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Front Porch

Nature inspires artist

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003

BEALSVILLE -- Ruby Williams knows she's home by how it feels on the outside: the pocked dirt road where she walks from her trailer to her vegetable stand; the grapefruit, orange and tangerine trees; the tall, mossy pines that she used to run through as a girl.

"I was always outside," she says. "That's what I was about."

The 371/2-acre farm where she sells mustard greens, squash, peas and okra from a roadside stand has been in her family for almost a century. Williams grew up on this farm settled by her great-great-grandmother, Mary Reddick, one of 11 freed slaves who founded the town of Bealsville.

For Williams, the little farm always meant freedom.

"I never met Mary, but she taught me I could be whoever I wanted to be, that I could be free," she says. "This farm gave me something to hold on to."

The farm is a landmark in this eyeblink town on Highway 60 south of Plant City, mostly because of the colorful folk art nailed to the fence: Characters like the "Tired of Being the Good Guy" alligator, "Miss Smart Mouth" and "Sing Betty" beckon passing motorists.

Her love of God is evident by the handpainted signs: "Wait on the Lord" and "Jesus is soon to Come. Repent."

She has seen so much success as a folk artist that she had to put up a sign that says: "No photos of Ruby's Art. Only (One) of Ruby."

Williams lives with her grown daughter in a travel trailer beneath the oak trees on the back of the property. A friend is building a deck so Williams can sit outside in the warm weather. She likes being outdoors so much that a few years ago she had a friend build her a wood-burning cooker where she makes barbecue, cornbread, boiled peanuts and greens.

"I could build a house, but I don't want one," she says. "The outdoors is my house."

She remembers the days before the highway rolled through. "I would play across the way there, gathering the cows. We had a place to swim, to play ball, to sit in the fields and eat the things we grew. We used to walk through the woods and find oranges growing wild."

She moved back about 15 years ago from New Jersey, after raising her family. Her husband had left her -- something that bruised her soul and made her need to feel whole again.

"I wanted somewhere to stay that was peaceful, where I could pray and do my art," she says. "But most of all -- I just wanted to come home."

Williams has some very definite thoughts on home. "Home has to be comfortable. You have to have love and children," she says. It should be just a simple place where a person can "have a bath, eat supper and watch TV." Actually, when you get right down to it, it's even simpler than that, she says: "Just give me some decent shelter, water, lights and a refrigerator."

She paints wherever the muse strikes. From a practical standpoint, that's wherever she happens to feel like sitting, depending on the weather and what she's creating.

"I paint anywhere -- here, there, out there, wherever I can," she says. "The Lord gives an idea to you, so you've got to catch it as it comes by."

Even a van on the property didn't escape her paintbrush. A piano-playing cow and slogans like "money don't grow on trees" tell the story of her life.

One Tuesday, she sat in front of a wooden shack beneath an orange tree. She was working on a self-portrait, dipping her brush straight into a tube of acrylic paint. In the picture of herself, she wore an orange ball cap, peered through tiny, blue Coke-bottle glasses and held a fat, oversized strawberry, an homage to the harvest. Williams won't tell her age. It's the last secret she has, she says.

Just like her physical body is only "temporary," she explained, swirling a black outline around the curve of the foot in her self portrait, so is her home on the farm.

"All this I'm building up, I'm going to leave it someday," she says. "That's why I don't need a big mansion. I'll go home content."

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