The Gospel Between the Lines: an Interview with Rommel Ruiz, Illustrator of Golly’s Folly

Editor: We are excited to share an interview with Rommel Ruiz, illustrator of Golly’s Folly. Described as:

“Everything is meaningless”, King Solomon writes in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Inspired by this message, Golly’s Folly is a thrilling, adventurous story, dispelling the notion that things can satisfy.

The vibrant illustrations will carry your child along on Golly’s rollercoaster attempt to fulfill his desires with stuff. Share this much needed story about what truly matters, perfect for reading aloud.

Sean Nolan, Staff Writer GCD: Tell us about yourself?

Rommel Ruiz: I was born in the Dominican Republic and met my wife, Anny, there. She moved to the U.S. to study physical theater about ten years ago. I followed a couple of years after and also studied physical theater, and we married in 2008. We have two daughters: Bel and Lyz and our church home is Reality L.A.

GCD: What path led you to become an illustrator?

RR: As many of us growing up, I drew since as early as I can remember. I daydreamed at school while doodling in the corners of my notebooks. I credit growing up in the Church with my interest in the arts. Going to school for theater, I was inspired by my Christian worldview to use my gifts and talents to express it. At one point [my wife and I] even auditioned for Cirque du Soleil.

I compare my early years in the U.S. to the “three paths” in Lord of the Rings. I was pursuing my passion at the time, theater; while working as a freelance graphic designer; and trying to figure out marriage. I only considered illustration as a backup plan if theater didn’t work out. Even though I went to school for graphic design (years previous to coming to the U.S.) I didn’t have a direction for it. Then when my first daughter was born in 2013, I knew my life would change. I started focusing on illustration and working in my home studio.

I also should mention that I was working as a visual arts teacher at a middle school during most of these events. That was the most stretching endeavor of my life so far. At some point, my brother, Eleazar, approached me about helping him create a character to be a mascot for his studio. This eventually turned into Golly and the book.

GCD: With your background in theater, and as a creative, what do you think of the “Christian” film industry that has arisen in recent years?

RR: Oh man. I often wonder what kind of message those movies send to those who don’t identify as Christians. So many of them seem unrealistic and oversimplified. I have a hard time relating to them—and I am a Christian! They’ll try and depict someone praying and having all their problems solved. That has not been my experience. The Christian life is not that black and white.

On the other hand, there are movies that don’t portray a religious theme but ask questions that are far more universal and compelling to those who embrace the gospel. Take Contact starring Jodie Foster, for example. I think a film like that asks more universal questions about belief and faith that people can relate to than a lot of the things in the “Christian” market.

Another movie along these lines is The Book of Eli. It makes no effort to be overtly Christian but gives us much to think and talk about. Even the recent “Noah” movie, had a lot of good content for discussion, regardless of the criticism it has received from the Christian community.

Francis Schaeffer once said “Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.”

There’s not such a thing as “Christian” or “worldly art,” there is just “art.” What we express in sound, word, movement and hands it's our worldview, what we believe and live for is the real catalyst for art. Often, the Church is guilty of being really unimaginative.

Like we’re afraid of people with questions, who don’t think like us. But God is big enough to handle questions and thoughts other than our own. The more I read God’s Word, the more questions are raised. I’m not afraid of the unknown, in fact, and I believe God owns the unknown.

GCD: Along those lines, when it comes to the creative process, how do you see your faith influencing it?

RR: My desire has always been to affect culture. Even when I practiced theatre, I wanted to make art that appealed to people outside of the Church—humanity as a whole. Yet, I’ve been changed by the gospel, so that would always be my foundation. I wanted the quality of my work to be so good that the world couldn’t ignore it.

The world has seen a lot of Christian art that was a poor reflection of the God it claimed to represent. As image bearers of God, anything we create should be awesome. Not because we are awesome, but because God is. That’s part of what drives Patrol Books. We want to do good stuff. It’s pushed us out of our comfort zones, but God calls us to use our gifts and talents for his glory and to affect the culture at large.

I take comfort in following in the footsteps of men like Tolkien and Lewis; they weave faith in between the lines

When I dive into the process of creating something, I take comfort in following in the footsteps of men like Tolkien and Lewis; they weave faith in between the lines. Life is not straightforward, I’ve told God: use me as you want. In this season of my life, I cannot fully devote myself to do exactly what I want because of natural constraints from life, but I told him to use me to the full—I want to do that for him.

But I don’t see the whole picture. It’s his story—not mine—it’s not black and white. I want to make art that brings that struggle. That is real. I want to communicate a beautiful truth…but it’s a truth that has many layers. It’s not an A-B-C super organized truth, real life is messy. I am a Christian first, and then I make art.

GCD: When you have clients paying you to make artwork for them, do you find it difficult to incorporate your faith into the project?

RR: Interesting question. No, I always try to bring my best and work with integrity. Which in itself is an outflowing of my faith and obedience to Christ (Col. 3:23).

But, when I take paying clients, they’re paying me to make visuals that will communicate their brand and message—with excellence and honesty. I don’t see a conflict in making it for paying clients as a living.

GCD: Have you found other Christians in the art community you look up to?

RR: Wow, too many to mention.

I’m currently being mentored by Matthew Bates, animator and character designer who has worked for Disney Animation and many other studios. Another amazing artist working at Disney is Armand Serrano and painter, writer, and thinker Makoto Fujimura.

I get a great degree of inspiration by guys like them, not just because of their incredible skills but because of their humility, character, and testimony in and out of their industries.

Also, I love the work of Don Clark, of Invisible Creature, Luke Flowers, and Josh Lewis, among many others.

GCD: What other influences have affected your art?

RR: Ufff, this one is hard as inspiration comes literally everywhere. But here we go:

From the top: Epic fantasy from Tolkien, like The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Even though it’s used for horror, there are interesting elements of transformation in there. Anything by Dr. Seuss. And I love the book, Where the Wild Things Are.

I’m influenced a lot by mid-century design. I also like Charley Harper, Martin and Alice Provensen, Ronald Searle, Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, Maurice Noble, Jim Flora, and a lot of 1940s/50s animators. A lot of illustrators are being influenced by this time frame of illustrators. I’d like to explore other styles as well in the future.

GCD: Well it shows in the final product. The artwork in Golly’s Folly is impressive and beautiful. How long did it take you to finish it?

RR: It took three years because I had a full-time job and a family. It shouldn’t take more than a year normally, but I wanted to do my best and not compromise quality due to other commitments.

GCD: What sort of influence does being a father have on your work?

RR: The other day I took my family to Disneyland, and it was breathtaking to see my daughters just marvel at this world. Bel (my oldest daughter) was elated when Ariel (a parade actress) waved and smiled directly at her. I said to myself: I want my daughter to melt at the beauty of the gospel. So I want to create work that points her towards the beauty and awesomeness of our Creator.

When it comes to children’s books, it’s sort of a new world to me, I’m just soaking it in. I didn’t geek out on children’s books prior to now. Having kids is what has thrown me into the world of children’s literature. I know of a few children’s books that are distinctly Christian and also amazing.

But I wasn’t overly impressed with the art. It’s hard to find ten children’s books that are all incredible. Not that I’m saying our book is amazing, but that’s what we’re striving for. We want to merge really good art with really good theology, that’s our aim.

Because the gospel is beautiful, there should be no divide between truth and beauty. That’s where the vision for this first book came from.

GCD: A few fun questions: If you got stuck in an elevator with one famous/influential person (living or dead), who would it be? Why?

RR: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While it’d be cool to sit with CS Lewis or Tolkien, something about Bonhoeffer during such a dark time in history and his radical response of faith is awe-inspiring. His understanding of being a light in the dark is so interesting to me.

GCD: The kids want to know: who would win in a fight—the Minions or Olaf and Elsa?

RR: [Laughing] As a father of two girls, Olaf and Elsa for sure.

GCD: What projects are you currently working on that you’re excited about? What should we expect from you in the future?

RR: Right now, I’m working on several projects; one is a graphic novel. I’m also in talks with a couple of children books.

GCD: Since our interest here at GCD is laser-focused on making, maturing, and multiplying disciples, when you create artwork, how do you think it can influence your viewers positively or negatively? Do you think it’s possible to nudge people closer to God via visual mediums?

RR: It would be a little arrogant for me as an artist to say that I could accomplish that. You need that spoken word, to best encounter God (Rom. 10:17). You need all senses engaged to properly experience God. If you remember the brazen serpent in the wilderness for Israel, they weren’t saved by it; it was just a symbol to represent the God who did save them (Num. 21; Jn. 3:14). It’s a checkpoint.

To be sure, God can use a movie, theater, dancing, a photograph, a painting. Anything that engages your senses can connect you to the one who created you. It’s a form of communication, but people place way too much expectation on art for being able to speak to someone.

There was a time when I thought art could transform someone in a way that was unrealistic. And to be sure, sometimes that can happen, art can bring us to look beyond what can be seen, but I think that is the exception and not the rule. While art is powerful, it isn’t a means in itself. When used correctly, it brings people beyond itself and points us to something greater.

One reason I’d love to influence and disciple creative types is to help them see that their identity is more than just the art they create. I’ve been stuck in the performance trap and getting depressed when my production of art didn’t fulfill me. And I’d love to point other artists beyond what they create to the Creator that made them and the Savior that died to redeem them.

GCD: Rommel, thank you so much for your time and for the sweat and blood you put into this book. I look forward to reading it to my kids some day!

Note: Golly’s Folly is available Tuesday, October 18th worldwide. It is the debut release by Patrol Books.

Rommel Ruiz was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and strives to create good works with joy, imagination, and curiosity. He is driven by telling a memorable story and crafting powerful messages for clients and audiences.

With over thirteen years of experience working as an in-house and freelance designer/illustrator for a variety of industries, Rommel brings diverse talents and artistic perspectives to every project.

He is a happy husband to Anny (also a designer) and a thankful father to two joyful girls.