Ruth G. Waddy

1909Lincoln, United States | 2003Los Angeles, United States
Ruth G. Waddy — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

John Malmin, Ruth G. Waddy and her dog Cliquot with some of her works including her Self-portrait, Los Angeles, 1966, © The Regents of the University of California

African-American artist, printmaker, editor, cultural organiser and activist.

Ruth Gilliam Waddy (1909-2003) came to art in her fifties, through cultural organising and activism. Born in Lincoln, Williana Ruth Gilliam (she went by Ruth G. Waddy, the latter being the name of her ex-husband, William H. Waddy) grew up in Minnesota, and briefly attended the University of Minnesota before leaving to work in Chicago during the Great Depression. As a domestic servant in Chicago, she met African-American poet and artist Margaret Burroughs, who introduced her to printmaking. During the war R. G. Waddy and her daughter moved to Los Angeles, working as riveter and a clerk. Later diagnosed with epilepsy, she had to stop working. At that time, in 1962, with the civil rights movement gaining momentum, R. G. Waddy started contacting local African-Americans artists for an exhibition. But her main goal for that gathering, as she recounted it, was “civil and social”. The exhibition never took place, but the group became the Art West Associated. She took on a coordination role, applying for funding, planning exhibitions and collaborating with Black magazines, such as Essence, to help artists sell their prints.

In 1965 she travelled to several states by bus, meeting young artists and choosing prints for what would become Prints by American Negro Artists, in which R. Waddy compiled the work of Black printmakers, including Betye Saar (b. 1926) and Richard Hunt (b. 1935). In 1969 and 1971 she co-edited, with scholar and artist Samella Lewis (1923-2022), Black Artists on Art, an influential, two-volume series on contemporary African-American artists. Those editorial experiences would shape both her editorial practice and her printmaking.

Although she briefly attended a ceramics class by Tony Hill (1908-1975) and spent a semester at Otis Art Institute, her artistic education mostly relied on her contact with other artists as an art collector, a cultural organiser and editor.
In the early 1960s, R. G. Waddy was already making small linocut prints and she sometimes showed her work with other artists from Art West, both nationally and abroad. She mainly worked with linocuts, making the small prints, in either colour or black and white, in editions of 20 or 25. The style and subject matter varied, shifting between the more abstract – such as Untitled (1969), which was featured in Black Artists on Art – and the representational, depicting everyday Black life and politics. One of her best-known works, The Key (1969), depicts a group of revolutionary African men. She explains: “The key to freedom of the countries in Africa is fighting. That’s the key.” In The Exhorters (1976) she comments on the variety of positions available to Black subjects during the civil rights era.

R. G. Waddy has spent most of her life advocating for Black artists, and is considered an important figure in California’s cultural landscape. She received many honours and awards, including an honorary doctorate in arts from Otis Art Institute in 1987. She died in Los Angeles May 2003.

Salma Mochtari

A biography produced as part of “The Origin of Others” research programme, in partnership with the Clark Art Institute.

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