River, became the site of many vigils, which caught the attention of news stations and in turn, the Vatican.


A mixed-media artist, Mayer dabbles in oil, water and acrylic paints, pen and ink drawings, glitter and much more. Her works, often painted to the accompaniment of country, classical and rock music, have varied from giveaways to elaborate works worth $2.8 million.

Constantly on the lookout for cutting-edge techniques to enhance her craft, Mayer possesses a soft spot for experimentation. This streak is reflected in the Mayer Gold Series, meticulously constructed from oil paints and 22-carat gold. One piece in the collection glimmers with an array of eye-catching colors when viewed from close range, but reveals John Lennon — with and without his spectacles — when seen at a distance and from different angles.

"I work on up to 12 paintings at a time," Mayer explained. "When immersed in great detail, you can go crazy if you stick all the way through. I take a break, come back and change what's wrong because otherwise my nose is too close to see the flaws."

Mayer is known not only for her bold use of colors, but also the images she camouflages within her paintings.

"As an arts teacher, when I took my children out on location, they would paint trees with the tops green and the trunks brown because that's what they'd been taught until then," she said. "I wanted to make them look closer — to notice the purple shadows in the bark and all the different hues. I started hiding things in my paintings to encourage them to really, really start looking."

The idea stuck.

Now, visitors spend time poring over each image, searching for Mayer's trademark: a tiny self-portrait hidden in her works. While even her family and staff can't always answer, "Where's Ruth?" this ploy helps people connect with the art, as well as, she hopes, with themselves.

Walking around the gallery, Mayer calls to mind every detail from her art expeditions to Italy, Egypt, Holland, Israel and across the United States, recounting experiences ranging from entering a tiger cage in Thailand to climbing onto a hotel roof for a panoramic view in Jerusalem.


Her favorite memories, however, involve children who walk into the gallery and are encouraged to add a dab of paint to her easel. Every time these children return, the artist measures their height to record how much they've grown, adding their names and a small mark to columns in the center of the gallery.

This memory stayed with one young boy, who returned several years later and proposed to his girlfriend amid yellow flowers and Mayer's work on the second floor of her gallery, she said.

"I would just like people to go out of here feeling happier than when they came in," she said. "I want my art to be uplifting. I hope it makes people look for the positive side to life."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

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