From outcast to treasure: Norwich park honors Ellis Ruley

Frank Manfredi, chairman of the Ellis Walter Ruley Project Committee, walks in the area of the partially rebuilt well Wednesday, July 18, 2018, while showing the work that has been done to create the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park on Ruley's homestead property in Norwich.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Frank Manfredi, chairman of the Ellis Walter Ruley Project Committee, walks in the area of the partially rebuilt well Wednesday, July 18, 2018, while showing the work that has been done to create the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park on Ruley's homestead property in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich — The scents of fresh asphalt and woodchips filled the air this past week as workers put the finishing touches on a project decades in the making, with more twists and turns than the steep, winding path to the ruins of the Ellis Walter Ruley homestead.

Norwich dignitaries, guests and spectators will gather Friday to dedicate the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park on the 3-acre Hammond Avenue property where the self-taught folk artist created dozens of colorful paintings and raised his family.

The park is a lasting symbol of the city's reversal of what family members and advocates say were deeply felt societal wrongs against the African-American painter.

Ruley’s nephew, Harry Ruley, now deceased, for years had lobbied the City Council to recognize and honor his uncle, to no avail.

“Ellis Ruley is surely a treasure in Norwich,” Harry Ruley said to the City Council on Feb. 19, 2004. “His name should be placed prominently with others in the city of Norwich. I respectfully ask that this City Council establish some kind of memorial for the lasting memory of Ellis Ruley.”

The City Council created the Ellis Walter Ruley Project Committee in 2015 amid a high-profile new investigation into the deaths of Ruley and his son-in-law.

The new park was designed as an artist's reflection site. An art exhibit of Ruley's work is planned for September at the Slater Memorial Museum.

For Dianne Laiscell, Ruley’s great-granddaughter, visiting the homestead will be a homecoming. Laiscell lived there with Ellis and his wife, Wilhelmina Ruley, as a young girl. She accompanied Ruley Project Committee members there in 2015 and told them of his favorite trees, the house and features of the land her “Papa” loved.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Laiscell, of Providence, said of the park. “I hope people enjoy it. It’s an honor, and I hope people enjoy it.”

The rustic character of the land was retained with minimal development. The winding dirt driveway was paved for safety as a handicapped-accessible path, and thick wooden steps break up a steep path through the woods. Paved parking lots are at the edge of the property off Hammond Avenue.

At the top of the hill, a small circular patio with three stone benches and a square concrete water fountain at the center overlooks the fieldstone foundation where Ruley’s house once stood. Three plaques with images of his paintings describe the land, the artist and the well, a key feature in the story.

Local stoneworker Juni Rodrigues was hired to rebuild the well top and install a protective grate over the top.

The wild woods and giant boulders Ruley painted with fantastical scenes of animals and people remain undisturbed, along with the stone walls he built.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” Ruley Project Committee Chairman Frank Manfredi said last week, checking out the finishing touches. “I can see how someone who lived here would want to paint.”

Manfredi said the park, which will be part of the Norwich Freedom Trail, cost about $40,000, funded through donations and a $55,000 grant from the city's Sachem Fund for the park and other Ruley projects.

Norwich Public Utilities did extensive work pro bono to run electricity and water lines up the hill and provide woodchips and mulch. Hyde Park Landscaping donated mulch and chips, and LeFrancois Floral & Gifts donated two ornamental apple trees and plantings around the patio.

Plywood and house paint

Ruley’s father, Joshua Ruley, escaped from slavery by jumping a ship headed north, settling in Norwich. Ellis, a construction worker, used an insurance payment in 1933 from a car accident in 1929 to buy the 3-acre property. Also in 1933, Ruley married a white woman, Wilhelmina, whose image appeared repeatedly in his paintings.

Ruley taught himself to paint using plywood or Masonite and posterboard for canvas and house paint. He sold his works for small amounts at art shows on the Slater Museum lawn and stored them in his cottage home.

Resentment and racism aimed toward the family persisted.

On Nov. 20, 1948, Ruley’s son-in-law, Douglas Harris, was found dead, his 6-foot-plus body head-first in the narrow, shallow well. Authorities ruled his death accidental drowning.

On Jan. 16, 1959, Ruley was found dead at the base of his long driveway, with a trail of blood said to be 100 feet long. His death was ruled accidental. Months later, the house burned to the ground, with much of his artwork lost. The city took the property for back taxes in 1988, and it sat abandoned for 30 years.

Attitudes about Ruley's art started to change in the mid-1990s, when California filmmaker, artist and author Glenn Palmedo-Smith published a biography of Ruley, "Discovering Ellis Ruley: The Story of an American Outsider Artist." A traveling exhibit of 62 Ruley paintings toured eight cities across the country.

It took longer for attitudes toward the Ruley family to turn. In 2014, the city, businesses and residents embraced the effort to exhume the bodies of Harris and Ruley for autopsies conducted by retired New York chief forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden. New coffins, headstones and services were donated, and a large crowd attended the re-interment on Oct. 20, 2014.

In a July 27, 2015, news conference, Baden announced he could not determine whether Ruley’s injuries resulted from a fall or an assault. But Harris, he said, was strangled before his body was crammed into the well.

Norwich police opened cold case investigations but nothing has been announced in the cases.

'A redeeming experience'

Twenty years ago, when Palmedo-Smith came to Norwich to research Ruley's life and death, locals told him to go home, mind his own business and stop trying to revive things best forgotten. He said his hotel room was broken into, and he was accosted in the City Hall basement archives.

Palmedo-Smith, who led the exhumation effort, plans to attend Friday’s park dedication. He marveled at the city’s turnaround to now embrace Ruley.

“It’s a redeeming experience that I don’t think too many people have seen in my lifetime,” Palmedo-Smith said last week. “I’m looking very much forward to being at this activity. The dignitaries there. Just the warmth coming from that place.”

Ill feelings still might linger, Palmedo-Smith said. An Emmy-award-winning documentarian, he filmed extensive footage on Ruley's life, art, the autopsies and Norwich's transformation in embracing Ruley. But Palmedo-Smith said he has been rejected multiple times by prominent Northeast foundations for funding to get the film produced.

Norwich Arts Center at 62 Broadway will air Smith’s five-Emmy Award-winning documentary on the Korean War, “Hold at All Costs: The Battle of Outpost Harry,” at 6 p.m. Friday, followed by a 10-minute trailer for the Ruley documentary, called “unRuley.” Admission is free.

Laiscell also has honored her Papa’s request to keep the family story alive. In June, Laiscell’s book, “Young and Innocent: the Lives of Ellis and Wilhelmina Ruley” was published in paperback — $12.95 on Amazon.com — by Page Publishing in New York.

“It’s a true story I wrote,” Laiscell said. “It’s a true story about Ellis and Wilhelmina. I’m following what Ellis asked me to do. He asked me to tell the story to the people and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

c.bessette@theday.com

'Daydreaming,' an undated painting by Ellis Walter Ruley, a longtime Norwich resident and African-American artist who was born in 1882 and died under suspicious circumstances in 1959. The city is dedicating the site of his home as a park on Friday, July 27, 2018. (Courtesy of The Slater Memorial Museum)
"Daydreaming," an undated painting by Ellis Walter Ruley, a longtime Norwich resident and African-American artist who was born in 1882 and died under suspicious circumstances in 1959. The city is dedicating the site of his home as a park on Friday, July 27, 2018. (Courtesy of The Slater Memorial Museum)
A new fountain and bench area, seen Wednesday, July 18, 2018, are part of the work that has been done to create the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park on Ruley's homestead property in Norwich.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
A new fountain and bench area, seen Wednesday, July 18, 2018, are part of the work that has been done to create the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park on Ruley's homestead property in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
The foundation of Ellis Ruley's home has been cleared of weeds and bushes at the site of the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial park on Ruley's homestead property in Norwich.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
The foundation of Ellis Ruley's home has been cleared of weeds and bushes at the site of the Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial park on Ruley's homestead property in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

If you go

What: Dedication of the new Ellis Ruley Memorial Park

Where: 28 Hammond Ave., Norwich; park at Bishop Early Learning Center, 526 E. Main St., for free shuttle.

When:  10 a.m. Friday, July 27

 

What: Glenn Palmedo-Smith's documentary on the Korean War, "Hold at All Costs: The Battle of Outpost Harry," followed by a 10-minute trailer for the Ruley documentary, called "unRuley."

Where: Norwich Arts Center, 62 Broadway

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Admission: Free

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