For decades, Ruth Waters, a notable artist and community builder on the Peninsula, has dedicated her life to empowering other artists and connecting their work to the public. Two close friends intend to keep this legacy alive.
“She was supportive of the marginalized, she was someone who cared deeply about inclusion. There was nothing that could rock Ruth’s world at 88. … Ruth lived for the present and for the future, she accepted it. She was keen to support women in art. She just wanted to be that voice for them,” said Stephen Seymour, an artist, San Mateo County Arts Commissioner, and a friend and colleague of Waters.
Waters died on Monday June 13 at the age of 88. A week earlier, she played a hands-on role in setting up an art exhibit at San Carlos’ Domenico Winery, an event planned by Nounie Siy, a longtime friend of Waters, who described her relationship to a relationship between a mother and her daughter.
Siy said she woke up that morning and thought about Waters. The two hadn’t seen each other for about a month due to Siy’s busy schedule. Something didn’t feel right, Siy said, prompting her to check on Waters regularly, either in person or through Seymour, who assured her Waters was fine. He had seen her earlier that day bringing down a pedestal on which to display one of her wooden sculptures.
At 7 p.m. the show had started and Waters had not shown up. Siy and Seymour would soon learn that Waters had fallen before the show and hit her head while watering her garden, ending up in the hospital.
The news came as a shock to Siy and Seymour. Despite her advanced age, Waters was very active, still playing tennis – the sport that brought her and Siy together – and carving hardwood sculptures.
“That afternoon was very emotional and many days have passed since then because it was a surprise. She was still carving that day. Her tools were in her hands as we spoke. She had a chisel and a hammer and she created the next piece of art,” Seymour said.
Find the artist
Before first picking up a set of sculpting tools 65 years ago, Waters was a writer and majored in literature at Stanford University. A Seattle, Washington native, she had moved to the Bay Area with Phil Waters, her then-boyfriend and future husband, who also studied at the prestigious institution.
The two attended different high schools in Seattle, but met when Phil Waters needed a dance date. The former football player had met Waters’ twin sister and when one of his teammates suggested they go on a double date, Phil Waters thought of Ruth.
The couple spent the rest of their lives together in the Bay Area, except for about seven years when Phil Waters was relocated to Michigan and then Washington DC for his government job. Ruth Waters began a career in the newspaper business, working as an editor on a number of publications before working in art galleries while the couple lived in the state capital.
“She was a very outgoing person. She liked meeting people. That’s her thing and she’s very outspoken and not pushy,” said Phil Waters, admitting he’s been more reserved about outings than his wife, who was nearly 68.
Two years after graduating from college, Ruth Waters found her way into sculpture, using the medium to further explore the human condition and connection. She developed skills in sculpting bronze, marble, constructed room-sized sculptures and painting.
Ruth Waters worked with her hands. Using a chisel and hammer, she machined hardwood stumps from cherry and oak trees, typically opting against using softer, more malleable options like redwood or pine.
Her work was painstaking, meticulous. Once she achieved the hardwood abstract shape she wanted, she spent hours scraping down the bumpy surface with sandpaper. She wouldn’t stop until the wood felt like silk. Ruth Waters wanted her viewers to connect with her art and feel her energy.
“She wanted it to be touched. She didn’t want it to be seen as a detached work of art,” Siy said.
Her pieces have been exhibited across the country and overseas – Seattle, Michigan, Washington, DC, New York, China and Ireland were all destinations. And she and her work have been honored by a number of local leaders, including Woman of the Year from US Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo and former State Senator Jerry Hill.
However, Ruth Waters not only wanted to connect through art, but also to connect people in life. She has spent the last 45 years of her work creating spaces where artists can share their work with the community while passing on their skills to future generations of artists.
She is behind places like Belmont’s Twin Pines Art Center, the Peninsula Museum of Art and her most recent venture, the Peninsula Art Foundation. Located on the second floor of San Bruno’s Tanforan Mall, the new space was created in collaboration with Seymour.
“Ruth is an amazing artist, but she was also an amazing person. When she taught, it wasn’t just about carving. She teaches life lessons and it came through loud and clear,” Seymour said.
Carry on the legacy
Her goal of connecting people got Siy interested in Ruth Waters and then Seymour. Siy first met Ruth Waters about 14 years ago when Waters joined Siy’s tennis team. Ruth Waters was an asset as she was a veteran distance runner finishing 16 marathons and an avid tennis player.
At Ruth Waters’ encouragement, Siy helped raise and develop funds for the Peninsula Museum of Art, bringing people from her athletic world into the world of Ruth Waters’ art. From there, Ruth Waters took Siy under her wing and supported her as Siy opened her own art gallery in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood, SIY Gallery.
“She was my mentor. she created me She created what I am doing at this point in my life. She believed in me and never wanted to give up on creating a community that makes a difference,” said Siy. “We found each other. She was the mom I always wanted.”
Seymour met Ruth Waters just over a year ago when he came up with the idea of using some of the empty space at the Tanforan mall as art studios and exhibitions. After approaching mall management about the idea, he was told that Ruth Waters had a similar proposal. He said he immediately jumped in his car and drove to Ruth’s studio, where they sat and talked about art for hours.
Neither Siy nor Seymour ever considered Ruth Waters capable of completing a task. She was regularly spotted hauling around large pieces of wood and leading tours. She was independent and never wanted to be treated as if she were incompetent. She wanted to work and did so to the end.
“She wanted to create a community of weirdos,” Seymour said. “She wanted the space to be diverse with artists from different disciplines. She would say, ‘I don’t want artists who only make beautiful pictures.’ … She wanted to create a space where the audience could come in and meet with the artist.”
Seymour and Siy intend to continue Ruth Waters’ legacy. She and her work will be honored with an exhibit entitled “Made with Serendipity” which opens on Saturday, June 18 at 1 p.m. on the second floor of the Tanforan Mall at 1150 El Camino Real. The exhibition remains open daily until 4:00 p.m. and ends on July 20th. Her art studio is on the same floor and can be viewed through a window, including her dusty bench and her latest unfinished piece.
A Celebration of Life will be held at the same location on July 10 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Those interested in honoring the life of Ruth Waters are encouraged to donate pieces of hardwood for their students to use to continue their work during the month-long duration of the exhibit. Eventually, the duo said they would like to open a museum and art studio in Ruth Waters’ honor where their work can be exhibited and new artists can find a space to express themselves.
Waters is survived by her husband, three children and three grandchildren. A private funeral service will be held for the family.
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