By Joe Tash
Ellis Ruley may not be a household name, but Glenn Palmedo-Smith aims to raise his profile.
Ruley was a black artist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1959 in Connecticut, where he had lived his entire life.
Palmedo-Smith, 62, a long-time local resident, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and writer, is fascinated with stories of people and events either forgotten or under-appreciated by society.
“Every project I’ve done, every book, is the voice for those who can’t speak for themselves,” said Palmedo-Smith.
Palmedo-Smith has long been interested in Ruley’s story; he wrote a book about the artist in the 1990s, and later shot principal footage for a documentary. The project was shelved for other endeavors, but now Palmedo-Smith hopes to complete the film in time to air over public television stations during Black History Month in February 2016.
He is seeking to raise $500,000 to complete the film, which would then be donated to PBS for airing across the country.
Ruley was a laborer who had no formal art training and came to painting in his late 50s. His frozen body was found on his driveway in 1959, and authorities ruled the death an accident. Palmedo-Smith said troubling signs, such as an unexplained head injury, suggest foul play might have been involved. Ruley may also have drawn the wrath of local racists due to his marriage to a white woman.
More than 50 years after his death, Ruley is considered an important African-American folk artist, whose paintings have been shown both in traveling exhibitions and in museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, said Palmedo-Smith.
The story has “everything I’m about, the injustice, the racism, cavalier attitude of authorities. It’s everything that I love in a story, and this African-American artist who saw nothing but beauty in the world, he only got a truckload of woes,” Palmedo-Smith said.
Rancho Santa Fe resident Gigi Fenley held a fundraising event for the film at her home in February (see photos at left, page B8). She said Palmedo-Smith is part detective, part storyteller, unearthing facts to weave a compelling tale.
“This particular project is captivating. The subject matter has a lot of merit, it’s something that needs to get out, people need to know about it,” Fenley said.
Ruley’s paintings are “playful and childlike and primitive, but eloquent” at the same time, said Fenley. He used the materials at hand, and one painting is done on an card table, she said.
Published reports about his work said that he used ordinary oil-based paints from his local hardware store, and during his lifetime, he attracted little attention, occasionally selling a painting for as little as $15.
In the mid-1990s, about 60 of Ruley’s paintings were collected for a traveling exhibit that stopped at museums around the United States, including the San Diego Museum of Art.
Fenley said she hopes Palmedo-Smith gets the backing he needs to complete his documentary on Ruley.
“He does amazing things with low budgets,” Fenley said of Palmedo-Smith. “He’s just one of those creative people. He doesn’t need a boatload of money. He can do a lot with a little.”
Palmedo-Smith, who said he is now splitting his time between California, Arizona and China, as he works on various film projects, has another fundraising event tentatively planned for April 12 in Rancho Santa Fe.
Along with artistic interest, law enforcement authorities are also taking a fresh look at events surrounding Ruley’s death, including the earlier, suspicious death of Ruley’s son-in-law, and the burning down of Ruley’s house after his death. There has even been talk of exhuming the bodies of Ruley and his son-in-law, Douglas Harris, to examine them for sign of foul play, Palmedo-Smith said.
Palmedo-Smith said he hopes the film and a reissue of his book, “Discovering Ellis Ruley,” will bring new attention to the artist and his work.
“It will be a major thing, it will be on everyone’s radar for a few weeks and that’s a dream for me to have happen,” he said.
For more information, or to contribute to the documentary project, contact James Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Palmedo-Smith at DiniFilms@yahoo.com.