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Auntie of the imagination

Posted:  Thursday, July 25, 2013 - 12:30pm
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Legendary artist and mapmaker, Ruth Rhoads Lepper Gardner, lived for nearly 106 years on Southport Island. Her colorful personality, artwork and illustrative historical maps of Maine are still well renowned throughout Maine and far beyond.

On Southport, Gardner enjoyed island life long before bridges were built, when all roads “were nothing more than cart-paths.” As a child, she would take the steamboat from Boston, then transfer to a local boat to get to the island.

She was nicknamed “Red” by her friends and relatives for her red hair and fiery personality. As a young protégé for an artistic aunt, Gardner had the opportunity to travel the world as they sailed on some of the most famous ocean liners of their time.

During her formative youthful years, Gardner lived in Greenwich Village, N.Y. where she sometimes posed as a live model for artists while she enjoyed the excitement of a New York bohemian lifestyle. She also worked at Macy's and remembers Wall Street financiers leaping to their deaths from buildings during the first Depression. Of this episode, Gardner famously said, “Everybody has to go down in New York for a little while.”

Gardner received her art education at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. However, she learned her extraordinary mapmaking skill when she lived in Newport, R.I., and worked as a draftsman for the Navy. There, she met her husband, Cornelius Gardner, who had served as a Commanding Officer for the Navy during World War I.

As part of the historical research for her illustrative maps, Gardner served with the Maine

Coast Mission aboard the Sunbeam, also known as “God’s Tugboat.” During these voyages, she made maps and sketches to illustrate “Anchor to Windward,” a book about the mission. She said, “Maps are precise, time-consuming projects, but if your work gives you pleasure, what the heck.”

Gardner was also especially good at pen and ink architectural portraits, which she would do on commission as a freelance illustrator. But when it came to painting, watercolors were her medium of choice. She loved the view of the ocean from her house and painted the same scenery many times.

Each unique painting depicted a different season, lighting or mood. In addition to the visual arts, Gardner was also an accomplished cellist and enjoyed playing in orchestras.

On May 15, 2004, Gardner received a Distinguished Achievement Award for her life’s work

from the University of Southern Maine. She was especially proud of this formal recognition.

However, her less formal, and most precious achievements were experienced by her family as she relished the role of a special aunt and surrogate mother. She had no children of her own, but she was an influential elder to all her family and close friends. Known as Ruth, Ruthie or Red by most, she was lovingly referred to as “Auntie” or “Auntie De-ah” by her family.

Gardner produced maps, paintings and pen and ink drawings so prolifically that samples of her work are still available for a short time while her family processes the remnants of her estate and establish her artistic contributions at the Southport Historical Society.

Please call her nephew George S. Workman at 207-380-5072 if you would like to share in her legacy.