The NCCU community notes with sadness the passing of Ruth Russell Williams, 78, an acclaimed North Carolina folk artist. A resident of Henderson, she died Friday at Durham Regional Hospital. Her work was showcased at the NCCU Art Museum in a 2009 exhibit, “Ruth Russell Williams: Master Storyteller.” When the exhibit opened, Museum Director Kenneth Rodgers described Ms. Williams as “one of North Carolina’s most original artists.”
Ruth Russell Williams was born in 1932 in the Vance County community of Townsville. Her parents were sharecroppers. At age 8, she began picking cotton to earn enough money to go to the State Fair. Later, her paintings would portray scenes from this early work and from many other childhood experiences, including memories of going to work with her grandmother to the home of a plantation owner. She developed her talent along a path that took her from these humble beginnings to beauty salon owner and cosmetologist to national recognition as a self-taught artist.
In 1948 she married Odell Russell and they had four children but would later divorce. In 1974 she married building contractor Samuel Williams. Initially drawn to ceramics, she taught ceramics at Vance-Granville Community College. When her children were mostly grown, she began painting, although she initially thought her paintings lacked merit. At an art exhibit at Kerr Lake in 1985, Williams was quite satisfied showing her work to laymen and women, but when she learned that North Carolina A & T art professor James McCoy was nearby, she grabbed her paintings and hid behind bushes, fearful of presenting her work before a professional. McCoy, however, immediately recognized Williams’ unique aesthetic sensibility. He told Williams that she was a gifted folk artist and predicted that she would one day become widely recognized. For the next two decades, Williams produced hundreds of paintings, each one telling a story of life as she saw it, in a simple, straightforward — and vividly colorful — way.
Her work is now prized by collectors and museums throughout the United States and Europe. One of her best-known works, “Baptism,” appeared on the cover of Smithsonian magazine in 1993.