by Nicole Wolverton
Philosopher David Hume asserts that art is valuable because we derive pleasure from looking at it. This was certainly the case for Ellis Ruley, an African-American carpenter by trade and the uneducated son of slaves. Born in 1882 in Norwich, Connecticut, he began painting in 1939, at the age of 57, roughly ten years after he was injured in a car accident and without having had any art instruction. Why he decided to start painting is a question no one can answer. Unlike other artists of renown, his life is not well-documented. He was not famous for his art during his lifetime. He was just a man who liked to make art with latex paint from the hardware store. As a primitive folk artist, Ruley’s art had value to him, perhaps to his family, because he enjoyed it. He derived pleasure from painting and from looking at his art.
Twenty-five years after his death, someone else found value in Ruley’s work. Glenn Robert Smith, a California-based writer and art collector, discovered a painting of Adam and Eve at a Massachusetts flea market in 1984. A museum curator from Norwich familiar with Ruley’s art identified the painting after three years of research, and Smith went about collecting as many of Ruley’s paintings as he could find. From there, a major retrospective was organized that toured the country, making a name for Ruley in the world of folk artists.
It is a nice story of a late bloomer, but the story of Ruley’s life is another matter. What we do know of Ruley’s life and death makes him a somewhat mysterious figure and the subject of much speculation.
Like many artists, Ruley was happy to break a few rules. Just before the Great Depression he was awarded a substantial amount of money for his accident. He bought a house and three acres of land in a white neighborhood, and a new car, and then he got married for the second time to a white woman who had once been married to his brother. Interracial marriage was not well tolerated in the early twentieth century, and tensions arose between Ruley and his neighbors. It’s here where things took a dark turn. In 1948, Ruley’s son-in-law was found crammed head-first into a narrow well, drowned. It was declared an accident. Eleven years later, Ruley himself died, partially frozen with a gash on his head, lying in a blood-stained driveway. This, too, was declared an accident despite evidence to the contrary. His house burned down several weeks later, and no one in Ruley’s family can explain how 60 pieces of his artwork survived.
Perhaps the deaths and the fire were racially motivated. Maybe they were anomalies. But perhaps Ruley’s art was appreciated by someone else besides him—someone who stole and proceeded to sell his paintings on the black market. Whoever was responsible recognized value in Ellis Ruley’s paintings; it’s a great shame that the criminal did not also value his life.
Nicole Wolverton is a staff writer for Bloom and the author of the novel The Trajectory of Dreams. Visit Nicole at www.nicolewolverton.com.