Meet visual artist and designer Ruth Adler


April 15, 2024

Photo: Max Power

Ruth Adler’s art and design career has spanned over 40 years (so far) of intensive art-making. Her work is on view in the exhibition DECADE: 10 Years of Creation at Youngplace at Koffler Arts (on view until May 12, 2024). We asked Ruth about her work in the show, her artistic practice, how working in Israel influences her work, and her favorite character in Fiddler on the Roof.

Kultura Collective: Hi Ruth! Can you please tell us a bit about you and artistic practice?

Ruth Adler: I grew up in Edmonton in the 70s in a small Jewish community in a secular Zionist family so I when I moved to Tel Aviv in 1975 the day after finishing high school it seemed pretty normal. Upon arriving in Israel, I searched for an art school in Tel Aviv but the closest thing I could find was a textile design school and so began my love affair with textiles and Tel Aviv. My foundational artist is Henri Matisse, through him I discovered the vibrant colours of the Mediterranean which move me till this day. For over 40 years my art practice has been constant and ongoing, reflecting what I am concerned with which naturally changes over time. It is also a site of freedom, a place to try things out.

KC: Your work is on view in the exhibition DECADE: 10 Years of Creation at Youngplace at the Koffler Centre of the Arts. Please tell us about the art included in the show.

RA: Included in the DECADE show are my recent textile paintings made after October 7th. The shock and horror of the events were so great that though I continued to go into the studio I was unable to work for many weeks. I was in Toronto at the time.  At the end November I started work on a series of textile paintings that were darker and heavier than my colourful geometric/abstract work of the last decade. I live in Israel as well as in Toronto and know people who are hostages in Gaza, the work I made was with them in mind. Among the pieces in the show are “Waiting for Liri” and “Vivian” after Liri Albag and Vivian Silver.

The site-specific installation I created in the Koffler Gallery as part of the DECADE show is called “There is Room in the Space.” The installation is a non-narrative material expression of time and place using coloured fabric remnants, textiles and paint. In these turbulent times it is hard to remember to breathe. My intention in making this installation was to get out of my head and into the movement of making the installation – cutting, tearing, tying, hanging, stretching, spray painting – responding to the space, responding to the events and finding room to breathe and hope for better.

Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

KC: The exhibition celebrates artists working in the Youngplace building at a time where many spaces for artists and cultural organizations in Toronto are vanishing. How has working in a cultural hub like Youngplace influenced your practice?

RA: I am very thankful to have a studio at Youngplace for these past ten years. Working in an arts building means being in a community that values creative work. The DECADE show at Koffler brought that to a new level. 

KC: Your work sits at the intersection of art and design, and spans painting, textiles, collage, and video. How do you combine these unique processes?

RA: Colour is my main material and is the thread connecting the mediums I use to make my work. Freedom to experiment and repurpose tools and materials is the basis of my practice. The difference between design and art has occupied my mind for many years and as you said very astutely my work sits at that intersection. But over the years the boundary between art and design have been blurred and mediums for design are used by well established artists like Lucas Blalock and Jessica Stockholder.

In the ’80s and ’90s I maintained separate practices for art and design though used the same medium of silk screen printing for both. In the late nineties on my return to Canada I turned to digital animation for my Canadian Place Names Project because it seemed best suited to tell the story. The story of How Yellowknife got its name was the first animation produced –the project was never completed but in the process I learned to use digital mediums and in the early 2000s began using Illustrator to make giant, coloured concentric circles by repurposing a simple gradient tool and printing the images out on an industrial printer which became my medium for the next decade (My circles were represented in Toronto by the Lonsdale Gallery and in New York by Jim Kempner). Slowly painting and textile pattern crept back into my practice. Though I loved making digital circles I missed working with my hands.

These days I paint and collage with textiles using materials and patterns collected on my travels together with found objects repurposed as stencils and printed on top of existing patterns. Over the years this has become my medium for a number of reasons; my children and grandchildren live in different places and as a fulltime practicing artist and grandmother I’ve adapted my practice to my life style and currently make work in Toronto, Hawaii and Israel. Wherever I am I set up a studio. My materials come from my surroundings and are easy to pack in a suitcase when I leave. I also love how textiles are embedded with so much history and culture.

Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

KC: Viewers of your work will enjoy bright colours, patterns, and unconventional shapes. What do you hope viewers take away from your work?

RA: I discover my work in the making. I have around me in my studio materials, paint, stencils and fabrics that I put into play without a set out plan. I try to take the work into a new visual territory, slightly strange, surprising yet somehow familiar. If my work speaks to viewers I am thankful. I am not telling them how to view my work or what it means. The work is often abstract and non-narrative. I would say the work is not about what it is but what it does. How it makes you feel.  The most common reaction I have to my work is – “it is so joyful” this is not something I control.

Photo: Avi Dayan

KC: Can you tell us more about Lipti Art to Wear?

RA: My art career and life are grounded in Canada and Israel. In the early 80s I was living in Toronto with a fresh design degree from Shenkar in Ramat Gan and was commissioned to make my first t-shirt by Marci Lipman Graphics on Avenue Road. My design of sailboats was a hit as well as Spot the dog which kickstarted both Marci’s and my t-shirt wave.  When I returned to Israel in 1985 I started my own t-shirt label called Lipti Art to Wear which became a well-known brand in Israel. Making t-shirts about Israel and Israelis was a great way to discover the country. The driving force was the day to day events and how to translate them into images for t-shirts. Yitzhak Rabin was still alive and I was making my work during hopeful times of peace with Jordan and the Oslo Accords. In the 15 years of making t-shirts I covered all things Israeli; the gulf war, peace with Jordan and Israeli pastimes such as “mat cot” and drinking black coffee. A book about the t-shirts called “Israeli According to Lipti” was published in 2014.

KC: You split your time between Toronto and Tel Aviv. Can you briefly describe the art scene there?

RA: I think that art is very important to Israelis which is evident in the many museums, public and private galleries and art events which contributes to a dynamic, contemporary art scene in Tel Aviv and across the county. There are a number of generous arts organizations supporting innovative art making which allows artists to push their boundaries while not being dependent on market and sales. Also leading contemporary international artists are regularity exhibited in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Museums. Every week here in Tel Aviv there are so many opening and art events – even now in the middle of a war – that it is impossible to attend them all!

KC: How does your time in Israel influence your work?

RA: Since my work is about colour it is also influenced by the colour around me. I spend months working in my studio in Tel Aviv where my work becomes infused with the sun-washed dusty desert air. My materials – fabric remnants, paint and found objects repurposed as stencils, are from my surrounding so they too inform the work with a moment in time and place. Since January 2023 I’ve been very active in the protest movement in Israel against the judicial overhaul. When asked to submit work for an animation show at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery in NYC called Animating the New Hero, and I created a video animation for the exhibition called “Democracy Says” based on the Kaplan protests.

Currently I am experimenting with repurposing a non-visual medium- namely politics. I have always been an optimist which is apparent in my work. Israelis are understandably quite hopeless right now. But there are voices like that of Maoz Inon, who lost both parents on Oct 7th calling for a new direction that will inspire hope for the future., Six years after the Yom Kippur war came peace with Egypt, Maoz has set this precedent and time frame as his goal, he demands to break the cycle of violence, says his parents will be victims not of war but of peace. I am now devoting myself to help amplify those voices through a new organization called Peace Talks. Naïve, optimist? This speaks to my core and I see these exceptional times demand for exceptional means.  For the time being my studio art practice has shifted to social practice.

Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

KC: What other creatives should we know about?

RA: Jessica Stockholder and Joanne Greenbaum are probably my two favourite painters who happen also to be Jewish. Also the late filmmaker Chantal Ackerman.

Rochelle Rubenstein is an accomplished Toronto artist and inspiring community activist who works with love and grace to make our world a better place.

Believe it or not the new director of Koffler Arts, Mathew Jocelyn, has come in and started shaking things up. I find that exciting and inspiring and am looking forward to the new direction he will take gallery.

KC: If you could have Shabbat dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

RA: I would love to have Shabbat dinner with Walter Benjamin. I wrote a paper about him in school and was always left with more questions than answers.

KC: Lightning round question!

  • Raisin vs plain challah? Plain challah (I am a purist at heart)
  • Hummus vs baba ghanoush? Baba ghanoush
  • Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? TEL AVIV!!
  • Zaatar vs Harissa? Zaatar
  • Purim vs Passover? Passover but not this year
  • Fiddler on the Roof vs Joseph? Fiddler on the Roof! a big fan of Topol
  • Tzitel vs Hodel? I always identified with Tzitel because of our sexy Jewish noses… by way of Barbra Steisand.
Photo: Koffler Arts/J. Heuman

Photo: Max Power

Ruth Adler is a multidisciplinary artist whose work includes painting, collage, textiles and video and has been exhibited internationally since the 1980s. Ruth has presented numerous solo exhibitions – Jim Kemper Fine Art (New York), Lonsdale Gallery (Toronto) and Lorber Gallery (Tel Aviv) and has received awards and grants for her work, including a Bravo Fact award, a Canadian Studies Department grant and an Ontario Arts Council grant. She has won design commissions from the Iroquois Hotel (New York) and The Schneider Children’s Medical Centre (Israel). In the 80s and throughout the 90 Ruth ran her own t-shirt label in Tel Aviv and designed t-shirts and textiles for Marci Lipman (Toronto), Martex and Macy’s (New York). In 2000, Ruth began making her digital circles on paper that are currently represented by Artstar (New York). Ruth lives and works in Toronto and Tel Aviv.

Learn more at or @r_adlera

DECADE: 10 Years of Creation at Youngplace:

For 10 years Toronto’s Youngplace at 180 Shaw St. has been a crucial community hub for artists, arts groups, and engaged audiences. DECADE: 10 Years of Creation at Youngplace celebrates the role the building’s tenants have played within the cultural ecology of Toronto.

The exhibition features eight contemporary artists currently or recently working in the building and whose work offers an exciting range of media from painting, textiles and sculptural installation to video and photography: Ruth Adler, Barbara Astman, Shabnam K. Ghazi, Vid Ingelevics, Gillian Iles, Carolyn Murphy, Midi Onodera, and Matthew Schofield, and is curated by David Liss.

In a building designed by architect C. H. Bishop, the Shaw Street Public School opened in 1914 and was closed by the Toronto District School Board in 2000. After a transformation of the interior by Teeple Architects, the building re-opened in 2014 as Artscape Youngplace, named in honour of a lead donation from The Michael Young Family Foundation. Over the past 10 years 180 Shaw St. has become a crucial community hub for artists, arts groups, and engaged audiences.  

To acknowledge and celebrate the role the building and its tenants have played within the cultural ecology of Toronto over these past 10 years, Koffler Arts is excited to present DECADE, a group exhibition by eight contemporary artists currently or recently working in the building.

While the building itself is significant to Toronto’s architectural heritage, it is ultimately the human activity that is the heart and soul of a place. Over the past 10 years, 180 Shaw St. has had nearly 100 artists and cultural groups practicing a diverse range of media and forms, solidifying its purpose and value. 

The exhibition also comes at a time of economic challenges in Toronto that demands consideration of how artists and cultural groups can inhabit the city, contribute to its growth and vitality, and achieve greater security for the future of this and other cultural spaces across Toronto.

DECADE opens on February 22 and runs until May 12 at Koffler Arts, Youngplace, 180 Shaw Street, Toronto. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.

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