North Coast Journal

ART-MAY 1995

Work of a lifetime

by Lisa Ladd-Wilson

The police were on one side --" The Blue Meanies," they were called -- mounted on horses; the student protesters stood on the other. It was the late '60s, on the campus of San Francisco State University, and the two factions were poised to do battle for their separate wars.

In the middle of these two camps stood Ruth Braverman. The antithesis of her surname, she was a shy student, an artist and writer just emerging from an adolescent cocoon then known as being a "teenybopper."

She wasn't sure if she wanted to major in English or art, or maybe she wanted to be a teacher, or maybe she didn't want to be in school at all. But somehow the most pressing question had come to be: Should I please my friends by joining the fight for an African-American studies curriculum, or please my parents by going to class, staying out of trouble and hoping the police can restore order?

"I didn't really identify with any of these groups," Braverman says today as she ticks off a list of the protests du jour of that time and place. "I was idealistic, but ... nobody was left alone. You couldn't be neutral."

So what happened on that day? Nothing, she said. She walked out of the scene without harm. She didn't join the Students for a Democratic Society, or the supporters of the Irish Republican Army, or the fledgling campus branch of the Women's Liberation Movement. Instead, she dropped out of school.

As Ruth Braverman Canaway talks about her life and how she came to be an artist living in Eureka, the listener wonders if leaving school might have been her only recourse. It wasn't until 1989, Canaway says, that she finally focused on herself and her needs for the first time in her nearly 40 years of life. So when faced with the untenable situation of trying to please everyone, maybe the only thing she could do was to please no one.

It was an unhappy time, but it led to meeting and marrying photographer James Canaway. After their two daughters were born Ñ Louise, now a student at Zane Junior High School, and Anita, who attends Worthington Ñ James encouraged his wife to go back to school.

"It was really a wonderful time for me," Ruth Canaway says of her years at Humboldt State University. "I learned I could make friends more easily, and that I could offer a lot as a human being."

Confidence in herself and her work has been hard to come by. After leaving San Francisco State, she lived with her mother in the wake of her parents' divorce. A fire that engulfed her mother's antique store destroyed both their livelihood and living quarters Ñ and nearly all of Canaway's paintings. She was devastated, and the two began living out of her mother's car. They sold items at a flea market in Petaluma to make ends meet.

It was during this difficult time, though, that she met her husband-to-be. The milestones she had anticipated earlier in her life Ñ marriage, children, a home Ñ began their late arrival. Then James urged her to complete her degree, and she found the personal success that had so far eluded her.

Other people's enthusiasm about her work proved a welcome contagion: At HSU Canaway's confidence grew, and she learned how to promote herself. And her work began changing.

"I purposely did one piece before going back to school, to sort of hold onto a primitive style," she says as she takes a visitor through the evolution of her work.

Her living room wall is covered with her pictures, and beside many of them hang ribbons from fairs and other competitions. There are watercolors, oils and acrylics; portraits, nudes and a series of Mexican scenes.

Mostly, though, there are people. Canaway, 45, likes to paint people. She very often paints women, and when Canaway paints women, it seems she usually paints them alone.

There is, for instance, a "Bride of Frankenstein" collection of work that revolves around the female character, not the male monster. There is also the character of Tebira, who sprang from a novel Canaway's been crafting for years. The women always seem to be waiting for something or someone.

The isolation and frustration evident in these paintings, however, are in direct contrast to the colorful, gay work inspired by the Canaway family's annual trips to Mexico. They are completely different from a huge study of a baby in a crib that threatens to overwhelm Canaway's small studio.

In other words, her work is tough to categorize.

"I'm known for my realistic watercolors," she says, but she also would label some of her work "childhood fantasy." Suggestions of a strong Christian faith are apparent in some pieces (Canaway was raised in the Jewish faith but has embraced Christianity), and others are clearly strong statements on womanhood.

She discusses the pain of her childhood as easily as she notes the joy she gets teaching art to first graders at Sacred Heart. One minute she's describing how annoying she found her mother's overprotectiveness; in the next she's telling how much it touched her when her mother treated James that same way.

Since she acknowledges that most of her work reflects how she feels about herself and her life, a question about the latter gives at least one hint where the former might be headed.

"I feel OK with myself, because I'm working on (me)," she says. "I don't think that people are ever Ôcomplete.' If anything is ever really finished, it's dead.

"It's like getting to the end of a good book. You don't want it to end. You don't want it to be finished."

Ruth Canaway has a one-person show opening this month in the Humboldt Coffee Co. in Old Town, Eureka.