Archive for Saturday, June 3, 2006

Art museum celebrates KU professor’s collection

June 3, 2006


Few who visited Ed Ruhe's downtown Lawrence apartment will ever forget it.

Books piled on shelves and tables. Art - hauled from the other side of the earth - decorating the walls, filling the cabinets and lining up on the floor.

It was a destination for Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin and Beat writer William S. Burroughs, plus countless Kansas University professors and students.

"It was just an amazing transformation of a home into a living museum environment," recalled Denise Low-Weso, Haskell Indian Nations University English professor and friend of Ruhe.

Ruhe, the late KU English professor who amassed an impressive collection of Aboriginal art and was known for his diverse interests and stimulating discussions, will be honored next week with a festival in Virginia.

It's called Ed Fest, a daylong homage to Ruhe at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Ruhe's collection of more than 1,000 pieces, gathered while he was a KU faculty member, make up the majority of the Kluge-Ruhe collection, the largest of Aboriginal art outside Australia.

"We wanted to celebrate his legacy," said Margo Smith, the collection's director and curator.


Ruhe, a Pennsylvania native, was raised in a family with eight children.

While his siblings went on to illustrious and unique occupations, Ruhe was known as the smartest of the bunch, said Pierre Ruhe, Ruhe's nephew who now lives in Atlanta. They called him "Hat Rack" because he was the brain, Pierre Ruhe said.

Ed Ruhe never married or had children. Rather, he filled his life with colleagues and students and occupied himself with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

He had a keen sense for the aesthetics of music and art and literature, friends said. He loved to discover artists and musicians and champion them.

"He had great taste, and he trusted his own taste," Pierre Ruhe said.

Ruhe's apartment was perched above the old Varsity Theater, now the site of Urban Outfitters.

It was a social spot where friends gathered.

"Everybody who got an invitation went, because it was the place to go," said Harold Orel, professor emeritus of English.

They came to discuss current events, art or other topics.

"We'd all sit around this big table and talk and complain about Republicans and fundamentalists of all persuasions," Low-Weso said.

Friends recalled Ruhe as well-read and agile of mind.

"He took the people who talked with him to unexpected places," said George Worth, English professor emeritus.

Ruhe also was a film buff and would let friends stop by the apartment to view films, which Ruhe projected on a white sheet.

Students also would gather to learn from Ruhe.

James Bogan, a KU graduate and professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla, recalled gathering with several other students in the late 1960s.

Ed fest

Ed Fest is set for June 10 at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Va.

Events include special tours, a didjeridu workshop and performance, speakers and barbecue lunch.

For information, see

They'd meet in Ruhe's kitchen one Saturday a month and plow their way through the works of William Blake. The experience wasn't for credit.

"It was free inquiry," Bogan said. "He wasn't playing the big professor. He was a seeker along with the rest of us."


Ruhe first traveled to Australia as a Fulbright scholar in 1965. There he fell in love with Aboriginal art, recognizing its aesthetic merits at a time when many valued it primarily for what it revealed about Aboriginal culture.

"He wanted people to appreciate Aboriginal artists the same way they'd appreciate the masters of Western art," Smith said.

Over the next two decades, Ruhe would gather about 1,000 pieces. Some he purchased with his own funds. Others he gathered with the help of backers.

Many of the works are bark paintings - homemade paints used on the bark of eucalyptus trees. But the collection also includes sculpture, tools, boomerangs and other objects.

Ruhe's collection contains paintings created mainly by men. They often tell stories that were passed down in the oral tradition.

Ruhe not only collected the art, he researched its creation - painstakingly gathering information about the painters and their culture. He left a collection of documents: census reports, maps, video recordings and correspondence.

"He was a person who was profoundly interested in human culture and how it manifested itself," said Elizabeth Schultz, KU professor emerita of English.

Ruhe died in 1989 of complications from emphysema following many years of smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes, Pierre Ruhe said.

But his death, though sudden, was somehow fitting. He died in his apartment while playing classical music on his baby grand piano.


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