Situated in the strawberry fields outside Plant City, Fla., the historical Bealsville community has its share of produce stands. This area is the largest producer of winter strawberries in the world. Hand-painted signs advertising produce, mostly strawberries, line Florida State Road 60 on both sides. The community, established in 1865 by five families of freed slaves, was one of the first African-American-founded communities in the country. Today, a sense of history remains as many of the current residents can claim one of the first families as ancestors. Ruby Williams’ great-grandmother, Mary Reddick, was one of the original founders of this community, so her connection to this land is strong.
Williams left the area and lived in New Jersey for more than 25 years. While there, she became an evangelistic minister whose mission was to help many underprivileged children “find their way” through spiritual guidance and conveying a “do-what-it-takes-attitude.” She recalls with pride that she taught one child how to make extra money by collecting and selling aluminum cans. That boy became a New Jersey State Trooper on the Garden State Parkway. Her numerous artistic accomplishments also are a source of pride, but she speaks most about the children she has helped and is helping in a challenging world. “There is so much talent out there. These kids are so talented. You just have to let them sing,”she said, recalling a local school musical production she recently attended.
After leaving New Jersey, she moved back to Bealsville to farm the land that had remained in her family for more than a century. She opened a small produce stand and began selling black-eyed peas, squash, collard greens and citrus fruits that she grew on her farm. Noticing that most of the signs lining State Road 60 were drab and boring, she decided it might draw more people to her stand if she used bright colors and pictures of fruits and vegetables. Her decision was correct.
In 1991, local folk artist Rodney Hardee, who had passed by her stand for years, decided to stop one day to ask if she had ever made any paintings other than signs. She told him she had done some paintings of fish some time back. He asked her to do a painting of a fish on a tabletop he happened to have in his vehicle. After he saw the painting, he encouraged her to do more paintings, and an artist was born. She says she feels that the work involved in growing and selling food at the produce stand is just as important as, if not more important than, painting.
With the support of Hardee and later Bud Lee, co-founder of the Museum of Serious, NaVve and Children’s Art in Plant City, Fla., she has become a prolific artist, averaging two or three paintings a day, while maintaining the farm, harvesting the crops and keeping business hours at the produce stand. She says she has done many paintings; she does not count them.
The walk-in gallery is composed of two large rooms at the back of her stand. The walls and other surfaces are covered with her paintings, done on plywood and composed of blocks of bright, unmixed primary colors, straight from the cans. Her compositions range from flat representations to abstracts. Many of her paintings depict animals (cows, chickens) that lived on her farm, as well as the fruits and vegetables grown there now, such as strawberries, oranges and peas. Often she writes her “sayings”– some feisty ones, like “Stay Out of My Business,” “Hey, This is My Life” and “Shut Your Mouth” – on her paintings.
The House of Blues has purchased and displays in their restaurants many of Williams’ paintings, especially those with her “sayings.” She also paints religious subjects and prints Bible verses on those. “I don’t sell the ones with Bible verses on them. It doesn’t seem right,” she says. She also creates colorful dolls, and she has illustrated a children’s book, I Am Ruby, published by Cardel Press, Atlanta, 2004.
In 2005, Williams received the Florida Folk Heritage Award, and, in that same year, her work was featured in the exhibition On Their Own: Selected Works by Self-Taught African American Artists at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture (now the Anacostia Community Museum) in Washington, D.C. She has been featured in many other exhibitions and private collections worldwide. Her work is displayed and discussed on the Web site http://www.folkvine.org/ruby.
Minister, businesswoman, mentor, neighbor and artist, Ruby Williams has accomplished much through hard work while leading a spiritually-guided life and mentoring those around her. She shows no signs of stopping. “One day I would like to travel. Just drop everything and go. But I like to make people happy and see them smile,” she says. Whether you are purchasing squash or a colorful painting or just stopping in for a chat, you cannot help but smile when you are in her company.
RANDALL LOTT is a software executive in Tampa, Fla.