With magazine covers and book deals, Wellington artist Ruby Jones has had a whirlwind couple of years – all thanks to a single illustration. She tells Sharon Stephenson about her unexpected success.
It was March 15, 2019. The day a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques, killing 51, injuring many more, and leaving New Zealand in a state of utter shock and despair. Ruby Jones responded in the only way she knew how: by taking out her pencils and pouring her heart out onto a page.
She drew a picture of two women hugging each other – one wearing a hijab – underscored by the words “This is your home and you should have been safe here”. It was an image that would change Ruby’s life forever.
Overnight, the Wellington artist’s Instagram following went from 400 to 10,000 (it’s currently almost at 64,000), and emails began pouring in from around the globe. Then Time magazine called.
“They were doing a story about the attacks and asked if I’d create an illustration for the cover,” Ruby, 28, recalls. “I was a bit freaked out, so I called Mum at 3am going, ‘This is huge, what do I do?’ Of course Mum said I had to do it!”
By that evening, Ruby had completed one of the most prestigious commissions of her career: an illustration of three women looking out at a starry sky, each star representing one of the victims of the shooting.
“I didn’t want to overthink it,” she says of designing the cover of one of the world’s biggest magazines. “I had to draw what I was feeling and what I felt for the country and the world.”
Not long after, Ruby was approached by Penguin Random House, asking if she’d like to publish a book of her work. The result is All of This is For You: A Little Book of Kindness, Ruby’s attempt to provide moments of peace and kindness in a society that doesn’t necessarily want to give it.
The colourful pages are angled around affirmations such as “Don’t ever feel guilty for putting yourself first” and “Even on the longest of days, make sure there is enough love left for those closest to you”.
It’s sweet, funny and empathetic, and many of the pages circle back to Ruby’s personal experiences, like the illustration of a ladder with the words “Please don’t leave, the world needs good people like you in it”.
That, she explains, came from a note her father left beside her bed when she was a teenager, struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. The book was published in 2019, putting Ruby on the fast track to fame.
When I first met the soft-spoken artist shortly after the launch, she had that deer-in-the-headlights look and was trying to cope with overnight success.
“Thankfully, that’s calmed down,” she says now. “But you don’t expect your life to change so dramatically in such a short period of time. I had a bit of imposter syndrome and having that instant success was hard to navigate my way through. It’s still a strange thing to grapple with and I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable about it, because it’s not who I am.”
Earlier this year, Ruby’s joyous primer on happiness was published in the US with 20 new illustrations, and was reissued in Aotearoa this month as a special collector’s edition. The new drawings, created during lockdown, reflects what Ruby and the world were going through.
“Things like anxiety, not knowing what was happening and, for some people, going through it alone. So a lot of the new illustrations are about the importance of self-love and staying connected with others. I worked flat out on it during lockdown and was a bit jealous of those who had time off!”
Her hard graft is why Ruby is back on the interview merry-go-round, but she’s better placed to handle things this time. “I have family and friends I can talk to about how to deal with that stuff.”
One of those is her partner Jono, a data analyst she’s been with for almost two years. They met through friends and are about to move into their first flat together. “We’ve been looking for ages, but you know what Wellington’s real estate market is like.”
Ruby started drawing when she was so young that she can’t really remember her first creative endeavors. But art was clearly in her DNA – she was born in Dunedin to Parry, an artist, and Lynette, a producer-turned-educational designer, who met when they were both working for the animation company Hanna-Barbera in Sydney.
Ruby duly signed up for Massey University’s four-year design degree, moving to Wellington for it. But she and the degree didn’t gel, and after one semester she packed it in and headed home to Dunedin, where she completed an occupational therapy course.
That career path was abandoned for Natural History New Zealand and a role as a production assistant for children’s television. When that gig ran out (“the unit was moving overseas”) she went back to Wellington.
You can hear the joy in Ruby’s voice when she talks about her work and the intersection between art and life.
“My work explores human connection and emotion, and the ways that we can be kinder to ourselves, the people in our lives and the world around us. I’m looking at what it means to be human.”
My work explores human connection and emotion, and the ways that we can be kinder to ourselves.
The words “passion project” don’t come close to describing Ruby’s recent work, from commissions for the government’s Covid-19 campaign to illustrations for Amnesty International and the charity Great Full, for which – alongside artists such as Dick Frizzell and Michel Tuffery – Ruby designed a pair of underpants that feature a couple dancing (she was also photographed for the campaign wearing said underwear).
Then there’s the project she’s working on with journalist Angela Barnett about body image.
“Angela is interviewing seven young people across New Zealand about how to be comfortable in their bodies, and I’m illustrating the stories. It’s fascinating because society’s obsession with body image can really affect young people.”
Last year, Ruby was asked by the Accor hotel group to create a collection showcasing the bravery and solidarity of those in managed isolation.
“I spent two weeks in Auckland interviewing people undergoing isolation, frontline workers and hotel staff and then doing an illustration each day.”
Entitled Thanks From Iso, the collaboration includes a wall of letters and a dress made from the paper bags used to deliver food to residents.
Through all of this, Ruby has held on to the media-monitoring job she’s had for two years, but recently cut her schedule down to three nights a week to accommodate her increasing freelance workload. Suggest that she chuck in the job to focus on her art, though, and she’ll look horrified.
“There’s so much pressure when you’re a full-time artist, because you have to say yes to everything that comes your way. But when you’ve got another source of income, it’s possible to pick and choose the jobs you want.”
Besides, Ruby admits she’s a news junkie, so monitoring the news doesn’t feel like work.
“I’ve always been fascinated by world events and they’re often a source of inspiration. I’ll hear about something or see an image, and suddenly I have a drawing in my head.”