For her 90th birthday, Ruth Goldsborough’s daughter Lorraine made her a hand-painted, wooden folk-art style shrine featuring photos of an always-smiling Ruth at different periods in her long life.
The centerpiece of the shrine was a pink needle-felted Energizer Bunny — a fitting metaphor for the Henderson County artist who now, at 91, keeps going and going, fueled by her trademark good humor, unflagging optimism, and creativity.
Born in 1917, Goldborough taught herself to draw and paint as a teen and hasn’t stopped creating since. Now specializing in commissioned portraits, she’s represented by the Flat Rock-based Portrait Source and teaches a three-hour weekly class at The Conn-Artist Studios and Gallery in Hendersonville. But her current work is just the latest chapter in a colorful life lived to the hilt.
Goldsborough has lived all over the country. “I’m a gypsy,” she says. She once hooked up a trailer to her car and drove alone to Arizona, where she spent a decade moving around to different towns, painting landscapes and portraits. She’s set up her easel in locales from the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers to amusement parks and state fairs. For years, she sketched profiles for customers at the fairs — charging just 50 cents to start out with and upping her price to five dollars and eventually to 15. A quick study, she was able to give the customer a fast turnaround at a fair price. “I thought it was important that kids be able to buy something for their parents and be able to afford it,” she says.
Through connections and kismet, Goldsborough found a patron in Bud Adams, former owner of the Houston Oilers football team and current owner of the Tennessee Titans. For two decades, he commissioned her to create portraits — charcoal sketches, oil paintings, and charcoal pencil drawings — of all the team’s players and managers, including a full-length oil painting of Steve McNair, the former Titans quarterback whose death recently grabbed headlines. Many of her paintings now hang at the Titan’s training quarters in Tennessee.
Through Adams, a registered member of the Cherokee nation, Goldsborough made a connection with the Cherokee National Museum at Tahlequah, Oklahoma and was commissioned to paint a series 18 oil portraits for every man who had served as constitutional chief of the nation. The portraits are now in the museum’s collection.
But despite these high-profile jobs, Goldsborough is the opposite of an art snob. She has a very pragmatic approach to her work. A friend who was a manager at a Walmart offered her the opportunity to set up her easel. “Why are you working at a Walmart?” a friend asked. “Because I’m making money!” she replied. Unlike many artists, she doesn’t need a dedicated space or time for quiet contemplation in order to create. Amidst a crowd in a park, a hotel lobby or a studio, she gets to work quickly and confidently. “I love being around people,” she says, and that passion feeds her creativity.
Throughout her career, teaching art has been a mainstay, sustaining her financially, and now, spiritually. “It allows me to give back,” she says.
Goldsborough moved to Henderson County in 2000 to join her daughter Dian Magie, director of UNCA’s Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design. She taught portrait classes at Opportunity House in Hendersonville for several years before being wooed to instruct at The Conn-Artist by owner Constance Vlahoulis. “She’s an inspiration to me,” says Vlahoulis. The feeling is mutual. “Constance gives artists what they need,” says Goldsborough. “Support.”
The two decided to offer a class with a once-a-week schedule, allowing interested students to sign up for a day, come on an ongoing basis, or come in and out as they choose. Although Goldsborough typically creates portraits from photographs, the class features models, letting students draw from life under Goldsborough’s tutelage. Those expecting an easy ride from a genteel senior instructor may be in for a surprise, though. “I’m tough,” says Goldsborough. Local arts reporter Ted McIrvine, who modeled for one of her classes as part of Goldsborough’s Celebrity Series (featuring local celebs such as Jane Asher and Vlahoulis), fondly wrote that Goldsborough teaches through “an interesting mix of advice, demonstration, exhortation and example.” It’s her combination of experience, talent, warmth and humor that make her such an effective teacher.
Goldsborough’s personal story is so compelling, it would be easy to let it overshadow her versatility and talent as an artist and teacher. But her range of skill and her artistic achievements speak for themselves in a quieter way. Her body of work is rich and varied, including subtle desert landscapes in pastel, studies of horses, and always the portraits. Children, families, and individuals in pastel, charcoal pencil and oil — Goldsborough can do (and has done) it all. Her ability to grasp the subtleties of human emotion and character through a look in the eyes or the tilt of a chin is part of what makes her work impressive.
Although she only creates work on commission now, Goldsborough is plenty busy. In addition to her teaching and portrait work, she reads voraciously, and Magie credits her mother’s interest in books and current events with helping keep her young. “She’s never bored,” she says. Goldborough’s two other daughters — both artists who live in Florida and Texas respectively — visit the area each fall for the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair (SAFF), and she keeps up with her grandchildren and great-children (a great-great grandchild is on the way). Until a broken hip last spring, she was even still driving. There’s no sign that this Energizer Bunny of an artist will be slowing down any time soon.