Ruth E. Thomas, MBE
The paintings in From Darkness to Light: Portraits by Henry Ward, on display at BNG through to October 29, capture key figures in Bermuda’s diverse community. One of the first artworks that greets visitors as they enter the Watlington Room is Humanitarian, a striking portrait of Ruth Thomas, MBE. A Founding Trustee of the Bermuda National Gallery, she is widely considered the leading steward of Bermudian culture.
Trained as an educator, Ruth Thomas helped to create the island’s first government preschools and was appointed the Education Officer responsible for Early Childhood Education in 1972. In 1988 she became the Government’s first Cultural Affairs Officer, which saw her take the helm of the newly formed Bermuda Department of Cultural Affairs, a position she held for over two decades.
Ruth Thomas served as Chair of the Bermuda Arts Council for 12 years and is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, Founders Award and Patron Award from the Arts Council. An accomplished actress and singer, she has performed in the Bermuda Festival numerous times and has served on their Festival Programming Advisory Committee for many years. She was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List in 1994 for her service to education and to the arts.
We caught up with Ruth Thomas, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, to discuss her involvement with the Bermuda National Gallery over the past three decades, her vision for the Department of Community Services and Cultural Affairs (now the Department of Culture), and a life dedicated to preserving the arts.
BNG: As a founding trustee you have been involved since the very inception of the Bermuda National Gallery. Could you please tell us about the early days and what it was like to be part of the team that opened the BNG?
RT: Meetings, meetings, meetings – nothing but committee meeting after committee meeting all with the same agenda, which was to establish a national gallery. The overall intent expressed in those meetings was that such a gallery would house exhibitions and collections of the visual arts that would facilitate an understanding of Bermuda’s cultural identity, extend knowledge of and respect for local and international artists and encourage and perhaps even ignite a significant level of interest by the locals in the visual arts. In addition, it was noted that the facility was to be seen as something for everybody and not just for the perceived elite.
Before all of this could be thrashed out, focus had to be placed on finding a physical plant suitable enough for a gallery, and on funding. Both tasks were massive – daunting enough to turn the project into a dream deferred. However, the committee was too devoted to the idea of a national gallery to let that happen. Members were all seriously involved, in one way or another, with the visual arts. They were Jay Bluck, Michael Darling, Paul Doughty, Desmond Fountain, John Gardner, Laura Gorham, Sheilagh Head, David Mitchell, Dennis Sherwin, Sylvia Shorto, Charles Zuill and me. Most stuck with the committee during its entire duration.
The first few meetings took place at the bottom of Flatts Hill in St. Mark’s Church Sunday School where Charles Zuill and Desmond Fountain had an arts studio. In fact Fountain, sculptor, and his wife lived in the building. They were kind enough to provide a meal for us at the meetings. This was appreciated because the meetings were during dinner time after a long, hard day’s work. When Fountain moved to Warwick, we met in that home. The last series of meetings took place at the Southampton home of Dennis Sherwin, art collector.
Meetings were intense but productive and congenial. One of the disappointing moments was when one site we thought was ideal for a gallery turned out to be a no. That was the cooperage warehouse in Dockyard. Fire damage rendered the building structurally unsound. Restructuring was going to cost a fortune, a prohibitive amount. Its location was alas far from Hamilton. The main thought was that the gallery, in order to attract visitors, should be centrally located. In fact, that idea was strongly expressed several years previously by Hereward Watlington. His generous gift of his collection of works by European artists to Bermuda was to be the content of the proposed gallery’s opening exhibition.
Hope was revived when John Gardner informed the committee about the availability of a suitable space for a gallery in City Hall above the mayor’s office. This seemed to answer the problem concerning the right location, but the matter of funding was still a mountain to climb. Jay Bluck was coerced to fundraise. He was successful. Refurbishment began as soon as plans were drawn and by 1992 the Bermuda National Gallery was established.
The opening ceremony was performed in the first level above the steps leading from the foyer, which was filled with guests. Louise Jackson did the opening. She was accompanied by her husband, Albert Jackson, and 8-year-old grandson, Scott Nearon. Scott’s presence was deliberate because a part of the BNG’s mission was linked to introducing young children to the arts.
The BNG owes a debt of thanks to the founding committee whose determination, vision, hours of discussion and belief in the value of the arts resulted in the fruition of this wonderful art facility, to the late Jay Bluck, who was the first chairman and to Laura Gorham, the first director, to Michael Darling, Charles Zuill, Hereward Watlington and Desmond Fountain, whose foresight and belief in the arts led to the passing of the 1982 Parliamentary Art Trust Act also deserve a round of applause. The governing body of the Bermuda National Gallery is the Bermuda Fine Art Trust.
Akira Kurosawa, Japanese filmmaker (1910-1998) said: “The role of the artist is to not look away.” BNG, please encourage artists accordingly. Such advice could be responsible for helping to keep the arts alive and well in Bermuda.
BNG: Could you please tell us about your involvement with BNG over the past three decades? What have been the most memorable moments?
RT: After the opening of the Bermuda National Gallery, the Bermuda Biennial became one of the first major projects, the first two (I think) of which were judged by locals. Eventually it was thought that judges should be from outside Bermuda, mainly to avoid any sense of nepotism and to increase opportunities for participants to learn from professionals through reviews of their work by world-class, experienced professionals. I was one of the judges – not world-class or experienced or professional – for the first two biennials.
One of the things I tried to do for the gallery was through attempts to fill it with visitors. For several years during lunch hours I, along with thespians Grace Rawlins and Gary Phillips, performed half hour to one-hour Mosaics, which are dramatic works I wrote based on Bermuda’s folklore, history and traditions. Attendees usually came with their brown bag lunches. Sometimes we performed full-length Mosaics in the evenings. These Mosaics brought large audiences into the gallery.
There are endless connecting links between all art forms. I ran a series of workshops linking creative writing and paintings of Bermuda. Through the Department of Cultural Affairs, for about five or six years, every Monday and Wednesday I gave talks on Bermuda’s history, culture and stories, one hour per time. This resulted in attracting tourists and new guest employees to the gallery. Every year we had many repeaters who came not just to hear the lectures but also to view new exhibitions. So many favorable comments were often made about the gallery. Visitors were amazed to see an institution of such a high standard on such a small island.
It was customary for BNG to conduct museum tours overseas. These were very rich learning experiences for locals. I found the tour of arts facilities in Chicago particularly fascinating, including architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings. Among the most memorable moments was BNG’s participation in the exhibition of Carib Art. This was a travelling exhibition of contemporary works of art by artists of the Dutch, English, French and Spanish Caribbean islands. It received the patronage of UNESCO and was proclaimed an activity of the United Nations World Decade for Cultural Development.
BNG was one of the facilities that mounted a huge segment of this travelling exhibition. In fact BNG joined forces with the Bermuda Society of Arts and the Bermuda Arts Centre at Dockyard. David Mitchell of the BNG – he was curator – helped to oversee the entire project, which drew countless visitors. Carib Art was a Department of Cultural Affairs event in which BNG played a major role.
The exhibition of motorized cycles must not be forgotten, because it succeeded in bringing into BNG countless persons who perhaps had never given thought to darkening the doorway of an arts facility.
BNG: In 1988 you became the government’s first Cultural Affairs Officer and oversaw the Department of Cultural Affairs for over two decades. Why was the role created and what was your vision for the department?
RT: Many cultural activities were in place several years prior to the establishment of the Department of Cultural Affairs. The celebration of the island’s heritage every year during the month of May is an example. Government had under its umbrella the Department of Community Services, initially. Eventually that department became the Department of Community Services and Cultural Affairs. This department was of enormous value to various segments of the island. At the helm was a Bermudian gentleman who had spent many years working in communities in Ontario, Canada. His name was Loudru Robinson and he and another Bermudian, Reginald Ming, were phenomenal movers and shakers in terms of developing, remediating, and improving community needs.
Cultural affairs were made a separate department in order to increase the focus on culture. The general perception at the time was that “Bermuda has no culture.” In fact, this expression was used as a verbal whip when Government first announced the formation of the Department of Culture. Mind you, the name may sound grand, but all the Department had was a secretary, the part-time staff member and one full-time. The budget was less than meager.
The vision was first of all to disseminate Bermuda’s historical information. For so many, the local history as taught in schools started and ended with the 1609 arrival of Sir George Somers. Included in the vision was the intention to develop an understanding of and scope of culture. People disliked the use of the word initially, because they related it only to ballet, opera, classical music, Shakespeare and things for “them, those uppity people.” Support for the arts and knowledge of and respect for the people and our heritage were important matters also, that needed guidance by the new department.
Television was the media through which a tremendous amount of information was disseminated. Among the programmes that were developed for this purpose were Treasures, a once monthly, half-hour programme which outlined the contribution of seniors to the development of our culture; Bermudian Profiles, which ran for over ten years every Sunday evening, monthly half-hour programmes detailing our history, geology and arts; The Learnalots, which was for children under twelve; periodically half-hour programmes based on themes for Heritage Month.
Included in this lineup was the Premier’s Concert, an annual event which featured outstanding youngsters between the ages of ten and twenty-one. The concerts were based on the performing and visual arts. They became a strong factor that motivated a push toward high standards in the arts. Mosaics, which were performed in churches mainly, were based on Bermuda’s history, folklore, traditions and many other aspects of the island’s culture. The main objective of the Mosaics was to increase audiences’ knowledge of our history while being entertained. Every Mosaic – about 90 in all – contains local material, and the stage performance of each one had a cast of only local actors (Grace Rawlins, Gary Phillips, Leo Mills and me), singers and dancers.
BNG: What role do the arts, in all mediums, play in Bermuda?
RT: “A well-told story, in whichever artistic medium it is delivered, can touch corners of the soul otherwise unreachable,” said the stupendous actor, Cicely Tyson. All forms of the arts when well presented, have this same power. This is only one of the tremendous roles the arts play. Another role is in the quotation: “The arts are the hallmark of a civilization.” This should remind Bermuda that now and years from now our island home may be assessed by its level, attitude toward and acceptance of the arts. Because of the variety of roles and the plethora of mediums, I doubt that we would be content to be referred to as a cultural desert.
Bermudians, as I see it, are richly talented in the arts. There isn’t always evidence of professional training but there is often proof of natural ability, especially in stage productions of plays. Performers often act, sing and dance at such a polished level that audiences are left wondering if they are overseas. The dramatic productions seem to reduce fear-intimidation. This is one role the arts play in Bermuda, it is liberation.
Bermuda is a small community that has experienced repression, racial segregation, classism, social unrest, and many other ills that have probably led to feelings of intimidation. It is often through the arts that victims of such ills, instead of shrinking, often shine. The arts take them outside themselves, extend their ability to create and enable them to communicate their thoughts, ideas, understanding in ways that cannot be expressed otherwise.
The Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts, other organizations involved in the arts, churches and schools through their invitations to overseas first-class professionals to bring their skills here, be that in the performing arts, literary or visual arts, give locals opportunities to be inspired and encouraged to go higher.
The role of the arts brings people together and entices them to explore new avenues. The experience liberates them. For example, in the BNG’s experimental writing workshop, participants were asked to select a painting from the Ondaatje Gallery and to use the painting as a springboard for a piece of creative or fictional writing. Many participants were very hesitant at first, but once after a series of “talks” they felt liberated and turned in interesting works.
It is my opinion that one of the major roles of the arts is like that of a mirror reflecting our identity. This is important in Bermuda. Because we are inundated constantly with persons from other cultures, either for business or pleasure, we have often subordinated our own taste to the criteria of others. This is cultural surrender through which we could be in danger of losing whatever identity we have, losing a trove of cultural customs, forgetting our traditions, changing our folklore, and neglecting the factors that provide guidance or direction, that give meaning to life and ensure a moral compass. When these things disappear so do the many factors that provide the framework within which we identity our priorities and goals.
So then where does this leave us? What must the role of the arts continue to be? How important is that role no matter what the medium is? It is my belief that the arts are useful tools that can unlock pent up inhibitions, facilitate critical thinking, expose inadequacies, praise, criticize positively, open our eyes, bring satisfaction, increase self-confidence and self-esteem and above all, liberate, liberate, liberate. All of this is for both artist and art on-looker. I firmly believe that the role is important because it can feed the soul. It can also keep us from chipping away the edifice of our culture so that we do not further weaken the timber of our existence.
BNG: You were chair of the Bermuda Arts Council for twelve years. Under your leadership, Richard Saunders, whose photographs are currently on display at BNG, was selected as the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Why did you select him and what is the significance of the award?
RT: According to the Royal Gazette, February 14, 2022, Richard Saunders is one of a few Bermudian photographers to have earned international acclaim and recognition for his work. Actually, Saunders was well known in his island home as a reputable artist long before he achieved prominence abroad. While here he worked with David Knudsen and Hilton Hill, both acclaimed photographers. He was a police photographer and he won several prizes for his work.
Saunders’ experiential background, though substantial, did not spare him rejection when he applied for a photographer’s job with the Trade Development Board. This, unfortunately, was at a time when Bermuda practiced, legally, racial discrimination. He was a man of color.
Saunders moved from Bermuda to the United States where his talent, devotion, artistic fortitude, attention to detail and ability to read people and understand their sphere brought him regular assignments from leading magazines such as Life, the New York Times, Ebony, Paris Match, Look, Fortune, Playboy and Ladies’ Home Journal. He also had a job as International Editor of Topic, the United States Information Agency magazine. His work was profound. He was not afraid to use the camera to reveal, rectify and record.
When the Bermuda Arts Council became aware, mainly through local photographer Graeme Outerbridge, of the extent, importance, significance, impact, inspirational nature, sociological value, and enlightenment captured through Saunders’ photography a plan was immediately made to proudly acknowledge, in a significant way, the achievements of this prestigious son of the soil. Hence, the Bermuda Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award came into being. He was the first recipient. The Award was presented posthumously in 1987.
Emily Saunders, wife of the esteemed photographer, donated a collection of his works to the Bermuda National Gallery for its permanent collection. She has been thanked for this. The BNG also deserves thanks for exhibiting the collection.
Historically, Bermuda has been painfully slow, maybe even remiss to applaud, to express esteem or to acknowledge in any form local artists. It is the hope that the works of the BNG, other local galleries and the Bermuda Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award are helping to remedy this oversight.
BNG: Why is it important to both preserve and promote the arts?
RT: Linguistics, sociology, anthropology, religion, and history are among the major facets of a culture. Of course, the human being has to be included in the list because it is his behavioral style, rituals, myths, belief systems, traditions and morals that help to form the culture. They keep the cultural reservoir from emptying.
What about the arts? This is something that so often is associated with visual, performing and literary matters. However, it is the arts, all segments of the arts, that provide the lens through which the culture may be interpreted, through which we derive an understanding of the past and present and perhaps even gain a glimpse of the future. The arts have the potential to portray life, sharpen our awareness, our intellect, imagination, aesthetic, judgement and enliven our creative sensibility.
The artist, because through his medium he can “tell it like it is,” he can help us to face reality, to see the difference between the sacred and the profane, between truth and untruth and lead us to experience life through all our senses.
Without the arts so much would be lost, unexplored or unknown. It is through the arts that history becomes familiar. Just think of the power of the griot – the storyteller. His stories explore, record and reveal. That’s part of the work of the arts. Really, the arts are beyond being phenomenal. We cannot dismiss its importance or devalue its necessity. With this in mind it becomes our duty to continue, to preserve and promote this remarkable, profound, versatile, enriching, educational, sometimes complex treasure – the arts.
BNG: Henry Ward painted your portrait for his exhibition From Darkness to Light, currently on display at the Bermuda National Gallery. Could you please tell us about this?
RT: Enter the Bermuda National Gallery. Turn left. Go through the doors – very heavy doors – that lead to the Watlington Gallery. Scan the room. The walls are covered with works by the same artist. Over there on the eastern wall is a painting of young dancers. Ballerinas. Degas, perhaps or maybe Matisse? No, silly. There are no European paintings in here. Take a close look. Note the profusion of darkness and light. The artist makes use of the two factors as “an existential expression of humanity within the darkness of the universe.” How profound! There is a portrait of a ship’s pilot who is in full light, but darkness is there too both beside and behind him, emitting a strong sense of the dramatic – and of reality – and hope.
There she is at the end of the southern wall. She is emerging into a light that is showing her puzzling, mystifying, challenging matters which could be either real or imagined. Her nuanced face reveals many reactions including ambiguity. As you look at her you want to know more about her. Where has she come from? Why is there an aura of mystery, and why the ambiguity in the eyes?
Just as these questions emerge, a primary school child who is looking at the portrait says, “the artist did a great job. He made the lady look serious and determined. He put a lot of silver (light) around her so you can see her. I like the portrait.” I like it, too – it’s me – Ruth Elaine Thomas. It says a lot about the me nobody knows. The artist has the incredible ability to capture the inner soul. How deeply talented!
The artist of this powerful exhibition, From Darkness to Light, is none other than Henry Liam Ward, an internationally acclaimed portraitist. It has been an honor for me to have been painted by him. Every now and then, or maybe just once in a lifetime, something totally unexpected, or utterly wonderful or simply stupendous or so touching it evokes tears of joy and gratitude happens. My portrait by Henry Liam Ward does all of these amazing things for me. It honors and humbles.
When I saw Mr. Ward on television presenting to HRH Queen Elizabeth II his portrait of her, he looked so humble, but what a powerful and memorable moment that must have been for him, especially as the Queen seemed so pleased and gracious. He, no doubt, was elated.
To have had my portrait painted by Mr. Ward is amazing, to have had that same portrait hanging in the Bermuda National Gallery is even more amazing. Thank you, Mr. Ward, and thank you BNG.
From Darkness to Light: Portraits by Henry Ward is on display until November 8.