FEATURES • Spring 2002
Being Socially Conscious in Work and Art

For more than a half-century, alumna Ruth Richardson has worked tirelessly through her profession and her art on behalf of racial unity—the first step, she believes, to helping the disadvantaged achieve their dreams.

By Judy H. Watts

In one of Ruth Richardson's beautiful and unsettling paintings, an African-American girl, barely in her teens, is shown in elegant profile, headscarf knotted in a traditional style at the nape of her neck. Bleak images crowd this child, who is rendered in dark blue-green tones that first suggest sadness and then a growing sense of isolation and interminable grief. She is gazing at a diaphanous cross.

Another work, a landscape executed in blue and brown, reveals forbidding mountain vistas of rock. The land is entirely barren, powerfully evoking what its title declares and what the privileged cannot comprehend: the wilderness of deprivation. A small bowl of water sits on a slab in the foreground.

People, landscapes, and even flowers have been Richardson's primary subjects—or starting points—in art works that reflect her convictions, experiences, and closely held feelings. A 1950 graduate of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work who describes herself as "an artist with a social work conscience," Richardson had always planned to major in art and make it her full-time career. Instead, she was stymied. "I spent my freshman year studying art at Hampton Institute [now Hampton University, in Virginia]. But the summer after my freshman year, my family moved to St. Louis from Washington, D.C. I wanted to attend Washington University's School of Fine Arts but couldn't enroll because of my color," Richardson says. "Then the director of the Carver House Community Center, where I was teaching softball and art, said Saint Louis University was preparing to admit its first black students. I was one of five who enrolled. But there was no art major!"

In 1948, during her senior year, Richardson heard Washington University was about to open its doors to blacks. "I was very excited, because I wanted to return to my art," Richardson recalls. "But the school that was opening was the School of Social Work! So that's where I went." Richardson adds that she had entered an art contest when she was younger, and although she had won, she couldn't accept the award because it was discovered that she was black. "I figured the School of Social Work would help me right these kinds of wrongs."

She was right: For more than a half-century, Richardson has worked tirelessly through her profession and her art on behalf of "the one imperative"—racial unity, the first step to helping the disadvantaged achieve their dreams.

Of her personal experience at the School of Social Work, Richardson, M.S.W. '50, says: "People were much more accepting and open than in my undergraduate years—and I found ways to use my art socially. Social work students would have what they call beer busts," she explains. "Now, I didn't drink beer, and there weren't any black boys, so I didn't have a date. I would paint scenery—Western-style on big pieces of paper I tacked to the wall. That was my way of communicating when everyone else was Caucasian."

 


After graduating from Washington University, Richardson continued to work at Carver House; married; had a son, Arthur William Boler; and divorced. In 1961, she moved with 2-year-old Bill to Pittsburgh to become executive director of the Anna B. Heldman Community Center, one of the nation's earliest settlement houses. (Today, Bill Boler, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, is a vice president with the Business for Social Responsibility, in San Francisco, a firm that trains corporations in socially responsible community development. "I didn't push him in that direction, necessarily," Richardson says proudly, "and to think that he turned around and picked that kind of job!")

In time Richardson founded and became executive director of Three Rivers Youth (TRY), also in Pittsburgh, an organization she formed by merging western Pennsylvania's first black orphanage with a home for girls—not one of whom was black. She championed cultural diversity and the welfare of children and youth at risk until her retirement in 1991.

Her peers in the field have praised Richardson's innovation: She focused on children's strengths instead of their problems and insisted that children not be bounced between organizations and placements. She also established ongoing staff development and training, and even set up an advisory board consisting of two children from each of her programs.

Her astonishing record of community service includes more than 30 top board directorships, advisory committee and executive advisory board positions, and memberships in key national and state organizations. She was inundated with awards—the 1993 Community Service Award through the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs; recognition from Pittsburgh Magazine as a "Real Pittsburgher" for outstanding contributions to the city's people; the 1996 VITA award for volunteer work in the arts; and a 1997 YWCA award from the organization's racial justice committee, to name only a few. She also encouraged gifted students of color to enroll in WU's School of Art and School of Social Work—and then watched them excel.

“It brought together everything I had been through, and it made me feel that people can be united together, recognizing one another for their worth. ... and now I plan to use my art to show how life should be.”

All the while, creativity and passion nourished Richardson's paintings, whose titles signaled subtle layers of meaning: Stone Soup, Contemplation on Confusion,and Firepower. She worked first in oils and acrylics and later in the difficult medium of watercolor—which, in her intrepid way, she took on when she "needed a challenge" after she lost her husband to Alzheimer's disease. She enrolled in workshops that continue to this day with Zoltan Szabo, watercolorist and author of instructional books.

"I started off with flowers," she says. "And I wasn't a flower lover! Really. But it made me start looking at them. As I painted, they began to express some of the things I wanted to say about how human beings live."

Over the years, other works have included prize-winning paintings for Native American heritage art shows and covers for her brother's books about black history—for example, True Stories of Segregation: An American Legacy, by Robert Ewell Greene (1998).

Her art will continue to evolve, Richardson says, in part because of the Baha'i faith she discovered four years ago. Founded in Iran in the mid-19th century, one of the faith's central tenets is the essential unity of all religions and all people under one God. "It brought together everything I had been through, and it made me feel that people can be united together, recognizing one another for their worth.

"That same kind of feeling emerged in a lot of people after September 11," she says, "and now I plan to use my art to show how life should be. It's like when I first visited my son in San Francisco: I walked through the neighborhood near the Mission District, and I didn't feel like a minority. It's a feeling I had never had—I just felt like a person."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Tender Branches, 20" x 27"; watercolor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Waiting, limited edition print.

 

 

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Wilderness of Deprivation, 16" x 20"; watercolor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
In 40+ years of community service, Ruth Richardson focused on children's strengths, instead of their problems, to help them with their lives.