PLANT CITY — Plant City will have a chance to savor the work of Ruby C. Williams in September, when the award-wining artist's work is exhibited at the Bruton Memorial Library.
Williams, whose paintings have been featured at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, is considered one of Florida's top folk artists. Her work hangs in collections from France to Argentina as well as the United States.
"She's the matriarch of Florida folk art," said Jeanine Taylor, owner of the Folk Art Gallery in Sanford. The gallery, now in its 15th year, specializes in folk art from Florida and the southern United States.
"It's hard to separate her art from her farm, her community or her religious background. Her work has meaning for her … and lots of people like it."
One of seven children, Williams grew up picking strawberries on a Bealsville farm. The land was settled by her great-great-grandmother, Mary Reddick, one of 12 freed slaves who founded the town of Bealsville in 1865, just south of Plant City.
"She was the only woman in that group that founded Bealsville, and I work only 2 miles from where she lived as a slave," Williams said. "It made me feel like I wanted to do something with my life."
That something began with a fruit and vegetable stand in the mid 1980s along State Road 60 in Bealsville. Williams opened the stand to give farmers a place to sell their produce after a local farmer's market closed.
She started painting signs to attract customers, but the brightly colored artwork caught the eye of art lovers as well. Soon customers were leaving with a bag of strawberries in one hand and one of Williams' signs in the other.
"I started the produce stand to help local farmers. I wasn't thinking about art, but the signs on the highway got me recognized as an artist," said Williams, who started painting in 1967 as a hobby. "I had always wanted to paint, but I didn't have the money to go to school."
Encouraged by local artists like Plant City's Bud Lee, a former Life magazine photographer and founder of the Artists and Writers Trust and the Florida Photographer's Workshop, Williams gained confidence as an artist.
"These people came into my life and I didn't want to disappoint them, so I kept working harder and harder."
After selling a few paintings at her produce stand in the mid '80s, Williams saw the popularity of her work grow steadily in the early 1990s and motivated her to attend art shows throughout the South. She was featured at the Anacostia Community Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's museum of African-American history and culture, in 2005.
"Gallery owners would come to her while she was busy planting and ask her for art," said Taylor, who has sold "hundreds" of Williams' pieces. Williams' artwork can cost as little as $40 but go up to $8,000 for the pieces displayed at the Smithsonian museum.
But she is a farmer first.
"I love the farming more," Williams said. "I get my hands in the dirt and get to grow my own food. What is better than having a good pot of black-eyed peas, greens and corn bread? The art might or might not sell, but I always have something to eat.
"Art is art; it has a unique place, but you can't eat art."
Williams, who only paints outdoors, finds it difficult to raise a brush during Florida's summer.
Come fall, she will be at her easel two to three days a week.
"She's a fascinating character, the epitome of a folk artist," said Anne Haywood, director of the Bruton Memorial Library.
Folk art covers cloth to metal and everything in between. Often reflecting the culture and traditions of an artists community, it can be found in major galleries from New York to San Francisco.
The Williams exhibit is part of the library's monthly shows of works of local artists. The library featured Williams' work in September 2007.
"A lot of people still have not seen her work so I thought it would be good to share it with the community, but people also may come from further afield because she is so well known in the folk art world."
Williams has no plans to stop painting any time soon. She won't talk about her age — "I was born on June 9. That's all I say. Age has nothing to do with what I do." She's just happy knowing she is giving back to her community, just like her grandmother.
"My life is to look up and reach up and take somebody with me no matter what, make someone else happy. I think that's what the art does."
Williams' work will be on display at the library throughout September. A reception with the artist is set for 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 16.
For information, call the library, 302 N McLendon St., Plant City, at (813) 757-9215.
Kevin Brady can be reached at [email protected]