Ruth Faison Shaw: First Lady of Finger Painting

By Marable, Darwin | The World and I, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Ruth Faison Shaw: First Lady of Finger Painting


Marable, Darwin, The World and I


Ruth Faison Shaw (1888-1969), educator, art therapist, artist, writer and lecturer, accidentally rediscovered the ancient technique of finger painting in 1926 in Rome, Italy, and integrated her technique into education and psychiatric therapy.

Shaw used finger painting as a creative tool in the education of her students at the Shaw School in Rome, Italy. She believed that finger painting was a democratic art form and later employed it while working with delinquents, veterans, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the blind, and the aged. Shaw believed that everyone is an artist and that the creative act is an integral part of every healthy personality. Both artists and educators sought her expertise and counsel. Ruth Faison Shaw reinvented the art of finger painting and integrated it into early twentieth-century art education and psychiatric therapy.

Family background

Born on October 15, 1888 in the rural community of Kenansville, North Carolina, she grew up on the land where her ancestors had lived since the early 1700s. Her father, William M. Shaw (1857-1917), a graduate of Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina and the Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, was the pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church, and for many years president of James Sprunt Institute, a Christian prep school for girls, both in Kenansville. Her mother, Alberta Columbia Faison (1853-1930), was a graduate of Clinton Female Institute in nearby Clinton, North Carolina, a teacher and talented musician, and a descendant of Henry Faison Van Doverage, a French Huguenot who emigrated to Virginia in 1652 (Bizzell, 1983, 616).

Growing up in rural North Carolina in the late nineteenth century, Ruth Faison Shaw and her four brothers--a younger sister had died when she was six years of age--had to create their own entertainment. They invented games and staged dramas and rites influenced by the book The Classic Myths in English Literature (1893) by Charles Mills Gayley, Professor of English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Gayley's text and illustrations revealed how myths were used in English literature and art. Their imaginations were also stimulated by the superstitions of their African American nanny, Florence Italy Brown (Napoli, 1946, 137). Little did Shaw realize at the time that these early childhood experiences were laying the foundation for her future educational, therapeutic and artistic achievements.

In 1906, Shaw was graduated from James Sprunt Institute in Kenansville, North Carolina, a Presbyterian school for girls, in a class of seven students. The classic curriculum included English, Latin, rhetoric, history, algebra, geometry, science and geography. In addition, there were courses in art, music and Bible studies. (Sprunt, 1906-1907, 9-15). The daily activities of both students and faculty were opened with religious exercises. Kenansville was considered an ideal environment where young women could focus on a classical education with the protection and moral support of the local community. The Sprunt Institute aimed to create refined young women of character.

After graduation, Shaw was hired as an inexperienced school ma'am, the only teacher in a school of thirty pupils, in the wilds of North Carolina's Appalachian Mountains. Some of her students were older than their teacher. Since she had no formal training as a teacher, she gained an understanding of the teaching process the hard way, through experience. Shaw quickly realized that although they were isolated, her students were often talented, and still needed both stimulation and development from their neophyte teacher. After this introductory teaching experience, Shaw taught in both public and private schools in Wilmington, North Carolina, Rochester and Tarrytown, New York, and Rome, Italy.

A WWI and YMCA volunteer

In 1918, Shaw decided to temporarily leave teaching and go abroad. …

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