Sag Harbor residents Rebecca and Henry Young read the well-known African folktale, “Koi and the Kola Nuts,” with their two daughters more than 20 years ago. But at the time they didn’t know the colorful illustrations in the book were the work of fellow Sag Harbor resident and artist Reynold Ruffins.
That came full circle on Friday at “Art — a Family Affair” at the Eastville Community Historical Society where community members gathered to see Mr. Ruffins’s artwork, as well as that of his late wife, Joan Ruffins, and daughter Lynn Ruffins Cave. The exhibit, which Mr. Ruffins said focuses more heavily on African American content, will continue through September 30.
“From looking at his work now and in retrospect, it’s the illustrations that stood out,” Mr. Young said on Friday evening, recalling the artwork in the books he’d read to his children. At the show’s opening reception, he gazed at the tens of pieces on display, seemingly highlighted by the sun setting on the bare white walls of the historic Heritage House. The community bustled around, with pen and paper in hand, choosing which pieces they may want to buy.
The room was full of an array of different types of artwork, from the illustrations that his son, Todd Ruffins, described as the “bread and butter” of what his father did to the paintings of figures apparently in motion, bright still lifes and more muted landscapes. The selection was punctuated with the few pieces of work by Mr. Ruffins’s wife and daughter, to which he said numerous times, “I wish there would’ve been more.”
In fact, it was Mr. Ruffins’s own idea to include his family’s work in the show, speaking to the prominent role that art has played in all of their lives.
“The kids just kind of naturally had an interest because Joan and I had the interest — they are all I think talented even though they have not pursued careers in art,” he said of his four children. Indeed, Todd Ruffins has done work with paper machete; Seth Ruffins, who is a microbiologist in California, has allowed artwork, specifically colors, to influence his scientific work; Ben Ruffins uses metal to make sculptures; and, Lynn Ruffins Cave attended the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and has used beads, felt and other materials for her pieces. She also brings art to her nonprofit work with impoverished children.
“It was all the time and everywhere and we didn’t need a box of crayons — you just picked up anything,” Ms. Ruffins reminisced of her childhood, remembering camping trips where they’d find clay and use that to draw faces instead.
Both Mr. Ruffins and his wife were graduates of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a competitive school that had been tuition-free at the time. They met at a local dance in Queens, and married in the early 1950s. Shortly after his wife became pregnant with their eldest child, she was asked to leave The Cooper Union.
“At that time, you did what you were told, especially women,” Mr. Ruffins said in an interview, adding that the dean of students said Ms. Ruffins had “taken the place of a young man who would’ve been there.” About two decades later, the Cooper Union awarded Ms. Ruffins a certificate of completion for her time there. “It was a beautiful sight,” said Mr. Ruffins, who himself had been awarded the Augustus St. Gaudens Award for outstanding professional achievement in arts, as well as The Cooper Union Presidential Citation. “She was thrilled to have gotten it.”
Until Mr. Ruffins moved to the East End full time in the early 1990s, he had worked with numerous publishers and advertising agencies. He founded Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel, his classmates at the Cooper Union, in 1954. He also formed his own design studio with Simms Taback shortly thereafter.
Mr. Ruffins explained that he was a “rare bird” when he started his career in the 1950s, as there were few African American artists, and few businesses that found his work useful. Laughing, he recalled a time where he had picked up his youngest son from a date on Broadway in Manhattan and, to his surprise, saw a logo he had designed for an Essence Magazine folder flashing on a building instead. “I saw that small design that I made two or three stories high — it was blown up, it was so large,” Mr. Ruffins said. “I said, ‘My god, that’s mine!’”
He settled with the magazine, and they used the logo for many years after that.
Aside from “Koi and the Kola Nuts,” Mr. Ruffins has illustrated more than 15 children’s books, including “Running the Road to ABC,” “There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Trout!,” “Marco’s Run” and more.
“I was asked to do some children’s books and that was interesting because, at the time, there were no children’s books that had images of black children,” Mr. Ruffins said, mentioning the book The Snowy Day, which he read to his own children. “It was maybe the first thing…that had a black child represented as just another beautiful little kid.”
“It was strange: once you notice how many are around now, it’s hard to believe that there were just none before — none that a child could look at and identify with.”
Though Todd Ruffins said it is the illustrations that “fed and clothed” him and his siblings, Mr. Ruffins started painting much more when he and his family moved to the east end. He enjoyed reporting only to himself and being free of the notorious deadlines that are the norm in the advertising and publishing industries.
“As an illustrator, you’re obligated to be the servant of the story, or the product, or the writer. You have the words, you have an assignment which has intent that’s not necessarily yours,” Mr. Ruffins said. “Sell this product, drink this drink.”
He emphasized that most of the illustrations on which he made a living rarely had African Americans as the subjects of the stories themselves.
“Being a painter, you’re your own client,” he added, humorously. “You have a heavy responsibility of saying yes or no, or, ‘That looks like crap, Ruffins!’”
Mr. Ruffins explained that all of his paintings are anchored in an idea. He often practices Cubism, a school of painting founded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Brach where the design of the shapes and the use of color are more important than the subject of the painting itself.
“The subject was secondary to the way it was reimagined,” Mr. Ruffins emphasized of this style of painting. Its influence is particularly noticeable in his still lifes, which have often been abstracted.
“It’s just taking liberties with a combination of things I see,” he said. “To be occupied by color and design and entertained by it…that’s one of the huge differences between being an illustrator and being a painter.”
Back at the Eastville Community Historical Society, Mr. Ruffins said this show was particularly special for him and his family. Not only was it evident to see his influence on his daughter’s work — the use of similar colors and geometric shapes was clear — but the evening was a true community affair. “It’s a nice place…to show your work to your neighbors,” Mr. Ruffins said, looking around the room full of just those people.