September 2009 Issue
Cincinnati artist Annie Ruth Napier reaches out to younger generations through her inspirational poetry and visual art.
Patrons of the arts come in all ages and sizes. While she was attending the University of Cincinnati in the early ’80s, Annie Ruth Napier honed her artistic skills under the wide-eyed companionship of her 4-year-old nephew, Allen.
Napier would push aside the living-room furniture at her mother’s house in the College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati to create a makeshift art studio. She loved to use pencils and charcoal to sketch images of African-American children while Allen eagerly looked on, proclaiming that he, too, someday would become a great artist like his Aunt Annie.
Each drawing was an adventure for Allen, and Napier felt the joy of sharing her art with her young admirer, who often sat beside her eating a piece of toast.
“Allen was real bubbly, cheery and a very positive child,” she says with a big, bright smile.
Although Napier didn’t know it at the time, Allen’s role was about to change from companion to inspiration. One night, Napier answered her telephone to a frantic voice telling her that her older sister’s house was on fire. The 19-year-old artist raced to the scene a mile away.
Most of the residents of the home escaped. But as Napier arrived, someone shouted that Allen was trapped inside the raging blaze. Her young protégé died of smoke inhalation that night. His aunt’s heart was changed forever.
“Allen’s death put me on a path of wanting to share more,” says Napier, 46, affectionately known by only her first and middle names, Annie Ruth. “No matter what I do, and no matter what I obtain, I want to keep sharing it with our children.”
These days Napier is sticking to that path by using her colorful artwork and inspirational poetry to change lives. She writes and illustrates books to teach children how to read, and uses her pictures and poetry to help youth communicate their problems.
“I think artwork can change the world,” she says, surrounded by the paintings that hang inside her home in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Roselawn.
Napier has recently taken her mission to a bigger stage. One of her pieces is on display through Feb. 28 at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus as part of “Soul!,” a collection of American art designed to reflect African-American heritage. It features 119 works on loan from the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Dating from 1835 to 2003, the assortment includes paintings, sculptures, photographs and mixed-media pieces.
“The exhibit gives people of all cultures the opportunity to recognize the passions in the hearts and souls of these African-American artists, and to identify similar emotions and experiences in their own lives,” says Connie Bodner, director of education and interpretation services at the Ohio Historical Center.
Napier’s contribution is called “Higher Learning.” The large, mixed-media artwork depicts a griot (a term describing a West African wandering poet), providing a history lesson to three faceless children of varying shades of color.
It’s a perfect fit for “Soul!,” which highlights African-American art, culture and history. (Other Ohio artists represented include Willis “Bing” Davis, the longtime Central State University art department chair, and Elijah Pierce, the late folk art carver who lived in Columbus.)
Napier is well known around the Cincinnati area for her art. Her paintings often depict children and carry a message of hope. She creates her artwork through A. Ruth Creations, the freelance art business she founded in 1994, and Eye of the Artists Foundation, an outreach program that uses art therapy, founded in 2001.
The artist has two distinct styles. One is childlike and fuses bold, primary colors with found objects, such as scraps of fabric, strips of newspaper and grains of rice and sand. It’s a style she calls “direct innocence,” and she incorporates it into her children’s books. The other style is more abstract. “You have to dig deeper to find the message,” she says.
Napier started drawing at age 3, often using the blank pages at the beginning and end of encyclopedias as her pallet. “Mom didn’t spank me,” she says. “She went out and got me some drawing paper.” Drawing became a way for the child to express her feelings as life presented challenge after challenge.
Her parents divorced, which also split up Napier and her older sister. She adds that her father was an alcoholic and her mother suffered from mental illness. When the youngster was in ninth grade, her grandmother was murdered. After her nephew’s death, Napier left the University of Cincinnati. She got married, had two children and moved to California, where she earned a degree from National University in San Diego, before returning to Cincinnati in 1990.
Napier has since written and illustrated five volumes of poetry and inspirational commentaries for children and adults. The Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati selected her as its 2003 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, which recognizes outstanding African-American artists. In 2003, she received the Ohio Senate Commendation for community service and artistic accomplishments.
In 1992, Napier took her positive vibe to ProKids, a volunteer-driven advocacy group in Cincinnati that helps abused and neglected children. She worked for the program for several years, using her artwork and poetry to help children discuss their problems.
“Annie’s art frequently contains themes related to self-worth, overcoming obstacles and realizing human potential,” says Tracy Cook, an attorney and executive director of ProKids. “Her call to action is to transcend pain and to triumph. It is a special experience to see children react to Annie’s work.”
Perhaps her most popular book is I Can Read, a 32-page, full-color paperback. The book is done in bright, primary colors and contains mixed-media elements, designed to send key messages to African-American children.
Napier explains that the inspiration of writing began soon after Allen’s death.
“I think what really brought my drawings to life was my writing,” she says. “A lot of what I began to write and draw about was the human personal experience, death and tragedy, love and friendship. I hoped to prompt young people to open up and communicate, and that allowed me to establish dialogue with people. It’s still based on that today.
“Our children are our legacy,” she adds. “We should pour everything into them.”