Ruby C. Williams, Folk Artist With a Produce Stand, Dies at 94
At a produce stand in a rural part of Florida east of Tampa, Ruby C. Williams would sell you some squash or collard greens for a few bucks. At galleries in Florida and beyond, some of her vibrant, quirky paintings have fetched hundreds.
About 30 years ago, after a fellow artist saw her hand-painted farm stand signs and encouraged her to expand her efforts, Ms. Williams’s artworks started to be recognized as distinctive folk art, and galleries and collectors began hanging them on their walls. She became moderately famous in Florida.
The interviews she would occasionally give were as colorful as her paintings, images of animals and fruits and people that were often adorned with sayings out of her imagination. “I am slow but I will win,” she painted under her rendering of a turtle. “Piano playing cow I give better buttermilk,” it says under her painting of a bovine-ish creature.
“My life is to look up and reach up and take somebody with me no matter what, make someone else happy,” she once explained. “I think that’s what the art does.”
Ms. Williams died on Aug. 8 at a relative’s home in Plant City, Fla., said Jeanine Taylor, whose gallery, Jeanine Taylor Folk Art, in Sanford, Fla., handled some of Ms. Williams’s artworks. She was 94.
Ms. Williams’s long life included several decades as a minister in Paterson, N.J., before she returned to her native Florida to work the land. It included the era of Southern segregation and a bitter divorce.
Sometimes the bad experiences found their way into the phrases in her paintings. “My husband broke my heart,” one read. “Tired of being the good guy,” said a painting of an alligator with red spots. On another: “I played so fair an’ they cheated me.”
She once painted images of two men. Under one it said, “My name is Had.” Under the other it said, “My name is Enough.”
“Just the slogans alone make you stop and think,” Vera Ames, a long-serving councilwoman in Paterson, told The Passaic Herald-News in 2000, when 25 of Ms. Williams’s paintings were exhibited at the Paterson Museum. “There’s pain in what she does, and there’s the suffering of those that she represents, but there’s also the joy of seeing her putting it on these boards and making it come to life.”
Ms. Williams used house paint when she first started but graduated to acrylics; plywood was a favorite surface. And though some of her works reflected hard aspects of life, others were whimsical — “I skip and skip on a sunny day,” read the phrase on a painting of a young girl — or carried religious phrases that invoked her years in the ministry.
Ms. Williams, interviewed by the Passaic newspaper for the opening of her 2000 exhibition, talked about the appeal of her paintings, and of herself.
“Everybody just loves the colors: teachers, kids, photographers, moviemakers,” she said. “And they like me because I speak my mind.”
Ruby Curry — she said the “C.” she used as a middle initial was for “contrary” — was born in Bealsville, Fla., a community founded in 1865 by 12 freed slaves, one of whom, Mary Reddick, was Ms. Williams’s great-grandmother. The farm stand Ms. Williams operated was on Route 60, dead east of Tampa.
Ms. Williams was always cagey about her age, but Ms. Taylor gave her birth date as June 9, 1928. Her parents were Lawrence Curry and Viola Curry Greene. The elementary school she attended had been founded by her great-grandmother.
Ms. Williams — she picked up that last name from a marriage that ended when her husband left her in the 1960s — told The Tampa Tribune in 2002 that, growing up, she had wanted to be a plumber, a fisherman or a preacher. In one video interview, she said she once wanted to be a songwriter. In another, she said she had aspired to be a detective.
It was the ministerial career that eventually stuck: By the 1960s she was living in New Jersey and doing evangelical and outreach work with the Community Baptist Church of Love in Paterson. In the 1980s, though, she returned to her home state and began selling produce grown on the family land.
As several newspapers told her story over the years, it was a fellow folk artist named Rodney Hardee who, around 1991, noticed her eye-catching signage and set her on the artistic path.
“We had been driving by her stand for about a year,” he told The Ledger of Lakeland, Fla., in 1997. “I finally stopped and told Ruby that I liked her signs, the lettering. I asked her if she had ever tried a painting.”
He set her up with a table to work on and talked her up in art circles. Bud Lee, a noted local photographer and folk-art collector, took an interest in her work. She started getting some attention in area newspapers and on local television, and institutions, including the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, mounted exhibitions.
In 2005 she was included in “On Their Own: Selected Works by Self-Taught African American Artists” at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington. That same year she received the Florida Folk Heritage Award, which recognizes “outstanding stewardship of Florida’s living traditions.”
Ms. Williams’s survivors include a son, Elrod Curry, a daughter, Rosa Curry Wilson; two sisters, Emma Jane Jackson and Mercedes Green; and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Katherine Gibson, an art consultant and curator who has organized exhibitions of Ms. Williams’s work, said she first met her in 1993 when she went to an exhibition that Mr. Lee had organized at the Plant City train depot.
“Bud set things up as though you were walking into Ruby’s environment, her paintbrushes, her painting table, her buckets and such,” Ms. Gibson said by email. “Bud had installed paintings everywhere — high, low, leaning, hanging, propped, nailed, stacked — again, just like she would have them.”
“It felt like Ruby was talking to me,” she added, “and I felt an immediate connection to her. I had to meet this woman. Bud took me to her fruit and vegetable stand and introduced me to Ms. Ruby C. Williams, and I would say my life shifted into a new chapter at that moment.”
Ms. Taylor said she was introduced to Ms. Williams by Mr. Hardee some 25 years ago when she was starting her folk-art gallery. They often traveled together to exhibitions around the South, and Ms. Taylor handled a number of sales for Ms. Williams.
“I always enjoyed driving the 60 miles to pick up art from her fruit stand,” she said. “I never left without collard greens rolled up in a newspaper, pole beans, squash or sweet strawberries.
“As the years went by, I kept recalling Reader’s Digest’s ‘The Most Unforgettable Person I’ve Ever Met’ column. That is how I would sum up my friendship with Ruby C. Williams.”