NEWS- Ruth-less: Artists up in arms over missing critic

Ruth Latter has been the Daily Progress art critic since 1964.

Long-time Daily Progress art critic Ruth Latter last appeared in print August 23, and her missing Thursday columns have the local art community wondering what happened to their stalwart reviewer. Her disappearance prompted fears she'd been sacked by the Progress, reportedly because she erroneously described a nine-foot nude painting at a McGuffey art show in July as the artist's self-portrait.  

"Mary Alice [Blackwell] told me they were threatened with a lawsuit," Latter reports of a conversation with the Daily Progress features editor. "She said, 'No more columns, no more columns, no more columns.' I assumed I was fired."

Latter has been writing the column for more than a half century and has won many awards, including first place in the National Federation of Press Women in 1998.

"This is a passionate hobby for me," she says. "I love what I do."

But at 81, Latter had already slowed her pace and wasn't writing a column every week. She also has been caring for a seriously ill friend.

Artist Stefanie Newman wouldn't mind seeing more of Latter, who is descended from a sculptor in the court of the Russian czar.

"Reviews are important, and Ruth does a really good job," says Newman. "She discusses art against the background of art history."

Latter's disappearance is "upsetting," says another artist, McGuffey Art Center resident artist Joan Soderlund.  "Ruth has done so much for the art community in Charlottesville from when there was no art community." 

Another McGuffeyite, Rosamond Casey, lauds Latter for her "real knowledge of her craft– and she actually criticizes."

Brooklyn-born Latter remembers an uncle who gave her a set of art materials when she was eight that inspired her to take a class at the Pratt Institute. Her family moved up and down the East Coast, and she attended high school in Syracuse, Miami Beach, and Roanoke.

 "I was going to be a cartoonist," she says, and indeed she drew cartoons in high school and during her one semester at Ohio State. Her work appeared in a collection of the best college cartoons. 

Latter cites two major influences. She spent one year studying art under Clyfford Still at the Richmond Professional Institute (now known as VCU) before he became a world-famous abstract expressionist.

"He hated Renaissance art," recalls Latter. Instructions from Still on how to look at a Madonna-and-child painting are still with her. "He said, 'Close your eyes almost all the way and see the abstract substructure.'"

Her family had been in the furniture business, and Latter moved here in the early 1960s with her husband to open Kane Furniture. In Charlottesville she met William C. Seitz, the former painting and sculpture curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who came to teach at UVA.

"He had a tremendous influence on me," declares Latter. "I learned so much from him." 

Her love affair with art and the local art scene has only strengthened over the years. From her art-filled house, she says that Charlottesville boasts around a dozen artists "worthy of Paris and New York."

Latter is amazed at the number of artists and gallery owners who have called her or stopped her in the street to voice their support. "I didn't know that many people read [the column]," she says. "I didn't know I had so many fans."

Perhaps it's the casual to-a-friend format she uses in her pieces. "I try to write about art to people who don't understand art-speak," explains Latter. "I hate art-speak."

"She's on a break, and she has not been fired," says Blackwell. And as for the suggestion that the misidentified artist would sue?

"That's insane," says the artist, Lavely Miller, in a phone call from Richmond. "I have never threatened to sue the paper. All I did was write the paper and say one of my paintings was misidentified, and I wanted it corrected. She made a mistake– no big deal."

Latter acknowledges the error. She says she asked who posed for the painting and was told it was the artist.

"It was my fault," Latter says. "I never took a journalism class. I just wrote the column like a letter."