Ruth Cox paints the big picture but keeps an eye on the details
Naturalist. Acrobat. Visionary. Teacher.
Myrtle Beach-based artist Ruth Cox embodies all of these roles and more.
On any given day, you might find Cox walking along the beach taking pictures of the sunrise or seashells. She might be stationed at Vereen Gardens in front of a canvas, painting en plein air the marsh scene before her. Perhaps she’ll be raised on scaffolding, reaching with one hand and balancing with the other, to paint the corner of a mural on the side of a city building. Or, she might be explaining to a class the importance of light, dark and shadow in representing an object in oil paint.
Cox’s journey to becoming a full-time, professional artist was a roundabout path, yet her prolific career has spanned decades and made a lasting impression on the people, places and variety of surfaces she’s touched. In addition to the dozens of murals she’s painted on the walls of banks, doctors’ offices, homes, city spaces and theaters around Horry County and areas in North Carolina, she’s an award-winning plein air painter, a signature member of International Plein Air Painters, a member of the regional Southern Ladies Art Conference, and the founder of the local group Plein Air Landscape Society (PALS).
“I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember,” said Cox. “Except for that part of my life where I had to get a ‘real job,’ I’ve never stopped. Even when I wasn’t painting and drawing, I was seeing.”
The “seeing” to which Cox refers is the ability to distinguish the light side versus the dark side of objects in natural light. It’s the basis for understanding how to create shadow, making objects represented in paint look realistic. Cox remembers the moment in fifth grade when an art teacher first pointed out this reality to her, and she continually passes on that revelation to students in her classes at Sunset River Marketplace in Calabash, N.C., where she has taught since 2007, including one class titled “What Color is White?”
“Once you see it, you can’t un-see it,” said Cox. “And once somebody gets it, their face just lights up. Then they see it forever.”
Cox’s latest major project was a mural on the side of the Grand Strand Law Group building in downtown Myrtle Beach, completed in early July 2019. The Lowcountry marsh scene—with a motorcycle added in the corner as a playful touch—is the first in a series of public art pieces designed by the non-profit Five Points Association as a means of beautifying and renovating the downtown area.
“Ruth put her heart into the project,” said John Krajc, president of the Five Points Association. “She really loved that wall. For her, it wasn’t about the money or getting her name out there. She loved the idea of having her work downtown.”
One of Cox’s first large-scale projects was a mural that spans the full interior of Black Water Market in Conway. The meandering masterpiece, which took six months to create and was completed in 2004, depicts numerous dimensions of the city, circa the 1940s. In addition to iconic scenes such as gardens, churches, train station, lumberyard, shipyard and storefronts, the mural includes little details to surprise and delight the careful viewer.
“I threw in little details like a squirrel, a cat and a butterfly in different areas just to make people smile,” said Cox as she recently walked along the mural, narrating the various scenes. “I’m as excited about it now as I was when I was working on it,” she noted. “And sometimes I think, ‘How did I do this?’”
Cox’s outlook has not always been so rosy or her career so fulfilling. She spent 20 years of her life as a medical transcriptionist, in front of a computer, typing.
“I did that for way too long,” Cox says. “I call those the lost years.”
Cox endured a dark period near the end of that time which she was able to eventually escape through support from friends, reflection in nature, and adoption of a new approach to life.
“One thing I learned from that period is that how you think about things and your attitude has a lot to do with what happens to you,” said Cox. “I’ve been thinking, living, working like that for 20 years, and it’s true. If I start to get down, I feel it. And I can laugh at myself and say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ And I can go out and find myself something to be thankful for. Mostly it’s the beach. Walking on the beach is my meditation time and my thankfulness time.”
That grateful approach to life permeates everything Cox does, from teaching classes to creating “surprises” in her work to producing art that will be shared by thousands of passers-by.
“Ruth is really a jewel,” said Ginny Lassiter, owner of Sunset River Marketplace. “She’s one of my favorite people and one of the best artists we have in the Grand Strand area. She’s a genuine person who cares about her students, cares about her work, and wants people to love art.”
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF RUTH COX