Fine Arts

Ruth Downes Lays Down the Law for Painting


By Rob Lucey

There are jokes about throwing lawyers in the ocean, but in at least one case, if you mix a lawyer with a salt spray, you end up with an artist.

Ruth Downes came to Texas in 1987 to attend law school. “I planned to get my degree and move away, but I’m still here,” she quips.

For 25 years, she practiced law in Houston, but since the mid-90’s, the island has beckoned. Downes began volunteering aboard the Texas Seaport Museum’s tall ship Elissa. Eventually, she met her future husband, Jamie White. In late 2010, he accepted a job as director of the museum, and they moved to a historic home on Broadway that happened to have a rear structure with space for an art studio. Before moving to Texas, Downes went to art school earning a BFA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from the University of Illinois.

“I grew up drawing and still have many scrapbooks and sketchbooks from childhood,” she says. “Then I went to law school and forced myself to stop drawing because it distracted me from paying attention in class.”

In the end, law ended up distracting her from her first love. “I love so much about the law, but in recent years I felt I’d done it long enough, and it was time to focus on something else.”

That something else came when she reawakened the talents of her youth to depict her new island surroundings. “There’s a nice sense of becoming reunited with my younger self,” she observes. “There’s also a sense of increasing openness and possibility that comes from starting afresh. There are beautiful scenes to paint everywhere: the sea, the seawall, buildings and houses, the sky, boats, birds, people.”

As she waded back into the art world, Ruth joined a local artist group led by Galveston watercolorist Sallie Anderson. In that group, she met Susan Tyler who, in January 2014, opened her Tyler Studio gallery in a former corner store at 1201 Postoffice St.

“I saw Ruth’s work, and I was really taken with it and asked if she might like to show some pieces,” Tyler says. “She started working very diligently in her studio and came up with 15 to 20 pieces for her first show.”

More shows followed, and now Downes has a long-term display space in the gallery. Downes has taken a disciplined approach to her new career path, spending productive days painting from photos she’s snapped around the island and, more recently, shots taken on a trip to Key West with her husband.

The result is a prolific output of oil paintings in a realistic style with less details than a photo, but shy of impressionistic.

“It’s representational, and yet ever so slightly stylized,” Tyler says. “And her work is romantically inclined with scenes of Galveston, which is very attractive to people who come to the gallery. She has evolved in the last three years. I think we’re going to see much more from Ruth, especially as she travels around the country with her husband.”

Ruth’s nautical scenes gain authenticity from her past experience as a volunteer crew member aboard Elissa, as well as from knowing that her work has to pass the muster with her husband, a professional rigger on traditional ships for 30 years.

“Her ability to capture marine scenes is inspiring,” Tyler says. “She is so true to the scene – where the ropes go, which way they’re twisted. She has a great appeal to followers of that style.”

Occasionally Downes can be spotted around the island behind an easel painting the view before her. “I entered the plein air contest sponsored by the G. Lee Gallery in Galveston and realized what a different ballgame that is,” she says. “I’d love to develop my plein air painting skills.”

While she still does some law work on a contract basis, Downes is happy with her new career. “I’ve always felt that having artistic ability is a gift and that I had a corresponding responsibility to develop that gift as far as possible,” she says. “Then I realized I wasn’t getting younger. If I was going to develop those abilities, it was time to start. It felt like returning to my roots. I’m very happy to be in Galveston and have met so many wonderful artists who are doing beautiful work. It’s a nurturing and welcoming community for an artist.”

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