Ruthe Blalock Jones doesn't recall ever aspiring to become an artist. That's just what she always was.
“I remember as a child, I never said ‘I'm going to be an artist' or ‘When I grow up I will be.' I always said, ‘I am.' I never thought that was unusual, but I guess it was,” Jones said in a phone interview from her Muskogee home.
If she wasn't painting from the time she was old enough to grasp a brush, she came pretty close. Jones was first recognized for her work at age 15, when she received an honorable mention at an annual juried painting competition in 1954 at Tulsa's Philbrook Museum. She sold her award-winning painting for $15 to acclaimed Creek-Pawnee artist and teacher Acee Blue Eagle.
From that impressive first professional sale, Jones has crafted a storied career as a nationally known American Indian artist, sought-after authority on the traditional painting style she favors and a respected arts educator.
This weekend, the Claremore-born artist, who is of Delaware, Shawnee and Peoria heritage, will be lauded as the 2011 Red Earth Honored One during the 25th Annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival.
The Honored One designation is given annually to a master visual artist who has made significant contributions to American Indian art. In nominating Jones, Mary Jo Watson, director of the University of Oklahoma's School of Art and Art History, praised this year's Honored One for dedicating her life to educating artists and creating art.
“Ruthe's art speaks volumes about the pride of her tribal relationships. ... She pays acute attention to authenticity in detail of dress and the ceremonial aspects of traditional tribal life, and some of her paintings could easily be her childhood recollections,” Watson wrote. “She truly is a positive role model and ambassador of arts. Ruthe has many talents maybe others are not aware (of). She is a champion hoop dancer, war dancer and excellent cook.”
Working with artists
Growing up along the Spring River in the Quapaw area and raised with the Shawnee traditions, Jones was 10 when she began her formal art training as a student of renowned Oklahoma painter Charles Banks Wilson. She attended local schools until her fateful sale to Blue Eagle. On his recommendation, she was able to attend high school at Bacone College in Muskogee on an art scholarship.
She earned her associate degree from Bacone in 1970, her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Tulsa in 1972 and her master's in arts education in 1989 from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. In 1979, she began teaching art at Bacone; she retired a year ago as director of art at her alma mater.
Throughout her long tenure as an educator, Jones continued to create her own artwork in a variety of media, including oil, ink, acrylic, crayon and watercolor. She competed in the first Red Earth in 1987 and entered the festival most years, winning the Grand Award for Best of Show and serving as a judge in the dance and art contests along the way.
“I always tried to keep something going because when I was coming up, I was fortunate to have professors who were working artists. And I wanted that for my students. I wanted them to see that I was working all the time,” Jones said.
She continues to make art in what is known as the traditional style, creating flat paintings that depict American Indians in customary dress and activities.
“Most of the young people no longer paint in that style, and most of them have kind of considered it cliche ... but it's part of the history. It's how Oklahoma Indian artists came to be established. All of the Indian artists are on the shoulders of those early people who practiced this style which comes out of the ledge style, then (was popularized) with the Kiowa Five at the University of Oklahoma and Dr. (Oscar) Jacobson,” she said.
“I have great respect for those people who pioneered it, like Dick West and Black bear Bosin and Blue Eagle.”
The painting she sold to Blue Eagle as a teen now is part of his collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; her work also is included in the nearby Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
She also has become respected as a pioneering American Indian artist, winning an Oklahoma Governor's Arts and Education Award in 1993, earning a spot in the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in 1995 and receiving the Dick West Award in 2000 from Bacone College. She garnered the Spirit of the Heard Award in 2008 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and in January, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar appointed her to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
As the Red Earth Honored One, she joins the ranks of other acclaimed Oklahomans such as Jerel
“Oklahoma Indian artists consider it like a lifetime achievement award,” she said. “That's certainly what I look at it as ... and I'm just blown away to be in that line of all of those illustrious people who have preceded me.”