Whimsy to necessity

TALENT — Facing foreclosure of her home, noted singer and silk clothing designer Marcella Rose Ruikis is shutting down her backyard studio, holding a holiday clearance sale and advertising for housecleaning work.

The change in career is "certainly not as fun as art, but I feel empowered by it," says her message on Facebook, which notes she's an "efficient and trustworthy" housecleaner. "I'm not going to let this take me down. We're trying so hard every day. I can't imagine it will stay this bad."

Before they moved to the valley in 1997, she and her husband, Jonas Ruikis, 48, were clearing six figures as Jonas worked as a systems engineer with Northrop Grumman and NASA in California, she says. He worked with Sky Research in Ashland, but, since the economy imploded a few years ago, has been looking for work.

Marcella Ruikis, 45, a vocalist with Smoky Red, sings funk-rock, blues and New Orleans-style dance music at many clubs, including Alex's, Roscoe's and area wineries.

"I've been singing for 20 years and it means a great deal to me," she says. "The connection with the audience is incomparable to anything I've ever felt — and it pays for all the groceries."

Her silk artistry has brought in as much as $20,000 a year, but three-fourths of it went to costs such as silk, pigments and travel to trade shows, where booths cost $400 to $700 — leaving her with a net of $4,000 a year, she says.

"The silk is divine," she says. "The colors just flow across it. You feel like a million dollars dressed up in these. They're sexy and flattering and flow past the parts of you that may not be perfect. People come up to you and want to touch you."

In this economy, however, silk has become an optional item, she says. "You see people come in my booth, saying they'd love to buy something but their house is in foreclosure," she says. "It's demoralizing. We're such industrious people, but people don't have the money."

The family in 2004 bought a modest home in Talent for $235,000, at 7.25 percent interest, with payments of $1,800 a month, which they were able to handle before the crash, she says. Since then, they've done considerable remodeling and are renting out the front of the house — the living room, kitchen and master bedroom and bath — for $750.

The couple have spent the last of their 401(k) retirement fund to keep up the mortgage and have been trying to qualify for the Obama program that helps middle-class families refinance and avoid foreclosure. Meanwhile, they've been coping with frequent ultimatums from the lender.

"They would have taken the home away, if not for our lawyers," she says.

Jonas, a computer systems manager, has set his computer to alert him to any suitable jobs appearing with the Employment Division, Craigslist and any other source, and the couple are hopeful about two calls he got this week.

However, his unemployment benefits run out at year's end and, she says, "worst case is that we're homeless and have to lean on friends while we find a rental we can afford."

"But I believe he's going to find a job and more people will hire me for housecleaning and doing silk wall hangings and that the economy will turn around," she says.

"It has to," she says as she models her line of slinky silk ponchos, jackets and scarves. "I can't imagine the economy staying this bad."

The couple have a daughter, Isabella, a sixth-grader who carries straight A's at Talent Middle School and is "amazing in art and music, with brains like her father's," says Marcella Ruikis, noting that the girl's development is the core of the couple's motivation.

"I charge $20 an hour to clean houses. I had a housecleaning business in my 20s, so I know how to do it and can walk in a house that's dirty and two hours later, it's sparkling clean — and that's a lot less time than most people take," she says.

"It's a means to an end. It supports our daughter and is immediate gratification."

Ruikis' silk clothing is on sale at Ashland Artworks on Oak Street or may be purchased from her studio by e-mailing marcella@mind.net. Her singing, with mentor-keyboardist Jim Quinby, is viewable at http://www.youtube.com.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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