My Lessons With Ruby

Fair warning: This is going to be a long post (so long – that halfway through writing this, I decided to do it in two separate parts). It turns out when I have something to say – I truly have something to say. Who knew?

So this is PART ONE. Grab a glass of wine and let’s talk.

Like really talk. Just this once, let’s throw caution to the wind and be completely honest with each other. My general feeling on social media is that people run the risk of ‘over-sharing’. I’m always very aware of that, and so I often find myself holding back. I share what I’m comfortable sharing, and leave my family/personal stuff aside – private, not for human consumption. And that personal restraint has worked for me.

But then – everything changed. Everything somehow changed in society; it seemed as though the world tilted on its axis. And ‘up’ wasn’t ‘up’ anymore, people changed, and behavior was modified, and the comfortable societal status quo came into question. And then out of all the chaos (at least for me) came the opportunity for self-examination and personal reflection. A kick up the rear, if ever I need one.

It’s the ‘personal reflection/self-examination’ that brings me here to you now. I can’t get into the politics of the world because I don’t have the words. Plus, I know once I start going down that rabbit hole, I suddenly become divisive – I’m either for ‘them’ or against ‘them’, and I can’t do that. I want to be about inclusion. But what I am able to talk about is the change in me.

The short (?) version is that I realized that while I had been picking beautiful strong women in most of my pieces (except for the Unicorn – but who doesn’t love a Unicorn??) – most of my paintings focused on Caucasian models. I was instinctively drawn to what was familiar to me: a more stylized version of me, a stronger version of me, a version of me with a more beautifully formed body. I’m not exactly apologizing for that because, ultimately, all the oil paintings are works of art. But am I being made aware of my choices. What I don’t like to admit is that I stayed in the ‘safe’ zone. I was resistant to step outside of that and delve into other genres. And now I realise, as an artist, how limiting that was for me.

So I started looking at different paintings (thank you, Google). And realized that I had never, NEVER ever considered using an African-American painting on my pieces – and why was that? Boy, if that isn’t a slap in the face of self-reflection – honestly don’t know what is. The simple answer is: I don’t know why. I don’t. Was it because I thought that African-American paintings wouldn’t appeal to the masses? WHAT?? (please, please, power above – tell me that wasn’t truly behind my decision-making). Was I really (subconsciously) pandering to the masses? (which honestly scares the heck out of me because that’s the last thing I have ever wanted). But maybe? And just that hint of a ‘maybe‘ stinks – because there really could be some truth in that. That acknowledgment alone is so uncomfortable to own, that it makes me want to squirm. But it’s mine to take ownership of. And if that wasn’t the case then, at the very least, I need to get my act together, and get real.

So this is the real me.

I can’t remember when I first saw ‘The Problem We All Live With’ (Norman Rockwell, 1963). But, I suspect it was when I first arrived in the U.S. – so for arguments sake, let’s agree on 1989. It struck me because, coming from England, I had never experienced the reality of segregation. It made absolutely no sense to me WHATSOEVER. How could this have been going on for so long, and why didn’t people stop it? A simple and very basic question from someone who didn’t know anything about U.S. history. But the powerful image stayed with me. And when the world tilted, a perfect storm occurred and I realized that I needed to use Ruby Bridges on my new piece.

For the most part, once I start painting, I go to a place where I just want to be alone and paint. That’s probably why you’ll never see me painting live on Facebook – I don’t want to talk to an audience, I just want to focus. Ruby took me to a whole new place. There was so much thought that went into her – from the choice of furniture, to the colors, to the finishes, to the texture. Everything was done with great intent. And I want to go through each one if you have the time to read, because I think it’s interesting how our choices are made and the symbolism behind them. But that will be PART TWO (sorry!).

So before I share that post (as yet unwritten!) – let me just share something that you don’t know about me; and how memories of my childhood suddenly came to the front while I was working on Ruby.

I grew in a city in the north of England. Very working-class, and although my father worked as a laborer and later a bus conductor/driver – by most standards we were poor. My father left school at 15, my mother at 14. My parents married young and lived in the house my mother had grown up in. No matter how many ways I try and look at my childhood I always come back to the same conclusion – it wasn’t a happy one. Being poor was never an issue, I wasn’t aware we were poor until much later on; but being raised by a mother who was clinically depressed did take its toll. It’s hard to describe what it’s like living with a chronically and severely depressed parent. In its most simplest of forms, I would suspect it’s similar to living with an alcoholic – in that you never know what to expect when you wake up, or come home. You always want to make that person happy, less aggressive, less mean. Every day you navigate life on eggshells. I’m not writing this so that you’re going to feel sorry for me because, honestly, I turned out OK in the end. And it is absolutely not my intention to lay blame on my mother because of her mental illness. The reality is she did what she could with what she had. Peace has been made in that respect. But I think it’s important to get a glimpse into my early childhood, and understand the importance (or lack of) that education played in my life.

And I know you’re asking ‘Well, that’s all very well and good, Diane – but where does Ruby fit into all of this?’. Great question. Let me take an imaginary sip of my chilled chardonnay, and I’ll get explaining.

Sip. Sip (OK, I had two).

My mother was a housewife and mother of 3 small children, living in a TINY home with no bathroom. We had an outside toilet. She had no car. No money. But what she lacked in material wealth, she gained in emotional baggage. Her education had been abruptly halted at 14, when her father told her that she would no longer be going to school – rather, she would stay home and care for her dying terminally-ill mother. Her depression over the years became almost palpable. And she was lonely. And I was a very timid child and she wanted a friend. And for good or bad, I was ‘volunteered’ to be that friend.

School? I didn’t like school. My elementary teacher, Ms Gregson, was a ruthless instructor. She read stories to us, and could throw a blackboard eraser at students for talking, almost in the same breath. She scared me and while I desperately wanted her to like me, I didn’t like being around her. But, in reality, the anger I felt in school only reflected what I witnessed firsthand at home. For the most part, I was between a rock and a hard place – but at least the ‘hard place’ had TV.

Where am I going with this? Hold on, I’m almost there. The shorter version (good grief, thank heavens) is as a 6 year old if I didn’t feel like going to school and suffer the wrath of Ms Gregson, my mother would let me stay home. If she was very sad or low, she wanted me home for company. It almost became the norm; so much so that I vividly remember the Truancy Officer knocking on the door, needing to file a report on my numerous absences. My mother, in a panic, told me to ‘Lie on the sofa, Diane – pretend you’re sick’. And I obliged.

And so, in my early childhood, education was of no real importance. Zero. It was purely elective. It was something that I could do, or not do – often depending on the given day. A nuisance. If I skipped school maybe it would make my mother happy?

Again, if I’m being brutally honest, I never really gave it a second thought. And haven’t for a long long time.

And then I saw Ruby. In 2020.

Fighting to go to school.

Her parents strongly believing that she deserved an equal education.

Surrounded by U.S. marshals.

And people who didn’t want her to go to school and get the education afforded only to the white children.

And tomatoes used as weapons against a child, wanting nothing more than to learn.

And it finally hit me. My right to a good education. Available to me. A given right. The chance to sit in a classroom and learn, and I opted out of it. Because I could.

Because we could.

Because having an education in my family was secondary.

As I look back at our histories (Ruby being only 6 years older than myself) what strikes me as the most alarming aspect of it all is the diametrically opposed positions of our governing bodies, at that time. Because while my local authority instructed someone to knock on my front door and ask my parents why I WASN’T at school getting an education, Ruby’s local authority tried everything to STOP her parents getting Ruby to school and getting her (equal) education.

And once I had made that stark, painful distinction, I knew that I had to create ‘Ruby’.

The time was right.

And it’s time to learn.

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4 thoughts on “My Lessons With Ruby

  • July 25, 2020 at 6:05 am

    Extremely powerful. I respect your bravery in recognizing this in yourself, but especially in exposing yourself to the judgements of others. Bravo!

  • July 27, 2020 at 10:19 am

    Thank you, Diane, for writing this. I am a white woman who was born in 1954, the year of Brown vs Board of Education, in a southern state. Born to a middle class family of segregationists who were wrong about so many things, but were basically good and loving parents. I have felt guilt for as long as I can remember about the crimes white people committed to black people, so I became a Social Worker. I have grown so weary of white people saying, “Blacks have the same opportunities we have,” or “Blacks get everything for free, and we have to work for a living.” Etc., etc. In the 45 years that I have worked with minorities and people in poverty, I have come no closer to understanding bigotry than when I was a child, and it was so obvious to me, but not the people in my family. I think your art and your story will reach people on a primal level, and open their eyes and hearts to the reality of the black experience. That is my hope.

  • July 27, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    Such courageous honesty, beautifully expressed. I can imagine this has been an epiphany that needed great fortitude and self interrogation and bless you for sharing. You express yourself, in both art and words with consummate and insightful fluency….I applaud you and yes, out of the dark does come the light. I can’t remember who said that it is better to light a single candle, than to cry in the dark. I hope you have healed from the unkind remark made. Your honest words contributed more than money ever could. 😘

    • July 27, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      Gosh, I love that quote!! Thank you, Hilary x


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