Ruley, Ellis 1882–1959
Ellis Ruley 1882–1959
Using common house paint, self-taught artist Ellis Ruley created colorful works that transcended his artistic inexperience. Art collector and author of Discovering Ellis Ruley Glenn Robert Smith wrote, “[Ruley’s paintings] possess an undeniable power, a strange spell that lingers in the viewer’s mind as persistently as certain dreams.” In the latter decades of his life, Ruley worked furiously, creating hundreds of paintings. Sadly, though, following his mysterious death in 1959, Ruley and his art slunk into oblivion. His house burned to the ground soon after his death and with it went most of his work. Less than a month later, his only daughter was committed to an insane asylum.
If Ruley’s life sounds like the plot for a movie, it is. In 2002, Smith was working on a documentary also entitled Discovering Ellis Ruley. Not only will the film show Ruley’s enigmatic life, but it will recount Smith’s investigation into that life after discovering one of Ruley’s paintings at a flea market. The result of Smith’s research was the aforementioned book and a traveling exhibition of the same name. More importantly, this exposure has brought Ruley and his art to the world’s attention. After decades of obscurity, Ruley has finally taken his rightful place among America’s most important folk artists.
Ellis Walter Ruley was born on December 3, 1882, in Norwich, Connecticut. After fleeing slavery, his father Joshua Ruley had settled in Norwich and married Eudora Robinson. She also came from a slavery background and was mother to several children before she met Joshua. Their first child together was Ruley—followed by four more sons. The family was very poor and Ruley attended Norwich Public Schools for only a short time before joining his father as a construction worker. In the early 1920s he married a woman named Ida Bee and had a daughter. Their daughter, Marion, was their only child. The couple separated by 1925.
Then, on September 19, 1929, Ruley’s life changed completely after he was injured in a work-related traffic accident. Three years later he received $25,000 in compensation—a small fortune in those days. However, as Smith noted, “His injury wasn’t so bad as to prevent him from enjoying his newfound prosperity.” Ruley purchased several wooded acres in the all-white Laurel Hills section of Norwich and a brand new green Chevrolet coupe that he nicknamed Green Hornet.
Ruley also soon acquired a new wife. In 1933, Ruley married Wilhelmina “Tootsie” Fox, a German woman who had once been married to Ruley’s younger brother Amos. The Ruleys became Norwich’s first interracial couple. Along with his daughter Marion, they moved into a small, decrepit two-story house he found on his land. According to Ruley’s great-granddaughter Dydee, interviewed by Smith, Ruley filled his house with “a lot of old things that he treasured,” including a phonograph, brass beds, and an antique clock. He was always meticulously groomed and even while working construction insisted on clean, pressed work clothes. He was also obsessed with self-sufficiency. He made his
At a Glance…
Born Ellis Walter Ruley on December 3, 1882 in Norwich, CT; died on January 16, 1959, Norwich, CT; son of Joshua Ruley and Eudora Robinson; married Ida Bee (divorced 1925); married Wilhelmina “Tootsie” Fox, 1933 (separated late 1950s); one daughter, Marion. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Worked as a construction worker and contract laborer his entire life. Painted as a hobby during lifetime. One exhibition, Norwich Free Art Academy, December, 1952. Posthumous exhibitions include: “Connecticut Black Artists,” Slater Museum, Norwich, CT, 1980; and “Discovering Ellis Ruley,” traveling retrospective appeared at High Museum, Atlanta, GA, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT, San Diego Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI.
own pipes and combs and planted an extensive vegetable garden. According to www.dinifilms.com, he and Fox also became vegetarians—a rarity in those days.
In 1939 Ruley began to paint. His first projects were practical; using ordinary house paint he created window screens for the numerous windows in his house. Eventually he built his own easel and began creating pictures on poster board and Masonite. Smith described Ruley’s work as having “a primitive quality possessing great charm, always colorful, decorative and festive in mood, a celebration of life.” Though he painted extensively, his art received very little recognition during his life. One exception was art dealer Joseph Gualtieri who told Smith, “[Ruley] came to the Norwich Free Art Academy, where I taught drawing and painting classes, to show me his work. I encouraged him to take part in our art fair.” Ruley took Gualtieri’s advice and in December of 1952 he showed a series of paintings at the art school. A notice of the show reprinted in Smith’s book noted, “His paintings have all of the characteristics of the modern primitive—freshness of vision, directness of approach, sincerity, and a love for his work.”
Gualtieri took samples of Ruley’s work to New York to try and interest a gallery. However, “no one at that time would look at the art of a black primitive painter,” Gualtieri told Smith. Undeterred, Ruley continued painting and sold his work for fifteen dollars at local art fairs. “He worked many days and many nights on those paintings,” Ruley’s great-granddaughter recalled in her interview with Smith. “He told me that one day his paintings would be famous. I believed him.”
According to Smith, “Ruley was a narrative painter: he took up a brush to tell stories.” Those stories included his painting Adam and Eve. The largest of his surviving works, the painting was described by Smith as “something wonderful, and a little sad, and more than a little mesmerizing.” Under a lush apple tree sit a ghostly white Adam and Eve, watched over by cows and goats, as the serpent approaches. Smith continued, “Their undoing was at hand, but for that eternal moment, innocence lingered, suspended in slightly flaky paint on a board.” If his description seems florid, it is because it was this painting that set Smith on the trail of Ruley. After purchasing the painting at a Massachusetts flea market for $3,500, he was approached by several collectors offering as much as $25,000 for the work. Intrigued, Smith began researching the painting. In the process he unearthed a decades-old mystery.
In 1948 Ruley’s son-in-law Douglas Harris, was found dead on the Ruley property. He had three skull fractures and was stuck head first in a well which was just 20-inches across and five feet deep. Despite the fact that Harris was over six feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, and knew exactly where the well was, the coroner announced that he had tripped head first into the well and ruled his death an accident. Because the Ruleys had long been the objects of racist hatred, no black citizen of Norwich believed Harris’s death accidental. Ruley’s great-granddaughter told Smith of nightly harassment by white teenagers and land disputes with white neighbors. “Our neighbors did not want to see a black man with a white woman,” she told Smith. In addition, the Great Depression had taken hold of the country and times were very hard. However, because of the money from his accident, Ruley was living well. All of this “caused a lot of problems,” a nephew of Ruley’s told Smith. Tooling around town in his new Chevrolet with his white wife, it is assumed that Ruley caught the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan which had its headquarters not far from Norwich and reputedly had over 1,000 members.
Despite Harris’s horrible death, Ruley continued painting brightly colored, festive scenes. In fact, he seemed to retreat deeper into his art. He spent every free moment painting and in 1949 retired to paint full time. The paintings were piled under beds and in closets. When he could, he sold them, but mostly they were pushed away in the darkened corners of his house.
“[His] subject matter varied from wild animals—with a preference for lions—to bathing beauties, pastoral landscapes, cowboys, and Indians,” Gualtieri told Smith. He also drew inspiration from National Geographics and advertising campaigns. “He had an intuitive sense of design and a wonderful feeling for color,” wrote Smith.
As collectors, both Smith and Gualtieri hail Ruley’s work; however, other critics have panned his crude style of painting. A review of the “Discovering Ellis Ruley” exhibition’s stop in Atlanta recorded on www.cln.com, is typical of the criticism: “There is no perspective involved. Figures are out of proportion. Technique is nonexistent.” Nonetheless, across the board critics have admired Ruley’s subject matter, particularly the juxtaposition between the bucolic nature of the scenes and the hint of something darker lingering just beneath the surface. A Los Angeles Times reviewer noted, “In subject, [Ruley’s work] can be compelling. What unites the various scenes Ruley depicts—farm life, a boating accident, hunting, cowboys, nearly abstract waterfalls—is their pastoral environment. A kind of mid-20th century Peaceable Kingdom is shot through with an underlying sense of anxiety or even threat.” Whether this represents, as some have suggested, Ruley’s feelings about being an African American in a world that rejected him, is unknown. He never overtly commented on racism in his paintings. In fact, his granddaughter Gladys told Smith, “I don’t think my grandfather was prejudiced at all.” In the face of racist taunts and threats, Ruley’s preference was to turn the other cheek.
Unfortunately, on January 16, 1959, Ruley could no longer turn the other cheek. He was found dead, his body partially frozen, on the long winding driveway to his house. He had a large gash on his head and there was a trail of blood over 100 feet long. After a cursory police examination, his death—like Harris’s—was ruled accidental. The coroner suggested he had tripped, bashing his head on the stone wall alongside the drive. A neighbor told Smith that Ruley’s wallet was lying empty in the driveway when his body was found. Even though others confirmed that Ruley was rumored to have had a large sum of cash on him at the time of his death, the police did not investigate the possibility of robbery and the local newspaper did not mention the wallet at all. A few weeks after his death, his home went up in flames. Shortly after that a traumatized Marion was forcibly committed to Norwich State Hospital. There she was given a lobotomy without her family’s consent.
“I know my great-grandfather was murdered,” Ruley’s great-granddaughter told Smith. “I also know that the story was covered up.” Smith soon began to believe her. When he went to Norwich to research the artist’s life, he was followed, subjected to veiled threats, and had his hotel room ransacked. In his book he quotes one local who summed up the town’s feelings towards his investigation, “We’re trying to forget what went on up there on that ol’ hill and here you are, wantin’ to start all that ol’ fuss again.” Smith’s research led to further mystery. He found that records of both Ruley’s and Harris’s death had been tampered with or were missing. He also heard from several people that shortly after Ruley’s death, a city judge was seen driving Ruley’s beloved green Chevrolet.
In 1993 Smith published Discovering Ellis Ruley and in 1996 an eight-city retrospective of Ruley’s works was launched. Luminaries such as Rosa Parks and Hilary Clinton, attended the openings. Ruley’s story brought a landslide of publicity from television, radio, magazines, and newspapers. The FBI vowed to investigate Ruley’s and Harris’s deaths and in 1995 a court order was issued releasing Marion Harris. Despite all of this, the Ruley family has still not received justice. They own none of Ruley’s paintings and have no financial stake in his legacy, though according to www.sandiego-online.com, Smith has donated ten percent of his profits to them. By the end of 2002, two of Ruley’s great-granddaughters, Sheila and Delores Traynum, were planning to self-publish a book called, A Promise to My Mother. “[Smith] was begging my mother [Ruley’s granddaughter Gladys] for secrets,” Sheila told www.theday.com, alluding that she had kept a lot to herself. The sisters promised their mother that they would tell her story. Maybe the publication of their book will shed further light on Ruley’s mysterious death. Or it may reveal what motivated Ruley to begin painting. In the end, their book is sure to accomplish one thing—bringing much-deserved further recognition to a truly original, truly American artist.
Discovering Ellis Ruley, New York: Crown, 1993.
American Artist, July 1995, p. 54.
Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1996, p. 6.
Creative Loa fi ng, www.cln.com/archives/atlanta/newsstand/atl071595/A-ELLIS.HTM
Dini Films International, www.dinifilms.com/ruley.html
San Diego Magazine Online, www.sandiegoonline.com/entertainment/sdwm/nov97/interview.stm
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