Ruth Russell Williams was a painter but also a teller of tales. Williams, an acclaimed folk artist who died Oct. 8 at 78, used painting to tell stories about her upbringing in rural North Carolina.
"Her paintings harkened back to a time from her girlhood," said Joe Newberry, public information officer for the state Department of Cultural Resources. "Her work has a real presence and life and vitality. It makes you appreciate ordinary yet extraordinary things."
Born in 1932 in Townsville to sharecropper parents, Williams grew up working alongside her family on a farm. She made a living as a hairdresser while raising her own children and didn't begin painting until she was in her 40s.
Eventually, she started trying to sell her paintings, even though she had doubts about her talent. Williams was showing some of them at an outdoor exhibit at Kerr Lake in 1984 when she heard that an art professor from N.C. A&T State University was there - and she hid her paintings in the bushes, thinking they wouldn't withstand professional scrutiny.
"The professor sought her out, asked to see the paintings and told her she had a special gift," said Kenneth Rodgers, director of the N.C. Central University Art Museum. "His encouragement meant a great deal to her. That was a watershed moment in her life and career."
Williams attained worldwide success, with collectors prizing her brightly colored paintings. One of her best-known works, "Baptism," appeared on the cover of an issue of Smithsonian magazine in 1993. An exhibition of her work, "Ruth Russell Williams: Master Story teller," also showed at the NCCU Art Museum last year.
"She was one of the most original artists in North Carolina, and certainly one of our most important self-taught artists," Rodgers said. "She was a master storyteller with a gift for mining small-town America and communities in the South in a manner everybody could identify with."