For more than 20 years, the invitations arrived in the mail, beckoning family, friends and fans to a farm in Bealsville. There, the first Saturday in November, people came to celebrate folk artist Ruby C. Williams.
The invitations, like Williams, didn’t mess around.
“Time: 11 a.m. sharp.”
“At 11 o’clock sharp, if you weren’t there, you were in trouble,” said Kristin Congdon, a friend and professor emerita at the University of Central Florida.
On those mostly cool Saturdays, people sat under a tent on folding chairs listening to the farmer who became famous for her art. She preached. Someone sang. Someone else played the harmonica.
“And then she would invite people like me to say wonderful things about her, which I always enjoyed,” Congdon said.
After the preaching and praying, the singing and sharing, Williams fed everyone from her farm.
It was a pageant, a thanksgiving, a healing and a celebration of all that came from the earth through the hands of Williams with the grace of God.
Williams died Aug. 8 of natural causes. Throughout her life, she guarded her age and her image. She knew, through trials that came early, how to protect herself and her work while keeping her heart open.
In 1998, former Tampa Bay Times master storyteller Jeff Klinkenberg visited Williams on her farm to share her story.
“Her great great grandmother, a slave, helped settle Bealsville after word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Central Florida during the Civil War,” he reported. “Growing up in the Depression, Miss Ruby picked oranges and strawberries. She drove a tractor. She married, watched four children come into the world and witnessed the sad end of her marriage. She moved to New Jersey and drove a bus, founded a church and became an evangelist. She moved back to Florida, farmed and opened her vegetable stand. She knew men and women couldn’t live by food alone, so she fed them the word of God, too.”
The bright paintings for her produce drew attention, and after a little encouragement, Williams soon started painting more and selling her art.
Congdon, then teaching a class on folk art at UCF, learned of Williams in a tiny magazine story about the signs on Highway 60. When a student visited Bealsville to write a paper on the artist, she came back and told Congdon: “‘You have got to go down.’ And I did almost immediately.”
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Congdon met the folk artist and her photographer, Bud Lee. By then, no one else was allowed to take Williams’ photos, which were only allowed after a piece of art was sold. In a time before social media, Williams understood how to protect her image.
“She didn’t want to be exploited,” Congdon said, “and she understood that there was a kind of respect for her if somebody purchased a piece of her art.”
Williams’ art hung in galleries around the country. It’s still part of the collection at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. She won awards, including the 2005 Florida Folk Life Heritage Award and the 2009 Folk Art Society of America’s Award of Distinction.
But Williams treasured something else.
“She wanted to farm,” said Williams’ gallery representative, Jeanine Taylor of Jeanine Taylor Folk Art in Sanford. “She wanted to tend to the land that her ancestors were given as freed slaves. She loved farming and harvesting her crops more than anything in the world.”
Williams and Congdon wrote letters to each other twice a week.
“She would write about her vegetables,” said Congdon, who has about 500 of those letters still. “The fresh food was as important as her paintings. If somebody came to buy some strawberries, which they would pay a couple of bucks for, instead of a painting, which was considerably more, she was just as happy. She saw it as something going out into the world to create some health or balance or joy.”
One of Williams’ pieces showed an animal with the words “I grew long waiting for you to love me but you didn’t.”
She experienced loss and sadness in her life, Congdon said, but Williams’ art and the people it drew to Bealsville brought joy, too.
One year, Congdon brought a bus of teachers to the farm to meet Williams.
“I’m telling you, she glowed,” Congdon said. “The idea that teachers would come to her for wisdom just filled her. She must have hugged everyone. To watch what art did to her just was fantastic.”
The art she created did not make Williams rich, said Taylor, who traveled around the country with Williams.
That wasn’t the goal.
“You don’t do this for the money,” Williams told the Times in 1998. “You do it because the spirit moves you. I want to be like Martin Luther King. I want to leave something after I’m gone.”
“She ministered through her art,” Taylor said. “She loved having the income, but it was all about her farm … She shared her work and she protected her work and she protected herself. But she was also very giving.”
A few years ago, Williams held her last November celebration in Bealsville. Her art now lives around the world, Congdon said.
“It was and is extraordinary.”
It holds pieces of pain, honesty, faith, humor, hope and joy.
“If you have them on your wall, it will remind you that life has lots of pleasures and lessons to be learned,” Congdon said, “and she could give you that.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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