RUTH PLASTER – MUD HEDZ
I love everything I promote, from abstract art to upscale hair salons. Everything: The soaps, lotions, vintage teapots, digital prints and original paintings, my hair cuts, I could keep going. The businesswomen I get to write about every other week truly are as incredible as I describe them. And now, today, I get to do it again! However, this particular local business ranks high on my list. Very high.
Ruth Plaster happens to make one of my very favorite things: Pipes!
I met Ruth Plaster, sole artist and owner of Mud Hedz, at the Boston Open Market in Copley while out celebrating my third anniversary with my partner. I found Ruth’s booth among a sea of white tents, where homemade scarves billowed in the zephyr and the chatter among shoppers blended seamlessly with the vendors.
Her display table was a menagerie of the whimsical. Avocado pipes, peanut butter cup pipes, smoking stones, and different kinds of vegetable pipes – all brightly colored and expertly crafted – lay on the gray tablecloth, evoking that strange nostalgia we sometimes feel when looking at something we love. I was immediately smitten. I wanted to learn more about Ruth and her clay pipes, so we sat down over zoom and chewed the fat.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
While Indica is what I mainly purchase to aid in my sleep, I am a sativa girl at heart. I wanted to hear Ruth’s preference. Indica, or sativa? (I firmly believe this question should be on every job application). “I think sativa, although I’m not a huge smoker…there was a time when I was.” Nowadays, with her booming pipe business and grown children, she finds herself leaning more towards tinctures, a less harsh way of ingesting THC. There are still days, though, when Ruth does feel like a smoker – whether she is also a joker and a midnight toker, I cannot say. “When I smoke, I love to smoke on the beach and I love to smoke sativa and look at the water.”
That, right there. That is a dream.
Ruth’s story is as interesting as her curious creations. “I’ve always been artistic,” she tells me, as she describes her time spent at Mass Art studying graphic design. Graduating in ‘87, Ruth found she didn’t like graphic design as much as she thought she would. “It wasn’t as hands on as when I had started.” I wonder if Ruth knows how telling that is. We’re talking about a woman who is constantly working with her hands, molding clay, painting – it makes sense that transitioning to an artform that heavily utilizes computers wouldn’t necessarily be her favorite. And – if I may – I agree with her here. I much prefer writing with a good pen in a thick notebook than typing on my keyboard.
Ruth moved on to a new field in education. She went back to school for Art Ed and ended up teaching in the Newton school district for a few years, teaching art during the school year as well as summer programs. Soon after that, she became a mom, and made the decision many women make every day. “…After realizing a teacher’s salary wouldn’t cover daycare in a great way, I just decided to stay home with my daughter.”
Ruth continued to make art while staying at home to raise her children in Marshfield, where she had relocated. Networking with a woman she had commissioned murals for, she was able to procure a space to open her own studio, Mud Arts, right around 2003-2004. Her clay studio offered classes as well as ladies nights! “I got to teach on my own terms, and my own way, for kids who really wanted to be there.” The studio remained open for seven years; when her children reached middle school, Ruth wanted to move them out of Marshfield and someone closer to culture.
“We moved back to Newton…and I’ve been here ever since.” After moving to Newton, Ruth had their garage converted into a small studio where she would continue her art. She was mainly making clay paintings, but was unsure on breaking into that market. But she has a passion for art, and is quite proud of the work she produces (rightfully so).
She pivots again – expertly. “One day, I just was like, I think I’m gonna make pipes!” I am, personally, very grateful that she is making pipes. I bought this chillum from her stand in Boston, and I love it so much, I literally named it after myself.
Of all the different designs and molds she uses, Ruth has a definite favorite, and that is her oyster pipe. Get ready to fall in love with this pipe:
“It’s near and dear to me because it was the middle of the winter and I didn’t have any access to oyster shells…I ended up finding a woman through Etsy in Provincetown who was selling oyster shells and messaged her…she sent me some. So it’s a Provincetown oyster shell that I work from!”Ruth Plaster
Okay – I need to take a second here. This is amazing. I love this story so, so much. It has my favorite elements! Women working together, a slice of nature, and the vibrant culture of Provincetown are all infused in this piece. That is why I love everything handmade. Factory-produced spoons or chillums will never have a heartwarming backstory. Local, handmade pieces of art – whether you smoke out of them or not – are much more human. When I hold my bamboo chillum, I can feel the love behind the art. I’m not the only one.
“People used to make things all the time, they made brooms, they made rugs, you know, and nobody makes things anymore. And so, there’s this whole new emphasis on something that is made by somebody’s hands…I think it’s kind of a maker’s space right now, a maker’s time.” I found this very insightful – I had never thought about it before. Her words are accurate – when I think about it, all of my friends prioritize handmade, or at least locally produced. I am grateful we don’t have to make our own brooms anymore, though. For some reason I feel like I would be just terrible at it.
As far as her other pieces go, I ask about her inspiration. She follows trends, but she also seems to be able to anticipate them. “There’s pieces that I made in the 80s that…are popular now. I wasn’t ordinary enough I guess for graphics, at the time,” she laughs as she tells me this. “I often think, like, what would you put in your mouth?” Now she has me chuckling.
A BUDDING BUSINESS
In 2016, Ruth opened her Etsy shop. Over time, she kept adding to her inventory. As her Etsy page grew, Ruth began bringing her products to markets. “My first event that I did was in Provincetown during carnival week, and that’s when I made the gassy bather, [laughs] which is silly. It’s a pipe with a little baby on a wave farting a rainbow.”
And now, of course, here comes the part that hits almost all of the businesswomen I talk to – the disruption of Covid-19. This story did sting a little. Luckily, as with almost everything in life, a silver lining can be found.
Ruth and her husband were ready to sell their condo in Newton and open another studio. “We had plans to move to Waltham, or were talking about it, and I was gonna have a larger space.” As Murphy’s Law dictates, everything shut down just before she was ready to open. They were literally painting the space. Had that happened to me, I feel like my heart would have dropped straight out of my chest and puddle around my shoes. But we’re talking about Ruth Plaster. Ruth Plaster, who went to school for graphic design, then back again to become an educator, opened Mud Arts, raised two children, and now manages her busy Etsy shop.
SHUTTING DOWN AND BLOWING UP
The pandemic shut downs ended up being quite the blessing in disguise. More people were home, and with nothing to do and nowhere to go, there were only so many sources of entertainment or relaxation.
Overnight, Mud Hedz exploded. “I was losing my mind,” Ruth recalls, as she weaves a story laced with long nights and longer days. As a one woman show, Ruth was responsible for creating all of these pieces and managing the orders that were pouring in. An insurmountable feat, it would seem. But she got it done.
“In order to reproduce pieces and make them affordable, but also to put in the amount of detail and thought and care that I wanted to, slip casting was the best way to do it.” Slip casting is one way of making ceramics. It’s a technique that does not require heat. Liquid clay is poured into plaster molds. “I’ll take a vegetable and make a plaster mold of it. And then because the plaster’s porous, that’s a really great vehicle for clay.”
Using this method allows Ruth to work fast, and boy does she need the speed. She is in incredibly high demand. “I’ve been approached a ton by people in dispensaries wanting to do wholesale, and because I’m the only person that’s doing this I can’t really make enough stuff, I can’t make the margins reasonable…I’ve been dying to grow and hire folks but I have my little one car garage.”
ROOM TO GROW
As of right now, Ruth is still hoping to grow. Her plan is to return to her goal of opening a new space and hiring people so that she can grow her business. Manpower is literally the only thing holding her back from really exploding. I can’t wait to watch it happen, and it will happen. Talking to Ruth, I got the feeling I was speaking to someone who would one day soon be a name as recognizable as Snodgrass in the pipe community. While her work may speak for itself, it is in speaking with Ruth you truly understand the journey and the story behind her pieces, and that’s where the true appreciation is.
Ruth will have her booth set up every Saturday this October at Haunted Happenings in Salem. I highly recommend stopping by. I know I’ll be there. She’ll also be on Derby Street. Follow her on Instagram to see where she’s headed next. You will not be disappointed. While I may dream of Ruth’s pipes, her goal is anything but a pipe dream.