Norwich ready to embrace artist Ellis Ruley as a native son
Norwich – Efforts are coming together this summer designed to ensure that African-American artist Ellis Ruley is celebrated as a talented native son and is included in heritage tourism promotions.
Ruley, a self-taught artist, lived his entire life in Norwich, but died Jan. 16, 1959, under mysterious circumstances. His body was found in the road at the bottom of the long driveway at his 28 Hammond Ave. home.
Eleven years earlier, Ruley’s son-in-law, Douglas Harris, died on the property in even more suspicious circumstances. His body was found Nov. 20, 1948, head first in a narrow, shallow well on the property. Without an autopsy, Harris’ death was ruled accidental drowning.
The mysterious deaths received renewed attention last fall when PBS filmmaker and Ruley biographer Glenn Palmedo-Smith coordinated an exhumation and autopsy of the remains of both men. Family members, city, state and federal officials and dozens of onlookers attended a reburial ceremony at Maplewood Cemetery with donated caskets, burial services and new headstones for the two men.
Palmedo-Smith said last week that the official autopsy reports are expected to be released in mid-July. Palmedo-Smith also is working on a documentary on Ruley's artwork and his life's struggles, including racism.
He said the widespread support the Ruley family received last fall showed how much that has changed.
On June 15, the Norwich City Council approved a resolution to create a public park at the former Ruley homestead, which was taken by the city for back taxes in 1988. The council appointed a three-member committee to explore funding sources and work out logistics for the park.
Members Lottie Scott, Shiela Hayes and attorney Frank Manfredi plan to hold an organizational meeting next week, Manfredi said Tuesday. The three met unofficially prior to the council appointment.
Manfredi has estimated it could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to create the park and a memorial plaque for the property. The land would still be owned by the city, but the committee will seek volunteer groups, prehaps Rotary, Boy and Girl Scouts and other civic groups, to help clean the property and create trails and to maintain the park in the future.
“Once the park is up in place, we'd like to have it be part of the heritage trails in Norwich,” Manfredi said, “a place on the walking tours, so people would know here's another place you can go.”
Another effort to ensure Ruley is recognized by younger residents was launched in June as well. The St. Anthony Chapel Foundation received approval from the Edward and Mary Lord Foundation for the Ellis W. Ruley Memorial Saturday Morning Children's Art Classes.
The Lord Foundation funded 12 scholarships for third-graders in 12 local public, charter and Catholic schools to attend Saturday morning art classes from September through March at the Norwich Free Academy Arts School. An art exhibit will run April 3 to 27 at Slater Memorial Museum.
Each scholarship is valued at $175, and the grant will run for three years.
Roberta Vincent, president of the St. Anthony Foundation, said members of the St. Anthony Chapel Foundation met with members of the park committee to discuss ideas for promoting Ruley. She agreed to pursue the arts scholarship program.
The scholarships came together quickly. Classes start Sept. 12.
Organizers of the various Ruley tributes hope to add at least one more public attraction to the mix. Several years ago, Palmedo-Smith donated a bust of Ruley to Slater Museum.
“We are trying to arrange with Slater and the city to put it on loan to the city and put it on display in City Hall somewhere,” Manfredi said.
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