About Ruth Hartley

Artist, Activist, Author: Storyteller

I write and paint because I am a storyteller. I have always made stories, though at times I’ve been lost for direction, identity and method. I paint to explore and share ideas and feelings.

  • I spent my childhood and school-days in Zimbabwe.
  • In South Africa, I studied at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Art and learnt politics in Natal.
  • In the sixties I escaped South Africa with my first child to seek asylum in liberating London.
  • In the seventies, I became a mother, wife and feminist in England.
  • From the mid-seventies to the early nineties, I was an expatriate economic migrant, working in Zambia as a teacher and art gallery director. It was a challenging time of political upheaval.
  • Later in the nineties, after a difficult marriage and painful divorce, I returned to live and study in East Anglia, where I obtained an MA in Women’s Studies (1999, Anglia Polytechnic/Ruskin).
  • In 2002, I met my new partner John. We have travelled widely together, eventually spending a year exploring 27 European countries in a motor home.
  • In 2009, John and I settled in a rural village in South-West France and began turning a small cottage and its paddock into a home with a fruitful garden.

In my art and my writing, I can draw on my own stories and those of the fascinating and extraordinary people I’ve met. Through my four remarkable children and my grandson, I am connected to other generations and enriched by different cultures and ways of being. My stories explore connections, conflict, creativity and communication.


Ruth Hartley

Portrait of Ruth Hartley for ‘Raitz, Rites, Rights’ installation at the Leper Chapel Cambridge
Photographer: Douglas Atfield.

Spider Woman by Ruth Hartley, 1997

Photo of ‘Spider Woman’ by Ruth Hartley overlaying ‘Portrait of the Artist’ by Ruth Hartley
Photographer: James Austin

Storytelling through Art

I have lived most of my life in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia. The land, its politics and its people have changed and enriched my life. I learned to take nothing for granted and to ask many questions.

At first, my art was representational and often about political subjects but, after working with artists at two international artists’ workshops in Zambia, it changed radically.

What is art? What is an artist? What is art for? Why make art? What way should art be made? Are artists different from other people? Can art tell stories? Is it possible to make a living from art?

I learned a great deal from Zambian artists which influences the way I work today. There is not one form of art or one way to make art. All humans are artists. We focus too much on those who are considered exceptional. It is the creative and artistic spirit in each of us that keeps us alive.

Why does Ruth Hartley make art?

I make art so that people will come to see it and talk to me about it. Communication and sharing are very important for me.

Art does not have to be permanent or inside a frame or flat on a wall or in a museum or gallery. Art can be simply about colour, texture, form, line, surface and shape. Art can also use these elements for other purposes such as storytelling. Sometimes art is beautiful, but not always.

My art is also about ideas and feelings that can’t only or always be expressed in words.

Art is the discovery of order and pattern in life. It doesn’t have to last long, but it is in everything that humans do. We walked, danced and sang our way over millennia into language, literature, science, music and art, finding patterns of meaning and beauty in order to communicate with each other and commune with the gods.

Artists are makers and discoverers and art is a necessity.

The Art of Storytelling

Ruth Hartley the child drew her stories

Children’s books are a feast of pictures and stories. Every child grows up understanding that they belong together.

I was nourished on English fairy stories, the Grimm Brothers, Greek myths, dinosaurs and Enid Blyton, all of them illustrated. My parents frowned on Marvel comics, but once a week Uncle Lancs cycled home up the dirt road from town with Eagle, Girl, and the Beano for his kids, and I read them second-hand.

We are all born to see ourselves as heroes walking life’s road on our quest to slay dragons and free the imprisoned. We draw before we write. We sing, dance and play-act our stories as we learn to run and climb. I drew my first comic strip stories, portraying myself as the main protagonist, by the time I was nine years old. My parents thought I must become an artist. They confused my observational skills with artistic genius — a misconception that stalled my creative development for years. I now understand better how to use observational skills in my writing and how to embed emotion and passion in my art.

Ruth Hartley the adult learned to use words as well

I went to art school in the windy old-fashioned city of Cape Town, but, not having heard of agitprop or understood Picasso’s Guernica, I gave up painting for anti-apartheid politics. I was too naive to understand that art can be a weapon in the fight for freedom. The truth was that I hardly knew myself and I had not yet acquired good enough skills and tools in my art to make effective use of them. The circumstances of my life also meant that I was without like-minded friends, mentors and information. I was afraid and vulnerable and the secret police terrified me.

Creative people and activists use music, art and literature to express themselves. Category labels, pigeon-holes and branding are ways of containing and controlling people. We don’t have to be, and can’t be, the best in the world. We can only try to be the best that each of us can be as artists, as writers and as ourselves.

Writing and art feed each other and me. Sharing them with other writers, artists and everybody else can turn the world into a sharing street festival and picnic party.

Photo of the artist with ‘Portrait of the Artist’ by Ruth Hartley
Photographer: James Austin