- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

BRISTOL, Va. | At 89, she’s still dreaming of landscapes delicately arranged, and bushes blooming on hillsides freckled by farms and fences.

Ruth Bentley Harper’s eyes sparkle as she unveils her poignant portrait of a fishing boat, drifting on a lake somewhere.

Pointing to another scene, Mrs. Harper tells of her Uncle Joe, steadfastly driving a wagon down a country lane near Wallace, Va., about 80 years ago.

Mrs. Harper calls these scenes - her art - “old-timey” and “old folks.”

“I want to paint in an old-fashioned way,” she said.

And while Mrs. Harper has been painting ducks, horses, farms and people for more than 35 years, as an artist, she was more than a late bloomer: She did not start painting until she was well past 50.

Consider Ruth Bentley Harper the Grandma Moses of Bristol.

“You won’t find a nicer lady than she is,” said Bill Statzer, who attends Sunday School with Mrs. Harper at Kingsway Baptist Church in Bristol.

Mrs. Harper, who turns 90 in November, started painting in 1973, soon after retiring from a job at Raytheon Co.

She picked up a few tips from her first husband, the late Rev. Garland Bentley.

“He was a minister, farmer and artist,” Mrs. Harper said. “He was just a jack-of-all-trades.”

For a few years, the couple lived on a farm off Island Road near Blountville, Tenn., where Mr. Bentley taught art to several students.

Mrs. Harper grinned, saying, “He always wanted me to paint.”

She finally started, in her early 50s.

“And he said, ‘An artist has arrived,’ ” Mrs. Harper said, smiling. “I realized that maybe I could paint. For about five years, he really taught me.”

Today, Mrs. Harper still has her first painting, signed and dated 1973: It hangs in her living room and shows a scene in the country - with lots and lots of trees. Mrs. Harper talks of how she would re-paint those trees, now, as she shows off another painting - her latest, hanging on the wall of her hallway.

Mr. Bentley taught his wife how to mix paints and use various techniques, but the rest of her style has been self-taught, she said.

And that was a necessity: Her husband died in 1981.

Since then, Mrs. Harper has painted on mailboxes and milk cans. But she seems most at home using acrylics on an 18-by-24 or 16-by-20 canvas.

“I have done some oil painting,” she said. “But it’s mostly acrylics. I like it better, because it’s not as messy. And I can clean my brushes better.”

Mrs. Harper creates scenes of people milling about in large yards fronting farmhouses or churches.

Born Ruth Canter in Bristol, in 1919, Mrs. Harper grew up at 1026 Spencer St., a dwelling that has since been torn down to build part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor.

She graduated from Virginia High School in 1936 and married her first husband in 1941. She gave birth to the couple’s first of two children, Melvin, in 1942.

Mrs. Harper’s second husband, Paul Harper, died in 2006, and her son, Melvin Bentley, died a year ago.

Both losses affected her desire to paint, she said.

“I haven’t shown anything, really,” Mrs. Harper said. “I just do it. I like to do it, and I want people to like them.”

She has painted about 100 pieces and sold several.

And now?

“I’m getting back into it,” Mrs. Harper promised. “And you know what my next one’s going to be? It’s a nighttime scene. And the lights are on at the church. It’s going to be different with the sky dark.”

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