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.

Storyteller Ruth Hartley owns the atypical books imprint. In this logo a large brown lowercase "a" sits atop the word "atypical" in bold black letters followed by "BOOKS" in fine caps, all on a white background. I was born into a quiet world with books for companions. My thoughts, imagination and dreams flourished as I read of heroes and warriors. Certain I would be both, I gradually discovered the stories of the silent, the unimportant, and the fearful, who are also brave. I decided to tell the stories of ordinary people whose lives flavour the earth with salt. Everyone has a story, as do I. Since childhood, I have lived and worked in several countries. In my art and my writing, I draw on my own stories and those of the fascinating and extraordinary people I've met.

Through my four remarkable children and my grandchildren, 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

Ruth Hartley

Storytelling in Art

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

Storytelling in Art

From Representation to Expression

I have lived most of my life in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia. The land of Africa, 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 I learned from Zambian artists influences the way I work today. There is no one form of art nor one way to make art. 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.

Why does Ruth Hartley make art?

All humans are artists. We focus too much on those who are considered exceptional. The creative and artistic spirit in each of us keeps us alive.

I make art so that people will come and talk to me about it. Sharing and communication are very important to me. 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. We find patterns of meaning and beauty in order to communicate with each other and commune with the gods.

Artists are makers and discoverers. For me, art is a necessity.


Art of Storytelling

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

Art of Storytelling

Ruth Hartley the child drew her stories

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

Like you, I too was a hero on a quest to slay dragons and free the imprisoned. We sing, dance, draw and play-act our stories as we learn to run and climb. By nine years old, I was the protagonist of my own comic strips.

My parents thought I must be an artist. They confused observational skills with artistic genius — a misconception that stalled my creative development for years. I now know how to use these skills in writing and how to embed emotion in art.

Ruth Hartley the adult learned to use words

I went to art school in windy, old-fashioned Cape Town. Not understanding agitprop or Picasso's Guernica, I gave up painting for anti-apartheid politics. I was too naïve to understand that art can also fight for freedom.

The truth was that I hardly knew myself and had not yet acquired good enough art skills to use them effectively. Circumstances also left me without like-minded friends or mentors. I was afraid and vulnerable, and the secret police terrified me.

Later I learned that creative people and activists express themselves through music, art and literature. We don't have to be the best in the world; only our best as artists, writers and ourselves.

Writing and art feed each other and me. Sharing them can turn the world into a street festival.




Where do stories take you?

We are all on a quest, storyteller and readers together.

Whom does a writer write about? Herself or you?

Does an artist paint a self-portrait or a picture of you?

A book is a doorway, a painting a window, into another world.

Enter, explore, and discover.



What is storycraft?

The skill of making understandable stories is storycraft.

I paint to explore ideas and feelings. I write to explore connections and conflict. But, to communicate, the storyteller must be understood. Then stories create community, and are shared and loved and challenged in community.

My passion has led me to develop my crafts over many years, because these stories are not just for me.

I want to hear from you.



What is storypower?

Storypower is a story's 'fightback' capacity. A fightback is an act of resistance, or an affirmation of resilience.

The world changes, opinions alter, history is rewritten. Youth's certainties prove false. Misinformed people made mistakes; we ourselves have erred.

How can we find a way forward? Whom do we trust? Where is hope? Where love?

Let's tell stories that fight back against cynicism and exploitation. Resist anything mean, petty, or unkind. Believe in equality, generosity and freedom.



What is storylight?

We all live adventurous lives. We have secrets to hide and reveal, missions and ambitions to fulfil.

We each have a story to tell. Some of us have many.

Each of us loves to hear stories: to be afraid, horrified, shocked, delighted, comforted, pleased and thrilled.

Stories are lights that we share to guide us through the nights of our days.


Join Ruth's mailing list

Receive art and storycraft news and insights; ask questions; give feedback; chat with other readers.

Privacy Policy