Brought to Light: Ellis Ruley in Norwich

On view September 23, 2018 – December 9, 2018.

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

A man and woman ride horses down a rural road. They pass a tree with a wanted poster.
Jesse James and His Wife
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c. 1950
From the Collection of Josh Feldstein

The Chief Grey Owl series memorializes Ruley’s admiration for Archibald Belaney, the late 19th century British citizen who reinvented himself as Chief Grey Owl, an Ojibwe Canadian, environmentalist and writer. Grey Owl’s self-fashioning of a creolized identity, his multiple marriages, and his principled conservation activism resonated with the artist. The success of Grey Owl’s campaign made the imagined seem possible for Ruley who had his own multi-cultural family. Ruley was also devoted to the environment. He depicts Grey Owl and his wife with a mystical reverence the subject would have cherished. Though Grey Owl’s deception had been uncovered by the 1940s, he remained a generative symbol for Ruley.

Though less racially complex, the American outlaw, Jesse James, is an equally mythic subject. Time has obscured his early years as a pro-slavery, confederate soldier while exaggerating his reputation as a populist bandit. Though he is not particularly known for his environmentalism, James is portrayed with his wife, Zerelda, a first cousin, in harmony with the natural world and in defiance of a wanted poster following them. Ruley’s portraits of these troubled couples seem to celebrate strength in these unions that persevered regardless of expectation.
Horses are startled by a dog in a wooded landscape
Spooked
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Masonite
c. 1950
From the Collection of Josh Feldstein

Scenes of animal protagonists negotiating their verdant world are a constant for Ruley. In this somber and muted landscape, the ghost-like white horse is shielded from the potential predator by the circle of brown horses. Though not as overtly religious as his Adam and Eve or Pieta, Spooked suggests the acceptance of redemptive sacrifice in the form of a pale horse facing—and challenging—death.
Six women stand on a ladder in between grapefruit trees. They hold out fruit to the viewer and make eye contact
Grapefruit Picking Time
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c. 1950
Courtesy of The Amistad Center for Art & Culture

The subjects posed in this garden create a scene that blends popular and elite cultural instincts in familiar ways for Ruley. The three women appear pulled from the court of a pageant or festival with the central figure still wearing her crown and holding a ceremonial bouquet. As nudes, the figures connect this work to Ruley’s jungle images, his religious scenes, and paintings inspired by the work of prominent artists. The determined elegance of the flowers, trees, stonewall and wood-fencing show his commitment to this painting that exemplifies his skill and his passionate belief in transformative environmental spaces that can accommodate art and reality.

Randolph Linsly Simpson, in 1987, bequeathed the Wadsworth Atheneum a group of objects that later formed The Amistad Center’s collection. Simpson’s collection included photographs, books, artifacts and documents, and the three paintings by Ruley exhibited here. Simpson, a white man living in North Branford, collected objects relating to the African-American experience for more than 25 years, from about 1945 to 1970. A second, also considerable, portion of his collection went to the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale in 1989. According to the Beinecke’s website, Simpson “developed a deep appreciation for African-American culture that dates to his childhood in Rochester, New York. His passion for collecting grew over the years, fueled by a desire to preserve the material record of black history in America, which was rapidly disappearing.”

It is not known how or when Simpson acquired the three works by Ruley. Amistad Center Director Frank Mitchell notes that Simpson “returned to Connecticut after his service in World War II and continued collecting the work of regional artists. Simpson educated himself at area art fairs, community exhibits, and auctions. He was committed to Ruley and other regional artists whose work referenced African-American realities. Because he was an early collector of Ruley’s work, Simpson later received calls from other enthusiasts hoping to authenticate their paintings. His devotion to African-American arts and culture made him a good choice for consultation.” It is not impossible to conjecture that Simpson purchased these works directly from Ruley at the Norwich Art Association’s Art in the Open in 1952 or 53.
Dogs gather around the base of a tree and howl. A pig faces them.
Wild Pig
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Masonite
c. 1950
From the Collection of Mr. George H. Meyer

Trapped Stag, Wild Pig, and A Day of Hunting reveal the union of several themes in Ruley’s ethos. Trapped Stag presents an image of the hunt where chaotic natural order is evident in the tension between the dogs and the valiantly symbolic stag. The hunters in their red jackets occupy another moment in the narrative. Like one of the hunters in A Day of Hunting, also in red, they appear unnaturally colored in this muted landscape. Their presence pushes the work away from the sacred or natural and towards the secular or popular where Ruley insists there still may be something spiritual hidden within the representations of daily ritual. Without the interference of the human or the sublimely divine, the subjects of Wild Pig seem to find their own peace and order.
Three women row a boat down a river in a lush landscape
First Steps to Finding Rubber
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c. 1950
Courtesy of The Amistad Center for Art & Culture

The realities of his unorthodox life may have separated Ruley from some parts of Norwich, but he had access to other worlds through magazines and newspapers. In those pages he found histories, myths, and orthodoxies he could adapt. The narrative frame for Grapefruit Picking Time and First Steps to Finding Rubber are drawn from magazine stories that share a regional resonance. Connecticut’s manufacturing of rubber in both the Naugatuck Valley and Colchester helped to localize an industry whose product starts in the rain forests of Brazil or Sri Lanka. For Ruley these first steps to rubber production made it possible for an extended family to control its own labor as participants in an alternate plantation model. It was an idealized vision of his Norwich property’s potential. Grapefruit Picking Time, possibly styled on a Life Magazine pictorial, is another vision of fertility and productive familial relationships on the land.
 
Randolph Linsly Simpson, in 1987, bequeathed the Wadsworth Atheneum a group of objects that later formed The Amistad Center’s collection. Simpson’s collection included photographs, books, artifacts and documents, and the three paintings by Ruley exhibited here. Simpson, a white man living in North Branford, collected objects relating to the African-American experience for more than 25 years, from about 1945 to 1970. A second, also considerable, portion of his collection went to the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale in 1989. According to the Beinecke’s website, Simpson “developed a deep appreciation for African-American culture that dates to his childhood in Rochester, New York. His passion for collecting grew over the years, fueled by a desire to preserve the material record of black history in America, which was rapidly disappearing.”

It is not known how or when Simpson acquired the three works by Ruley. Amistad Center Director Frank Mitchell notes that Simpson “returned to Connecticut after his service in World War II and continued collecting the work of regional artists. Simpson educated himself at area art fairs, community exhibits, and auctions. He was committed to Ruley and other regional artists whose work referenced African-American realities. Because he was an early collector of Ruley’s work, Simpson later received calls from other enthusiasts hoping to authenticate their paintings. His devotion to African-American arts and culture made him a good choice for consultation.” It is not impossible to conjecture that Simpson purchased these works directly from Ruley at the Norwich Art Association’s Art in the Open in 1952 or 53.
Lions rest peacefully in a lush landscape as antelopes graze in the background
Daydreaming (Landscape with Lions)
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c. 1950
Permanent Collection of the Slater Memorial Museum
Gift of Janet C. Peterson

It is sometimes a risk to use the terms primitive, naïve or untrained to label the work by artists whose sensibility does not conform to that of the dominant culture. For example, by 1890, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was painting in a style that remarkably predicts Ellis Ruley’s. It can be presumed that Ruley would not have traveled to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford where he might have been exposed to Rousseau’s work, nor would he have been welcomed there in the 1950s. It is also unlikely that Ruley would he have visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He could have possibly seen Rousseau’s work in magazines or books in the 1940s and 50s. But the similarities are striking. Both artists juxtapose animals from different habitats with humans in unlikely contexts.

Rousseau was born into an impoverished family and was not a distinguished student. His best grades were in music and art, and he managed to become an instructor of art. The critics of his era scorned Rousseau as a rank amateur, but the early Modernists like Picasso and Surrealists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) found much to admire in his work. Rousseau perceived himself as an academic painter and a Realist. No writings exist from Ellis Ruley, and we have no record of whether or not he thought his own work was true to nature. This mystery inherent in Rousseau’s and Ruley’s work – a tension between the artist’s rendering and photographic reality – attracts the viewer.

A self-taught painter, Ruley turned his hobby into a vocation and displayed and sold his work at Art in the Open, a community arts festival presented by the Norwich Art Associations. Local collectors purchased his work at a flat fee of $15 per painting, and The Norwich Record (October 12, 1952) described him as an “extraordinary talent… entirely self-taught” with a “highly individual style.”
A waterfall in a wooded area.
Waterfall
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c.1950
From the Collection of Josh Feldstein
Adult and baby hippos swim and graze
Hippos
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Masonite
c. 1950
From the Collection of Josh Feldstein
Three nude women stand in a garden. The central figure wears a crown and holds a bouquet of flowers
Three Nudes in a Garden
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c. 1950
Courtesy of The Amistad Center for Art & Culture

The subjects posed in this garden create a scene that blends popular and elite cultural instincts in familiar ways for Ruley. The three women appear pulled from the court of a pageant or festival with the central figure still wearing her crown and holding a ceremonial bouquet. As nudes, the figures connect this work to Ruley’s jungle images, his religious scenes, and paintings inspired by the work of prominent artists. The determined elegance of the flowers, trees, stonewall and wood-fencing show his commitment to this painting that exemplifies his skill and his passionate belief in transformative environmental spaces that can accommodate art and reality.
A horse and chickens stand in a field outside a farmhouse
Barnyard Scene
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Poster Board
c. 1950
From the Collection of Michael Goldblatt
A tiger watches an antelope in a wooded area
Tiger
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Masonite
c. 1950
From the Collection of Josh Feldstein
A man in woman pet animals in the foreground. A log cabin stand in the background.
CHIEF GREY OWL AND WIFE
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Board
c. 1950
Permanent Collection of the Slater Memorial Museum
Gift of George Meyer

The Chief Grey Owl series memorializes Ruley’s admiration for Archibald Belaney, the late 19th century British citizen who reinvented himself as Chief Grey Owl, an Ojibwe Canadian, environmentalist and writer. Grey Owl’s self-fashioning of a creolized identity, his multiple marriages, and his principled conservation activism resonated with the artist. The success of Grey Owl’s campaign made the imagined seem possible for Ruley who had his own multi-cultural family. Ruley was also devoted to the environment. He depicts Grey Owl and his wife with a mystical reverence the subject would have cherished. Though Grey Owl’s deception had been uncovered by the 1940s, he remained a generative symbol for Ruley.

Though less racially complex, the American outlaw, Jesse James, is an equally mythic subject. Time has obscured his early years as a pro-slavery, confederate soldier while exaggerating his reputation as a populist bandit. Though he is not particularly known for his environmentalism, James is portrayed with his wife, Zerelda, a first cousin, in harmony with the natural world and in defiance of a wanted poster following them. Ruley’s portraits of these troubled couples seem to celebrate strength in these unions that persevered regardless of expectation.
A woman in grey holding a red apple leads a black horse.
Woman with  Horse
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Poster Board
c. 1950
From the Collection of Michael Goldblatt
A man and woman each ride a white horse in a fall landscape
Autumn Leaves
Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959)
Oil Based House Paint on Poster Board
c. 1950
Permanent Collection of the Slater Memorial Museum
A large quilt features panels reproducing paintings by Ellis Ruley and scenes from his life.

The Ellis Walter Ruley Quilt for the City of Norwich Ellis Walter Ruley Committee was inspired by the story of the artist's life and work, and by the desire to honor "An Artist at Heart." 

Three women dressed in red stand next to a miniature car fabricated from wood. A man sits in the center.
Vivian F. Zoë, Director, Slater Memorial Museum, Shiela Hayes, Frank Mitchell, Director, Amistad Center at Wadsworth Atheneum, and Lottie B. Scott pose with a replica model of Ruley’s 1932 Chevrolet Coupe built by Todd Zagurski’s Norwich Free Academy Community Design and Project Management students Camron Rossi, David Kendall, Chris Hebert, Wyatt James, Angel Rosad.  
A woman dressed in red examines a work of an in a gallery

A guest at the exhibition opening studies a painting by Ellis Ruley. 

Bust of an older man wearing a cap and smoking a pipe
ELLIS WALTER RULEY
Glenn Palmedo-Smith (1952- )
Cast Bronze
1996
Permanent Collection of the Slater Memorial Museum
Gift of Glenn Robert Smith

Glen Palmedo-Smith was born in Washington, D.C. His father worked for the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor and Statistics in Washington and then the San Francisco Federal Building. During the 1963 Kennedy Administration, Edward, a jazz aficionado, published government booklets with a positive perspective on African Americans: The Negro in the West, The Negro Consumer and The Negro Worker. This had a profound impact on Glenn.
 
Palmedo-Smith attended Monta Loma Elementary School and Crittenden Junior High, San Diego State University Film School.

After college, he founded New West Antiques, bringing objects from the East Coast to the West. His wealth came largely from his Costa Linda Development, making it possible for Glenn, like Ellis Ruley, to focus on his passion. In Glenn’s case, it was film-making and collecting

The piece, known in Norwich as a “bust,” reflects an affectionate, though caricatured view of Ellis Ruley. A true bust includes the subject’s head, shoulders, and chest.

The Life of Ellis Walter Ruley

Context
 
A yellow house with three figures and a dog

[Bill Traylor, “Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog)” (July 1939), colored pencil on paperboard (Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, photo by Gene Young)]

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.
 
Two figures fly in a plane above a field and rows of houses

[Sister Gertrude Morgan, Jesus is my air Plane, ca. 1970, tempera, ballpoint pen and ink, and pencil on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson, 1986.65.187]

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.
 
Six figures in two rows pick cotton in a field. A seventh figure walks towards a water tap

[Clementine Hunter, "Picking Cotton," 1950s. Oil on board. Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

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.

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