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Ruth E. Pettus, a Baltimore artist known for her expressionistic isolated massive figures, men in suits, and shoes, dies

Baltimore artist Ruth E. Pettus in her exhibit on display at the Resurgam Gallery featuring a collection of transformed old shoes.
Baltimore artist Ruth E. Pettus in her exhibit on display at the Resurgam Gallery featuring a collection of transformed old shoes. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / XX)

Ruth E. Pettus, a Baltimore artist known for her expressionistic isolated massive figures, who once explained that she used shoes as “both simple metaphor and as sensual visual text,” died March 11 of a stroke as a result of a brain tumor at her residence in Charles Village. She was 63.

“Ruth was so clever and incredibly witty and smart and had a great sense of humor,” said Julie Yensho, a ceramics artist and Ms. Pettus’ agent. “She has been sick for a long time, but she never acted like she was sick. She was a survivor and was always trying to do her artwork matter-of-factly.”

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Ms. Yensho added: “Her work was as powerful as she was and as commanding a presence as she was.”

Cathleen Maslen has been a close friend and fellow musician for nearly 40 years.

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“We played music together at her cabarets,” said Dr. Maslen, a Baltimore family physician. “Ruth was a dyed-in-the-wool artist who lived her life experiences through the way she saw the world and as a 9-to-5 painter, and while painting was her life, and she could also be a solitary person, but when she came out of her painting world she liked to dance and sing.”

Ruth Eve Pettus, daughter of James T. Pettus Jr., a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and his wife, June Pettus, an English homemaker, was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and raised in London and Canberra, Australia. She graduated in 1975 from Telopea High School, where she took courses in art history, and attended the University of Sydney in Australia, hoping to pursue a career as a painter and an art restorer. She also studied at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington.

Ruth E. Pettus did a long series of paintings of men in suits.
Ruth E. Pettus did a long series of paintings of men in suits. (Handout / HANDOUT)

When she was a high school student in Australia taking art courses, she found the idea of being an art restorer fascinating. She didn’t want to make art, but she wanted to learn about it and care for it. “I wanted to be involved in art,” she told The Sun in a 1998 interview.

At 19, she traveled to Greece and drew landscapes, villages and the people who inhabited them. Five months later, she returned to Washington and began studying with Leon Berkowitz, an American abstract expressionist, and entered the Corcoran.

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She withdrew after a semester, explaining in The Sun interview, “It was so dull. It was awful! Awful!”

Ms. Pettus began modeling at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Towson University and Baltimore’s venerable Charcoal Club. Her own work of large abstract paintings was influenced by the abstract painters of the 1950s.

After moving to Baltimore in 1980, she decided she wanted to paint men in suits.

“They are big. They dwell within a narrow band of colors, one overlapping the other. They have no faces because she has decided faces are unnecessary to what she has been trying to do with them,” observed the Sun article.

In a 1998 artist’s statement, she sought to explain her work. “Initially I was drawn to the image of men wearing suits because the simple, dark shape was exciting as an abstract form. ... In all my work I mean to convey the physicality of the figure, its visceral identity, its essential purpose.”

“Originally people would think it was sort of a critique, just very anti-men, being a woman artist. ‘When are you going to paint women in suits?’ they’d ask. ... It’s just a painting,” she told the newspaper.

The genesis for painting men in suits is rooted in her London childhood, when her mother took her and her two brothers to the British Museum to expose them to great artists. In 1984, she returned to the museum and while gazing at a large painting by Raphael that featured men dressed in togas, she was struck by an idea.

“I just thought that today they’d be men in suits. Then I thought that would be an interesting exercise,” she told The Sun.

Ms. Pettus discovered new artistic inspiration while rereading Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” in which one of the characters, Dr. Alexandre Manette, is confined to the Bastille and earns his living while managing to keep his sanity working as a prison cobbler.

Ms. Pettus, tired of painting men in suits for more than a decade and seeking a new challenge, found it in the Dickens novel.

She turned her artistic attention to shoes, explaining in an artist’s statement, “I work with used/found shoes utilizing them as both simple metaphor and as sensual, visual text. Thus, my work can indicate transformative over time, wearing out of the original form and emergence of new narratives and representations. The variety and texture of the shoe emphasize the uniqueness, endurance and occasionally wit of individual experience.”

Ms. Pettus had a 1996 showing of 75 shoes at the Resurgam Gallery in Federal Hill.

“They’re shoes she’s deconstructed, unconstructed, un-tongued, unlaced, relaced, de-soled, unsoled, re-soled, turned inside-out, sliced, diced, bent, broken and battered, and some she’s just preserved as purely unique specimens of the shoemaker’s craft,” a Sun feature reporter wrote.

“She has slathered her shoes with road tar, sprinkled them with pebbles, swaddled them with gauze, stuffed them with sticks, stones and possibly bones. Her shoes rest quietly on the floor, mount whitewashed brick pedestals, march up the walls, hang from the ceiling, dance to Gene Kelly choreographies.”

“She was interested where shoes took people and how they were a reflection of them,” Dr. Maslen said.

Ms. Pettus was an opera fan and enjoyed playing classical piano and Schubert’s impromptus on a Steinway that had once belonged to her mother.

“She used to ride her bike to her Inner Harbor studio and she’d be singing French songs at the top of her lungs as she pedaled through the streets,” Dr. Maslen said.

Ms. Pettus was an inveterate reader who was especially interested in Russian history and politics. She was a baseball fan and “never turned down a double espresso with chocolate cake,” family members said.

More than 30 years ago, Ms. Pettus survived a brain tumor and in 2016 suffered a stroke, but still kept on trying to work.

“And look at me now, 30 years afterward,” she explained in a 2019 interview with BmoreArt. “My doctors say nobody lives this long. So obviously something was good for me in the stars, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

“Ruth was a very generous person who was interested in socially progressive causes,” Dr. Maslen said.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, no public services are scheduled.

Ms. Pettus is survived by her son, Max Di Pettusanto of Philadelphia; two brothers, Willie Pettus of Berkeley, California, and Winston Pettus of Kilchreest, Ireland; four sisters, Lisa Hamilton and Katherine Pettus, both of San Diego, Josie Wiseman of Louisville, Kentucky, and Rachel Pettus of Paphos, Cyprus; and two granddaughters.

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