Interesting Ideas

Rodney Hardee hasn't just helped Ruby Williams move up the ladder, he got her onto it in the first place.

He had been passing her produce stand in Bealsville near Plant City for years, he says, always admiring her hand-drawn roadside signs with their eccentric lettering and quaint phrasing, but never stopping until one d ay in 1991.

"I want to stop. I like the way she makes her signs for her fruit stand," Hardee recalls thinking. "I said, 'I wonder if she might can paint.'"


He finally pulled over and asked if she did. She had made a fish once, she told him, but it burned in a house fire. She agreed to try making a new one for him, and he gave her some paint and the top from an old table he happened to have in his car.

"Two weeks later she says, 'I got your fish ready.' I said, 'Oh, this is wonderful. You're a primitive artist. You need to paint.' I said, 'You can make you a little money at this.'" Since then, with encouragement (and art supplies) from Hardee, and later from Bud Lee, a photographer and co-founder of the new American Museum of Serious, Naive and Children's Art in Plant City, she has been a prolific producer of brightly colored paintings, usually on canvas board or on pieces of scrap wood.

Williams often sets her figures -- animal and human -- against a background of bright blocks and bands of color.

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"I use an array of basic colors that I have," she told the Plant City Courier last year. "I don't ever put two colors together and try to break up two primary colors with another."

There often are messages on the paintings. Sometimes religious: "God, help us to love." Sometimes descriptive: "Hi, I am Clever Bonds.... I am selling peas for Ruby's." Sometimes cryptic: "Tired of being the good guy," on a painting of an alligator (painted gray with red spots).

Williams' work, which ranges from straightforward, clearly drawn figuration to abstracted figures reminiscent of Mary T. Smith, has met with rapid success.

She has lately been featured in the Plant City museum's grand opening and was included in a major folk art sale in Tampa, sponsored by Main Street Gallery of Clayton Georgia.

Yet she does not fit the type of the inwardly driven, obsessively creative outsider; she seems a little more reluctant than, say, Howard Finster.

To Hardee, her success at painting has been positive partly because she has been able to give other people jobs helping her sell produce. But she says that's a mixed blessing.

"I had to hire help to work at the stand, which I would rather be there than doing the painting," she says. "The stand is ... what [I] enjoy, with the peoples coming in and out.

"The people say [the painting] makes them happy, so you've got to do it. Still yet I still like the farm and I like the stand. That's just my way. I get excited about fresh vegetables and keep growing them healthy and getting them ready to go for the next person."

That doesn't mean painting is merely a distraction, though.

"I just had this notion all my life to paint. I always thought I could do something with my hands," she says. "I thought [my family] would laugh at me when I paint."

The stand's roadside signs were a sort of halfway measure. Williams remembers one woman saying:

"You know what got me here? Those signs, how they be so backward and all. But they're beautiful. Just keep painting them and painting them.

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"And after that [Rodney] came. He said, 'Well, if you do those signs, you can paint.' So I said, 'Yeah, I did paint a couple things with fishes a long time ago.' But I was going to wait until I finished the stand to probably paint. So he started me."

Williams says she can do as many as two or three paintings a day, though she doesn't keep track of how many she makes.

A principal motivation, she notes, is to raise money that she uses to help children.

"The children need so much work now. The government be cutting this off," she explains. "So we have a goal where we can help the mothers in some ways, and in that way contribute to the children," especially kids in New Jersey where she spends her summers and does missionary work.

And what are her other influences? Not other artists, she says.

"I was down at the museum. I go around to all the others. But they don't impress me. I mean they're nice. I like 'em. But I don't get any ideas from them."

Nor from people around her. Are the characters in her paintings based on real people she knows?

"No. Those are mine. They mine. They only belong to me," she answers.

Still, she says, the ideas come without -- from "the spirit of the lord. He reveals to me what to do or when to do it."

Tamara Hendershot's Vanity Novelty Garden in Miami Beach handles paintings by Ruby Williams and Edward Ott. Timpson Creek Gallery in Clayton, Ga., and Tyson Trading Co. in Micanopy, Fla., handle both Williams' and Hardee's work.

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Rodney Hardee Ruby Williams E.B. Ott Gene Beecher
No Disney here

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