Ruth VanSickle Ford

Ruth VanSickle Ford

Ruth VanSickle Ford (August 8 1897April 18 1989) was an American painter, art teacher, and owner of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

Born to Anna Miller, a German immigrant, and Charles P. VanSickle, of Dutch heritage, Ruth was an only child and grew up on the west side of Aurora, Illinois. She attended Mary A. Todd Grade School and West Aurora High School. Immediately following high school she enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied under Carl Newland Werntz from 1915–1918.

The same year she graduated from the Academy, Ruth married Albert Ford (known as "Sam Ford"), a civil engineer, in a military ceremony in Houston, Texas, after which he departed for service in the First World War. In 1918, undaunted by pregnancy and the absence of her husband, Ruth traveled across the country to visit a relative in Utah, giving birth while on that trip to their only child, Barbara.

Recognition as an artist came to her early, and she was chosen to exhibit in the 1921 American Show at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later in life, she was always quick to credit her teachers, especially George Bellows, who influenced her with his social realism, and John Carlson, who founded the School of Landscape Painting in Woodstock, New York.


In 1930 Ruth returned to teach at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and seven years later, in a typically self-confident and courageous move, became President and Director of the school, purchasing it in the throes of the Depression with money partially borrowed from friends. By this time Barbara had herself graduated from West Aurora High School and was off to Wellesley College.

As a businesswoman, Ruth again showed her originality. A forerunner of today's commuter, she would take the train from Aurora every morning at 6am, returning home at 10pm. Although her training was in art, she possessed the necessary financial savvy and marketing and management skills to operate an important art school, which was for many years located on the 12th floor of 18 South Michigan Avenue. She wrote at length about her theories of art education, revealing much about her own self when she stated that an art school graduate "should certainly be able to forge ahead with confidence, enthusiasm and a business-like application of his art training." Some of her most famous Chicago students were the youthful Walt Disney and Santiago Martínez Delgado.

She had a lifelong concern for the affordability of art and art education. When one of her students, the young Bill Mauldin, who would go on to become a legendary political cartoonist, told her he couldn't afford a full course of study at her school, she arranged for him to get the classes he needed the most, such as anatomy and life drawing, before his money ran out. Throughout her career, she paid close attention to her fees and the price tags on her own paintings, believing strongly that the best art and art teachers are not always the most expensive. She was determined to do her part to make sure that people who loved art and truly wanted to learn would be able to do so.

The Round House

Ruth and Sam embarked together on a bold project in 1949. With the architect Bruce Goff, an instructor at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, they designed a home for themselves at 404 South Edgelawn Avenue on Aurora's west side. Called variously the Round House, the Coal House, the Umbrella House or the Mushroom House, it astounded locals and visitors alike with its balloon-like structure, walls made of coal and chunks of colored glass, and open interior spaces. It was said to be modeled after a Tibetan nomad tent, but it might as well have been a flying saucer mysteriously landed in Aurora. Curiosity-seekers drove by constantly to gawk or even peek into windows. One especially bold group surprised Ruth as she exited from a bath clad only in a bathrobe. Never at a loss for a quip, Ruth opened the door and asked "Would you ladies like to take a bath, too?"

The Fords eventually put up a sign on their front lawn saying "We don't like your house either", but the unrelenting attention wearied them, and in 1961, as they approached retirement age, they sold both the house and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. They moved to a conventional ranch house a few blocks away at 69 South Central Avenue and Ruth turned her attention to teaching in her home town. She taught classes at the YMCA and then at Aurora College, now Aurora University, from 1964–1973. The college awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1974.

Her later years

Ruth VanSickle Ford belonged to the American Watercolor Society, the Palette and Chisel Academy (where she was the first woman member), the American Artist Professional League, the Chicago Painters and Sculptors Association, the National Association of Women Artists, the Philadelphia Watercolor Club and the Chicago Society of Artists, Inc., as well as others. She exhibited her work throughout the United States and the Caribbean islands, garnering numerous awards, including some very prestigious gold and silver medals. Her watercolors and oils are to be found in many museums and private collections, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Her biography appears in several "Who's Who" publications.

She once said "A painting is not a photograph, nor is it intended to be"; her use of light and color lift her work and the smallest details demonstrate her genius. Her favorite comment to her students was "Do you want to borrow my glasses?", but to the viewer of her own paintings she has been more generous. She has freely given an original view of the world, through the eyes of a highly original woman.

Ruth VanSickle Ford died April 18 1989, aged 91, leaving as a legacy the hundreds of artists across the nation whom she trained, and a large oeuvre of work. Numerous Fords can be found in the Fox Valley, notably at the Aurora Public Library, Aurora University and the Old Second National Bank of Aurora.

References and Sources

*"List of Chicago Artists" (1973); edited by H. Black
*"Aurora High School Hall of Fame" (1992)

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