Ernestine Ruben’s photos breathe new life into historic Willow Run plant

Click on the 2-minute video, above, to glimpse what Ernestine Ruben has created with her Willow Run Project. Then, if you care to learn more, visit her Willow Run website.

Ernie by FinlaysonANNE AND I recently took our 6th annual Sisters’ Trip to New York. Aside from 5 days with my divine sis, “Hamilton” and “Daddy Long Legs,” J.S. Sargent’s portraits at the Met, walking the High Line to the new Whitney, spotting the roof of the Pope’s SUV and finding the perfect cashmere pullover at Uniqlo, was spending time with Ernestine Ruben.

An 84 year old dynamo, our cousin is still on her game. Her photos are collected by the Philadelphia Museum, DIA (Detroit), Stedlijk (Amsterdam), Rodin Museum and MOMA (Paris) and scads more. Detroiters and art lovers will be intrigued by one of her latest projects…

The granddaughter of late famed architect Albert Kahn, Ernie visited the Willow Run plant shortly before its 2013 demolition. She was “stunned by the emptiness, loneliness and lack of life in a building known for productivity and glory.” In the early 1940s, Kahn designed the plant for Henry Ford on Ford-owned farmland near Ypsilanti, MI. Willow Run was the world’s largest industrial space under one roof. Its 3.5 million sq. ft. were dedicated to manufacturing planes during World War 2. At Willow Run, B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers were built (one per hour!) and launched. Many were flown to England and France by women pilots. These planes helped turn the tide in WW2.

Ernie’s first visit to the abandoned plant “was a face-to-face encounter with life and death. I was overwhelmed to see it waiting for its death, remembering how proudly it once stood. I felt transferred to another time. I sensed phantoms around me. I heard the symphony of the machines and Rosie the Riveter’s laughter. I felt a personal challenge to give this monument another life.”

Ernie decided to do what she does best: create a photographic legacy for her grandfather’s (and history’s) iconic structure. She conceived a project combining her images with original music and video.
Ernie’s dedication to “the Willow Run Project” coincided with a personal crisis. Ernie was diagnosed with breast cancer (and is now recovered). She was thinking about how her changing internal environment reflected the changes at Willow Run “also dealing with life and death.”

Ernie’s external environment had changed as well. She and Husband Herb, a retired Merrill Lynch exec, had moved from a rambling suburban home in Princeton, NJ, to a 3-room apartment on NY’s upper west side. Adjusting to the change, Ernie created “Portraits of Sound.” She invited musicians to visit her NYC apartment and photographed them as they played, observing how they made music in a new environment. These photos were shown at 2 venues in Lincoln Center.

To launch her Willow Run photos, Ernie is collaborating with 2 other artists also inspired by the plant and its history. Ernie’s images are accompanied by original music of Grammy Award-winning composer Stephen Hartke and video art by Seth Bernstein. Several venues, including the U of M Museum of Art, are signing up to show the multi-media performance. Ernie sees the event, and her photos, as “a way to keep the Willow Run spirit alive and to honor its legacy through contemporary art.”

Ernie’s remarkable photos of nudes are featured in her book In Human Touch. Nonetheless, 2 years ago her friend Shen Wei, a renowned choreographer, asked her to perform in a new dance created for the Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall. The catch: she’d have to appear nude. She declined.

“You only live once,” Herb said.

And so at 82, our gutsy cousin appeared on stage, au naturel, for 5 performances.

Ernie is determined to keep going, and making art, as long as she can. On a recent visit to the chief of surgery at NY Hospital, she made one request of her doc. “I just want 15 more years to complete all my projects.”

Brava, Ernie. Your grandfather (and our great uncle) Albert would be proud of you. Anne and I sure are.

(Learn more about Ernie at www.ernestineruben.com. For information about the project, or to donate, go to www.willowrunproject.com.)

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