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 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 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

Ruth Hartley

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 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.

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.

Why does Ruth Hartley make art?

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.

The Art of Storytelling

Ruth Hartley the child drew her stories

Children’s books are a feast of pictures and stories. Every child understands that they belong together. I was nourished on English fairy stories, the Grimm Brothers, Greek myths, dinosaurs and Enid Blyton, all 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 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. I had drawn my first comic strip stories, with myself as 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 use them effectively. Circumstance also left me without like-minded friends, mentors and information. I was afraid and vulnerable and the secret police terrified me.

Creative people and activists express themselves through music, art and literature. Category labels, pigeon-holes and branding contain and control people. We don’t have to be the best in the world. We can only try to be the best we 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 street festival or picnic party.

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