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NFA News: Slater Museum devotes gallery wall to Ellis Ruley’s work

The Slater Memorial Museum on the campus of Norwich Free Academy recently created an exhibition within an exhibition. Having grown its collection of works by Ellis Walter Ruley fourfold over the past few years, the museum has installed a new wall in the Connecticut Artists of the Twentieth Century gallery, featuring the paintings of Ellis Walter Ruley (1888-1959).

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. Today, we often use the term “outsider.”

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 as an African American man of humble means.

He could have possibly seen Rousseau’s work in magazines or books in the 1940s and ‘50s. But the similarities are striking.

Rousseau was born into an impoverished family and was not a distinguished student. His best grades were in music and art. The critics of his era scorned him 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 a Realist. No writings exist from Ellis Ruley, and we have no record of whether 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 native of Norwich, Ellis Ruley was, according to family lore, the son of the first run-away slave to settle in the city. From accounts of the day, he was a gentle, well-mannered and jovial person who began physical labor at an early age, working as a mason’s assistant and other construction-related jobs.

A car in which he was riding from a work site and a local lumber company truck collided, leaving him injured. A cash settlement in 1929 made it possible for him to live a lifestyle out of reach of most Americans during the Great Depression and, eventually, to painting.

Deeply devoted to surrounding himself with objects he thought beautiful, Ruley began by painting his window screens with fantastical scenes. He then painted fanciful, colorful animals on squares of black masonry paper, a material with which he would have been familiar from his days as a laborer.

From screens and scraps, he moved to posterboard, purchasing house paints at the local hardware store.

Ruley sold his work in 1952 and 1953 at the Norwich Art Association’s “Art In the Open” fair, each for $15, and stamping them instead of hand-signing. The Norwich Record (October 12, 1952) described him as an “extraordinary talent … entirely self-taught” with a “highly individual style.”

NFA art instructor Joseph Gualtieri recognized Ruley’s talent and displayed Ruley’s work in the hallway of the Converse Art building, where dozens of NFA art students scurried past daily.

An announcement in the Norwich Bulletin-Record stated, “His paintings have all the characteristics of the modern primitive — freshness of vision, directness of approach, sincerity, and a love for his work. A series of farm scenes and Indian subjects are among his best pieces. His love for animals is shown in the variety of species that appear throughout his work.”

Unfortunately, Ruley’s life ended under a cloud of pain, mystery and possible crime. He may have been the victim of a brutal attack on his way home from an evening at a bar, or, as was contended by authorities, died as a result of an accident caused by his own disorientation.

His home later burned, possibly loaded with his works.

Slater Memorial Museum is operating at a limited capacity with timed entry (Wednesdays 10-4; Saturdays 12-4; Sundays 10-4). Admission will be free during this time.

Reservations are required for admission at Registration for Wednesday visits will close on Tuesdays at 3 p.m.; registration for weekend visits will close on Fridays at noon.

Vivian F. Zoe is executive director of the Slater Memorial Museum.



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