A final work of art

Ailing Texas octogenarian crafts metal Stations of the Cross for daughter's church
January 31, 2005

When members of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island in the Diocese of Olympia observed Lent last year, they followed the Way of the Cross each Friday, praying before newly installed and blessed Stations of the Cross created from sheet metal by a retired carpenter from Texas.

This year, they will follow the same pattern, pausing before each to say the litany that brings to mind Christ’s last days leading to his Crucifixion and Resurrection. They will undoubtedly also remember with gratitude the artist -- 87 year-old David Ruff of Bryan, Texas, living his final days at home under hospice care.

Ruff first was inspired to work with metal after a trip to Honduras, where he purchased a metal-art sculpture of the Lord’s Supper. Upon returning home and studying the piece, he said, “I can make that,” and began designing and creating Lord’s Supper sculptures from sheet metal.

“Observers often mistake the material used for pieces of seashells or mother-of-pearl, and most are surprised to find that Ruff is not a professional artist, but was a day laborer in construction before his retirement,” said his daughter, Nancy, a St. Augustine’s parishioner.

As his art progressed, Ruff created a Noah’s Ark, including one piece crafted in copper, and Nativity and Resurrection sculptures, which were given as gifts and used as silent-auction items at local fund-raisers. His daughter suggested that he create the 14 Stations of the Cross, not entirely sure that he would be willing to tackle such a challenge.

Images created from metal pieces

It became a two-year project for Ruff, a job made harder by his advancing Parkinson’s disease, several surgeries and hospitalizations, and months of arduous rehabilitation. “I planned to talk with him about it and show him pictures of different styles of stations when we visited his home that winter,” said Nancy Ruff. “However, by the time we arrived, he had already created stylized designs from pictures he got at the local Episcopal church and had already completed two of the stations.”

He meticulously cut the sheet metal into small polygonal shapes that, when put together, formed images to create a pictorial representation of Christ’s journey to Crucifixion. Ruff also cut and painted all of the frames, which were screwed together to protect them in transit to Washington state.

Early in the project, Ruff’s wife worried that bending over the table for the close work was advancing the curvature of his spine, but she also admitted the project gave him a reason to be active each day. As his disease progressed, his body was so bent that he could no longer work at a table, so he balanced himself between his wheelchair and table and worked standing.

The devotion known as the Way of the Cross is an adaptation of a custom widely observed by pilgrims to Jerusalem: the offering of prayer at a series of places in that city traditionally associated with our Lord’s passion and death. The number of Stations, which at first varied widely, finally became fixed at 14. Of those, eight are based directly on events recorded in the Gospels. The others are based on inferences from the Gospel account or from pious legend.

When creating the stations, Ruff made 6, adding a Nativity and a Resurrection. When told that these were not part of the custom, he replied, “Well, they should be!” The congregation welcomed both pieces as well -- hanging the Resurrection before the Easter Vigil last year and the Nativity prior to Christmas Eve Mass.

Because they are handmade from original drawings, the stations are not uniform in size or design and are considered “folk art.” They also are unique: Because of Ruff's declining health, he will not create others.

“St. Augustine’s has been a loving and caring family to our ‘kids,’” said Ruff. “I hope the addition of these stations adds meaning to their worship.” The church's rector, the Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton, remembers the years when the congregations used to tack 19th-century prints on the wall for the Good Friday liturgy. Now Ruff’s stations of metal art are left hanging year 'round.

“They jump out at you,” said Taber-Hamilton. “And it gave Mr. Ruff a purpose in making these. It gave him a whole new lease on life. It has been a labor love and that has been significant for us.”

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