Host of events to honor once-neglected Norwich artist Ruley

Norwich — Finally, longtime Norwich Civil Rights and arts advocate Lottie Scott said last week, the city is poised to take pride in the life and works of African-American folk artist Ellis Walter Ruley after decades of neglect.

“It’s coming together nicely,” Scott said of plans to create a park on Ruley’s former homestead property and to host a marquee exhibit of his work. “I think the city should be proud of how it’s coming together.”

The Ellis Walter Ruley Project Committee, with Scott, Shiela Hayes and Frank Manfredi as appointed members, just completed a busy 2017 and is preparing for a hectic 2018, with the park project set to start construction in April, the curated museum exhibit at Slater Memorial Museum planned for September and two plays in the works — one planned for late spring and one for fall — about Ruley’s life and art.

The city recently awarded the bid to construct the park on Ruley’s rugged property at 28 Hammond Ave. to Wiese Construction and Environmental Services of Norwich for $34,950. Wiese submitted the lowest of three qualified bids for the project, city Purchasing Agent William Hathaway said, but the original bid of $48,000 was well above the park project budget.

The city Public Works Department worked with the contractor to reduce the cost, removing installation of granite steps leading from a parking lot at the base of the steep driveway and a four-car paved parking lot. Instead, Public Works project engineer Jean Paul Laguerre said, Public Works crews will use lumber already on hand to create the walkway.

The city also will create a gravel parking lot at the base of the hill, again using city crews and materials already on hand, Laguerre said. A two-car handicapped parking lot will be created by Wiese on the main property.

Construction will begin in April, Laguerre said, when the weather warms enough to break ground and work with concrete. Norwich Public Utilities already has installed a water line to the property and electricity for lighting, Laguerre said.

The park plan was designed by project volunteer Robert Groner, and LeFrancois Flowers and Gifts of Norwich has offered to donate landscaping plants to the park, Hayes said.

The park’s main feature will be a circular patio of pavers with a simple water fountain at the center and granite benches around the circle. The circle is meant for reflection and for artists to seek inspiration from the rustic woodland that dominates the property, as Ruley did. Many of his paintings featured colorful wild nature scenes with exotic animals, fruit trees and vines.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” committee Chairman Frank Manfredi said. “The bids came in higher than anticipated, so we had to cut back on some things. We do have enough to accomplish what we wanted to do.”

Recognizing Ruley the artist, his unconventional style and the controversy that surrounded his death for decades will be more complicated. Hayes said the committee already has raised most of the money needed for the two plays and art exhibit, but probably will need one more fundraiser in the coming year.

Ruley taught himself to paint, using Masonite boards, plywood and other common materials and ordinary house paint from the hardware store. He sold his works for small amounts on the lawn of Norwich Free Academy during art shows and gatherings.

He died mysteriously on Jan. 19, 1959. His body was found at the base of the long driveway with a trail of blood caused by a gash on his forehead. Eleven years earlier, Ruley's son-in-law Douglas Harris was found dead under even more suspicious conditions: He was found head-first in a narrow, shallow well on the property. Authorities at the time ruled his death accidental drowning.

The well has been filled in but remains visible on the Hammond Avenue property.

With permission of the Ruley family, both bodies were exhumed from their graves at Maplewood Cemetery in 2014 for new autopsies by retired New York medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden. In 2015, Baden announced that Harris died of strangulation, while the cause of Ruley’s death remained “undetermined.”

The autopsies and a celebrity re-interment ceremony — with donated coffins, funeral services and new donated headstones — brought renewed attention to Ruley’s life and art, as well as his dramatic death.

Two playwrights are working to bring all those elements to life in separate works to be staged in 2018. First will be a student production at NFA in spring. NFA’s summer drama program spent all of last summer focusing on Ruley’s life and art.

A second, adult production is planned for later in the year. That is expected to incorporate the complex elements of Ruley's life, the racism he endured and the changing attitudes of Norwich city officials and residents.

The art exhibit tentatively scheduled to open in September at Slater will try to do the same, Hayes said. The committee is working with Frank Mitchell, executive director of the Amistad Center for Arts & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, to design and curate the exhibit. The Wadsworth has several Ruley paintings that will be loaned to the exhibit, Hayes said.

Mitchell has "been involved in doing these types of exhibits across the state,” Hayes said. “What has been successful is to capture all the energy, especially since the re-interment, how the city has gone from not wanting to talk about what happened to Ellis Ruley to embracing him.”


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