The Slater Memorial Museum and the City of Norwich Ellis Walter Ruley Commemoration Committee are proud to present a virtual version of Brought to Light: Ellis Ruley in Norwich. The exhibition explores Ruley’s artwork while examining the story of his life and death.
Exhibition and Events Highlights
The Life of Ellis Walter Ruley
Visionary artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949) was born into slavery on an Alabama cotton plantation where he remained sharecropping after slavery ended. Late in life he moved to urban Montgomery. There he translated the formative experiences of race, class, and work on the plantation into the intricately, abstract vignettes that reflect his experience of Alabama, enslaved and free, rural and urban, young and physically independent, and older and in need. Though he had little formal education or time for artistic experimentation, Traylor’s stories, captured on boxes, cards, and paper, reveal a nuanced understanding of race and class dynamics in Alabama in the years just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott changed all relationships.
Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), another spirit-led, black creative who began life in Alabama, found ways to translate her vision into the paintings and drawings that define her. After a conversion experience, Morgan moved to New Orleans and committed to life as a street preacher. With colleagues she established a mission that fed and sheltered children. She lived a life primarily in service, but found time in midlife to revisit the creativity of her childhood that included a devotion to nature and drawing. Morgan’s work is Biblically informed and some of her most compelling depicts the New Jerusalem described in Revelation with Morgan as the bride of Christ. In these bucolic scenes animals and people coexist happily near mansions of many rooms. Morgan and her husband benevolently preside over this menagerie. Her work is broadly allegorical, voluminously playful, and based in the creative instincts she tested as a child in rural Alabama. Morgan’s New Jerusalem series reflects the world she believed would come, not the one she tried to improve. That post-apocalyptic vision is one of integration between black and white, male and female, animal and human, and rural and urban.
Clementine Hunter (1886-1988) is another spirit-led, black creative whose work ultimately changed her life. Born on a Cane River plantation in Louisiana, Hunter did domestic work and picked cotton on the Melrose plantation. She had no formal education but through her paintings, a discipline she started in midlife, relayed incredible visual documentation of plantation life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the scenes are narrative representations from her memories of cotton picking, harvesting vegetables, and attending religious ceremonies. Her African House mural is an opus depicting scenes from Cane River black life in one of the plantation’s most distinctive buildings. Hunter authenticated these scenes with detailed references to the local flowers and plants that often appear to be witnesses to her stories. When the artist and director Robert Wilson produced an opera based on her life and work, he called it Zinnias after the flower she painted most often.