Students remember artist Ellis Walter Ruley through their own works
Whether it’s through a park dedicated in his honor or a sculpture of him placed in City Hall, memorializing the late Norwich artist Ellis Walter Ruley (1882-1959) continues to captivate the hearts of Norwich residents.
The latest example is on display at the Three Rivers Gallery, where works created by college and elementary students inspired by Ruley are being shown in an exhibition titled, "An Artist at Heart." Schools who participated in the show include Three Rivers Community College, Integrated Day Charter School, Wequonnoc Arts & Technology Magnet School and the Thames Valley 4H of Norwich. The exhibition will run through Sept. 30.
Organized by the Norwich City Ellis Walter Ruley Committee (formed in 2015), the exhibition complements the committee’s goal of educating the people of Norwich about the nationally recognized artist. The initiative began last spring when the group and Sandra Jeknavorian, coordinator of the Three Rivers Visual Fine Arts Program, created a history lesson about Ruley to teach to Three Rivers art students and local elementary students in combination with creating works inspired by the artist.
Ruley, who resided on a farmstead on Hammond Road, was a self-taught African-American artist, often inspired by his environment and photographs from Life magazine. Discrimination and adversity are a few of the problems that he faced on a daily basis. His death in 1959 was declared an accident at the time but is now thought to have been a homicide. It remains unsolved.
His work, however, is often vividly colorful and bucolic in nature, featuring animals, orange groves, farms and jungles — a respite from the hardships he faced in his own reality.
A number of pieces on display in the exhibition, especially those from the elementary students, highlight Ruley’s tendencies to depict animals. Others presented are recreations of some of his most well-known paintings, while some delve into personal hardships faced by the students, inspired by the dark underlying themes throughout much of Ruley’s work.
For Three Rivers art professor Matthew Best, who also participated in the program with his class last spring, the lesson was one that inspired works of deep personal reflection from his students.
“Very emotional themes were explored, such as sexual assault or one woman’s battle with motherhood,” Three Rivers art professor Matthew Best says while pointing up at several different works created for the project. “Another student came out to the first time to the class about his new boyfriend with his piece. I was very impressed with how deep the students delved into their work for this project … It has been some of the most deeply personal work I’ve ever seen in my class.”
Sam Day, 27, was one such student who decided to explore some of the troubling aspects of her own life for the project — an abstract collage of bodies in different stances.
“I went with a provocative theme that also incorporated many of Ruley’s painting techniques,” she says. “My art was about expressing deep emotion and gestures and facial expressions, and I tried to convey those many emotions through images of bodies.”
In another perspective, student Hannah Walsh, 24, decided to explore her own ideas of paradise, much like Ruley’s tendency to depict utopic scenes of nature. Her piece features a couple frolicking in a pond together.
“I took those characteristics of his work and personalized them to my own preferences. For example, I painted in trees from my own yard at home and took a photograph of a pond that my grandparents live on and painted that into the scene. I wanted to create an Eden-like scene in a similar way that Ruley would often do,” she says.
The memory of Ruley, in recent years, has been conjured — namely due to the reinvestigation into the nature of Ruley’s death in 2002. The bodies of Ruley and his son-in-law Douglas Harris, who also died mysteriously 10 years prior to Ruley, were exhumed at the request of Glenn Palmedo-Smith, an art collector and documentary filmmaker. While it couldn’t be wholly determined that Ruley was murdered, the autopsy revealed that Harris was, in fact, strangled.
The life and hardships that Ruley faced as a black man in Norwich has since been re-emphasized through the investigation.
“Learning about him forces you to look at aspects of Norwich and what is and was hidden. Our young people don’t understand the overtness of the racism that has existed here,” committee member and educational director Sheila Hayes says. “Many of them, especially our elementary students, were shocked to learn about these realities that were once in Norwich.”
“It’s clear that these artists internalized Ruley’s experiences with adversity and discrimination, and they understand the way he used his art to deal with these problems. You can see that they personally expressed their own emotions through their works, too,” Hayes says.
For Jeknavorian and Best, however, the lesson about Ruley was also a chance to explore his approach to painting and his preferred subject matter.
“His art looks very similar to Rousseau’s. It’s painted in a flat way and features a lot of vegetation, plant life, jungle scenes … I can only imagine the story behind this one,” Best says, pointing at a piece directly inspired by one of Ruley’s more well-known paintings of a woman lying naked in a jungle with palm leaves covering her. The one displayed in the exhibition, however, had been altered. A bearded man instead lies in the provocative pose.
“I love that this student took a masculine man and put it in place of the very feminine female that Ruley has originally painted. The man is still posed in the same position, which makes me wonder what the student was trying to say,” Best says.
Best’s student Hunter Crane, 24, says that he particularly took to the painting techniques showcased in Ruley’s work in his own piece — an abstract work that also used acrylics and ink washes.
That piece, for him, he says, was about combining the techniques he had learned throughout the class with those used by Ruley.
“I applied his flatness techniques and how he displayed plant life and texture into the story I painted,” Crane says. “I really appreciated that Ruley didn’t pay attention to total anatomical correctness in his works. Not everything has to be perfect to get the point across.”
If you go
WHAT: "An Artist at Heart"
WHERE: Three Rivers Gallery, 574 New London Turnpike, Norwich, on the Three Rivers Community College campus
WHEN: Through Sept. 29; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
CONTACT: (860) 215-9000,