As a child, Brian Rutenberg would go fishing off the Cherry Grove pier with his father, but for him the real draw was watching the waves form: swell, crest, roll. He spent hours daydreaming in the ficus in his garden. Wacca Wachee Marina and Brookgreen Gardens were his playground and studio, where he made art with rich, fluffy mud and sketched live oak, magnolia and loblolly pine. His artistic education took place on the shelves of the Chapin Memorial Library.
A Myrtle Beach-born, New York-based artist, Rutenberg is firmly rooted in his hometown and early experiences. His glossy, richly textured oil paintings convey the essence of the low country backdrop that still permeates his identity. Now, Rutenberg has cemented his permanent bond with the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Museum of Art by presenting his original 2007-2008 oil on linen work “Cherry Grove IV” to the museum’s permanent collection. This extraordinary gift is made in honor of his parents, John and Sandra Rutenberg, and in recognition of the museum’s 25th anniversary celebration.
“As a curator and museum director, this is a piece you dream of,” says Pat Goodwin, the art museum’s executive director. “It couldn’t be more perfect.”
“Cherry Grove IV” was on display at the Art Museum’s Winter 2022 “Synchronicity” exhibition featuring Rutenberg and Alice Ballard. Rutenberg appeared at the museum several times during the exhibition and made the decision to donate the piece as a lasting tribute. The donation was facilitated by the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina
“It kind of keeps my parents alive, which makes me feel good,” Rutenberg says. “I had such a support system in Myrtle Beach, from my family, friends and the Bellamy Law Firm, who continue to support these exhibits.”
Brian’s father, John Rutenberg, co-founded the Bellamy law firm. Brothers Michael and John live in the area with their families.
Rutenberg recalled his childhood as full of imagination and wonder at the natural landscapes that surrounded him, and he appreciates his parents’ willingness to let him think, play and dream.
“I’m very, very lucky to have had parents who allowed me to be the most like myself,” Rutenberg says. “They gave me the breadth and the freedom and the time to not necessarily play football in the garden, but to come inside and work with pastels and draw and do things with tape. tape and thread.”
With no arts program in school and no art museum in town, Rutenberg found inspiration and knowledge in outdoor spaces and in the art history section of the Chapin Memorial Library.
“My mother used to drop me off [at Chapin Library], and I would comb through the art history section,” says Rutenberg. “The gift of this experience was not what I had understood in those art history books, but what I had misunderstood.”
It was Rutenberg’s first lesson that an artist must find his own way.
“When you read something very rich and very complex and you’re 15, you learn almost as much about what you don’t understand as what you can understand,” Rutenberg continues. “I would read these concepts and then go home and try to put things together based on what I had learned. I had to discover it by myself, which every artist must arm himself with from an early age. There is no rule book, there are no talent scouts, no one telling you how to do this. So, I’m very grateful to have to make mistakes and have the wrong ideas about things in the learning journey about this.
Rutenberg then studied at the College of Charleston with William Halsey and Michael Tyzack, where he discovered the larger world of art and artists. Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston from 1994 to 2020, discovered Rutenberg and his work years after Rutenberg had graduated and moved to New York. Sloan traveled to Rutenberg’s New York studio to meet the successful alum, and the two began a lifelong friendship.
A unique feature of Rutenberg’s work, Sloan says, is the dichotomy between his drawing process and his painting process.
“He does fairly realistic, well-rendered drawings – a tree, a bank, a swamp. And then he goes back to his studio, and his paintings are more of a feeling, an emotional response to a landscape as opposed to an accurate, 1:1 representation,” Sloan explains. “His paintings are much more poetry than prose.”
Willie Lee, owner of Lee’s Apothecary in Murrells Inlet and longtime friend of Rutenberg’s, remembers their high school days at Coastal Academy in Myrtle Beach, when they had classes together, played basketball on the school and regularly hung out at Rutenberg’s house. . However, Rutenberg did not share the artistic side of his life with Lee. Years after high school and college, when Rutenberg invited Lee to his 1996 art show in Charleston, Lee had a quick reintroduction to his friend.
“When we got there, I didn’t see Brian,” recalls Lee. “Then he walked into the room, and it was like a rock star walked in – the crowd kind of went quiet. I was like, ‘What? Wait a minute.’ So this Brian that I grew up with came up behind the podium and started talking about art. He was so in his lane, such a master at his subject, and I was like, ‘Oh. Well, OK! ‘”
Despite his decades of national success in the art world, Rutenberg’s gift to the Art Museum reflects the enduring significance of the Grand Strand to his life and work.
“I had no exposure to art, and my dream has always been that Myrtle Beach, my town that I loved and that gave me everything, would have its own art museum, have a place that would hold world-class shows in a clean, well-lit space,” says Rutenberg. “One that would have an educational outreach program and classes in order to expose audiences and young people to all the things that were so dear to me when of those first experiences at the library.”
Now, says Rutenberg, the art museum has realized that dream and it wants to pass the gift on to the next generation.
“Maybe another kid will come across and look at the painting and recognize something, and say, ‘Wait a minute. I can do it. I have been to this place. I recognize that,” and I think we will all benefit from that,” Rutenberg says.
Goodwin is grateful to Rutenberg on behalf of the entire Grand Strand community.
“Brian is just part of this community,” says Goodwin. “It is part of this art museum.”