||Issue Date: 10 / 2006
Ruth Faison Shaw: First Lady of Finger Painting
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.
Ruth Faison Shaw (1888-1969), Untitled, post-1940 (no
date), 3 1/2" x 4 3/4." (Courtesy of the Chapel Hill Museum)
Click image to enlarge.
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.
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 schoolma’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. She joined the National War Work Council of the YMCA as a volunteer. She served from February to June, 1919 in canteens at Romagne and Sampigny near Verdun in northeastern France, sometimes entertaining the troops by playing the piano, providing coffee and donuts, and leading them in song. While there she made sketches and documented the devastated landscape with her snapshot photographs. After her tour of duty, she returned to Wilmington, North Carolina to live with her mother. She taught music at Southport and commuted to work by steamboat. However, she longed to return to Europe.
In 1920, Shaw sailed for Europe on a grand tour and while visiting the office of the International Committee of the YMCA in Paris was unexpectedly offered a position in Constantinople. Shaw interrupted her tour and for the next two years she worked in the Sailors’ Club in Constantinople. While in Constantinople she conducted informal sightseeing tours for tourists, teaching history on location. Sitting cross-legged in the bazaar in Constantinople, a hojah, a Turkish wiseman, prophetically named her, “The woman who men follow” (Napoli, 1946, 138). During her years in Constantinople, she developed a special interest in the traditional patterns and colors of Oriental rug making. This experience provided her with the courage to pursue her research years later in Rome in her quest for pure earth colors and a safe base for finger paints. During these years she also visited Athens and other cities in Greece.
Shaw School, Rome
After returning to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1922, she was unexpectedly invited to Rome by a friend who was in the diplomatic corps. Once in Rome, Richard Washburn Child, the American Ambassador, and Frank P. Fairbanks of the American Academy, and other members of the English speaking community, persuaded her to found the Shaw School, an experimental school for American and British children ages five to twelve years. The school was first located at the old sixteenth-century Roman villa, Villa Lante Gianicolo, designed by Giulio Romano, on the highest hill in Rome at 7 Via Vittori. The school was enclosed in a loggia surrounded by a beautiful park, formerly the property of the Corsini family, with a spectacular view of Rome. There was a dormitory for both boys and girls.
Shaw’s enriched curriculum was aimed at teaching the principles of life and included reading and composition through the classics, literature, history, mathematics, mythology and art. There were also excursions to Rome’s ancient sites, monuments and museums. Later the school moved to Via del Campidoglio 5 and finally to Via Veneto 7, near the Borghese Gardens. While living in the eternal city, many family members and friends from North Carolina as well as a host of international visitors visited Shaw. Her mother, Alberta Faison Shaw, eventually moved to Rome to live with her, died there on September 30,1930, and is buried in one of Rome’s ancient churches.
Although they were contemporaries, there is no evidence that Shaw was influenced by Dr. Maria Montessori’s philosophy and methods or any other educational ideas of the day (Telfer, n.d., 4). Rather, Shaw was quite isolated and integrated her own experiences and philosophy into her curriculum. In addition to the three “R’s,” she offered art and science. She was especially thrilled because she could teach history on location, as she had done in Constantinople, in the Forum and the Colosseum and hold classes at galleries, museums and in the ancient churches of Rome.
The rediscovery of finger painting
In 1926, a student from the Italian royal family, Leonardo, accidentally cut his finger in class and Shaw sent him to the bathroom with iodine to treat his wound. When he did not return, she went to find him and discovered that he was in the bathroom happily smearing the iodine on the walls. When the other students saw him, they, too, wanted to join in smearing iodine on the walls. This chance experience was the beginning of her long and intense research into the possibilities of finger painting (Napoli, 1946, 141).
Although she imagined the potential of finger painting in education, it took another five years of intensive research before Shaw found a harmless paint for use by children. The paint had to be soluble in water, feel like mud, wash off easily and be completely safe. She visited the old primitive paint shops of Rome and discovered that some of the pigments used by classical painters were nonpoisonous. Father O’Grady, an Irish Catholic priest and the Latin teacher at the Shaw School, researched in the Vatican Library to find vegetable paints and a binder that children could use safely. Shaw also had, Carlo, the cook, brew a different experimental formula each day, but none was suitable. Finally, Carlo discovered a combination that jelled and was safe, and the problem was finally solved.
In 1931, five years after her discovery, she actually tried finger painting with the children. The safe, gelatinous paint was a natural medium of expression for unexpressed words and feelings. The children were immediately enthusiastic and finger painting was a great success. It was actually one of the children, Jack of New Jersey, who called it finger painting “because we don’t use brushes” (Shaw, 1947, 33). Shaw’s technique was a primitive and direct medium of artistic expression.
She preferred using a 16- by 22-inch piece of paper with the shiny side facing up, which she first moistened and then placed a lump of colored material resembling mud on the paper. Her technique was simple, but action oriented. While standing, the color was smeared with the flat of the hand, fist, fingers, wrist and forearm in sweeping body motions. The painters followed their fantasies, often creating symbols, and were encouraged to experiment. With the imagination stimulated, the finished pictures ranged from the pictorial to the abstract (Shaw, 1934, 15-16). Shaw commented, “I never start painting with a definite composition in mind” (Shaw, 1947, 13). And in 1933 she wrote, “For finger painting aids the imagination and gives a delight in creating things subconsciously, things that one may not even have seen or dreamed of before (Shaw, 1933, 5).
Shaw’s simple, yet visionary approach predated Jackson Pollock’s action painting or gestural abstraction by a decade and the similarities in their method are uncanny. Pollock, too, was well aware of the importance of the unconscious mind and its influence in the creation of art, as he was familiar with psychoanalytic theory and the automatism of the Surrealists. Also, the fact that he was in treatment with Joseph L. Henderson, M.D. a Jungian analyst, personalized the unconscious for Pollock as he presented his drawings to the therapist for analysis (Wysuph, 1970). Before he began to paint he, too, had no idea where the painting would take him. By the late 1940s he was abandoning brushes for other tools, preferring "sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint” (Namuth, 1951). He also described his approach as being “similar to the Indian sand painters of the West” (Namuth, 1951).
Sand painting is a form of finger painting. Mercedes Matter, also a painter and a friend of Pollock, observed him on one occasion “caress” his composition as his hands were covered with pigment (Pope, 1984). Moreover, the marks of Pollock’s hands are visible in his famous painting, No.1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as they are in some of his other paintings. In viewing Hans Namuth’s photographs and film of Pollock in the act of painting, the artist moves continuously as he dances in and around the canvas, which is lying on the floor (Namuth, 1951, 1980). It almost seems as if Pollock assimilated and expanded on Shaw’s ideas about body movement while painting. Although they both simultaneously lived in New York, they were apparently unaware of each other. However, both exhibited their paintings at the Ferargil Galleries on East 57th Street, Pollock in 1934 and Shaw later in 1940.
Ancient finger painting
The history of finger painting dates back to antiquity. There is evidence of its use in the prehistoric caves of southwestern France and in Etruscan tombs, and its value was known to Leonardo da Vinci (Fast, 1945, 6-7). American Indians told Shaw that their sand paintings were a similar art form (Shaw, 1947, 33). And, of course, the Indians of the Southwest used sand paintings in their healing ceremonies.
Shaw was also well aware of the finger paintings of eighth-century China (Shaw, 1947, 33). Centuries later, Gao Qipei (1672-1732), a Chinese painter of the Qing Dynasty, created a distinctive style during the golden age of finger painting in China. Interestingly, the idea of painting with his fingers came to him in a dream. He used the balls of his fingers, his entire hand for broad strokes and a long fingernail for lines (Turner, 1996, XII, 50). Moreover, Chinese artists also used their thumbs and fingertips as brushes (Betts, 1963, 3). Finger painting continues as a serious art in China even today, as evidenced by the paintings of Liu Duojun, Wang Jinhua and Xiao Zenglie.
Moreover, in Chuck Closes’s oil painting, Fanny/Fingerpainting (1985) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the artist also directly applied the pigment to the canvas with his fingertips. However, it was Shaw who rediscovered the craft and pleasures of finger painting and first applied it in the classroom and later in therapeutic settings.
Remaining in Rome until 1932, Shaw was suddenly thrust into the limelight and was hailed as a pioneer in progressive education, a movement that she was barely aware of, when she attended the International Congress of New Education in Nice, France (Telfer, n.d., 4). As a result of her newfound notoriety, she began lecturing on finger painting and gave the first public demonstration at the Sorbonne, Paris. She also taught at the MacJannet Trocadero School and at the MacJannett School, St. Cloud, from January to June. Both English language schools were founded by Donald MacJannett, a native New Englander and alumnus of Tufts University. While in Paris, Shaw also organized children’s art exhibitions at the MacJannett School and the Jeunne Peintures Galleries.
Because of her accomplishments and engaging personality, Shaw became acquainted with significant artists and intellectuals, a trend which continued throughout the rest of her life. Raymond Duncan (1874-1966), the brother of Isadora Duncan, a painter and expatriate gallery owner in Paris, brought street urchins to her studio. Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, asked her to come to Mexico to work with the children of the poor as he felt that she was wasting her time with the children of the wealthy. Shaw challenged Rivera and asked him. “Who are the real poor?” Without hesitation, she replied that they were the ones who have everything done for them, and, therefore, had no opportunity to learn from experience (Napoli, 1946, 147).
Returning to America
When Shaw returned to the United States in 1932, she first introduced finger painting to America as a visiting teacher at the prestigious Dalton School in New York City founded by Helen Parkhurst, a disciple of Maria Montessori. Shaw easily integrated her finger painting technique into the Dalton curriculum. She even organized an exhibition of 160 paintings by 87 students at the Dalton School, and it was favorably reviewed in the January 30, 1933 issue of Time magazine (Time, 1933, 25).
In March 1933, Shaw organized another exhibition of her pupil’s finger paintings, ages five to ten years, at the Nancy McClelland Gallery. The gallery charged an admission for the benefit of unemployed artists, and several professional artists gave demonstrations in the use of finger painting. Edward Allen Jewell, the art critic for The New York Times, wrote, “The work opens up a new field suggesting almost inexhaustible possibilities of future experimentation, and indicates a degree of present accomplishment that fairly startles the visitor” (Jewell, 1933,16). Jewel, a reputable art critic, validated Shaw’s method and efforts.
In 1936, some of Shaw’s finger painting students also exhibited their work at the national exhibition Young American Paints, which was held in the mezzanine galleries of Rockefeller Center from April 14 to April 25. Five hundred thirty schools from the United States and Canada were represented with the young artists ranging in age from four to eighteen years.
Shaw’s return to America had been motivated by the disturbing rumor that unscrupulous paint manufacturers were advocating the use of certain lead and other harmful paints for use by children. In light of the fact that she had spent years relentlessly researching safe paints and binders in Rome, her concern was understandable. The following year Shaw began manufacturing her own formula for safe finger paints at a small factory on the East River. At night, with the help of several friends, Shaw transported the safe finger paints by wheelbarrow to the Shaw Finger-Paint Studio in a nearby loft on 48th Street. She sold her finger paints to Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, FAO Schwarz and stores throughout the United States.
In 1935, she was granted a patent for her finger painting formula by the U.S. Patent Office. And by 1936, Binney and Smith Co., owned by Edwin Binney and Harold Smith, the inventors of Crayola crayons in 1903, were manufacturing and marketing Shaw Finger Paints and Paper. The harmless earth pigments came in six colors, washed off easily and children could safely lick or eat the paint. Shaw Studios then moved to the offices of Binney & Smith Co. at 42nd and Madison Avenue where Shaw lectured and demonstrated her technique.
After her homecoming she was also in demand as a speaker. Shaw spoke before the Progressive Education meeting in Washington, D.C. and at Teacher’s College in Columbia University where Professor Goodwin Watson, who had a special interest in the learning process, stated, “I think that the fact that you encourage a child to be guided primarily by inner impulses, and lower preoccupation with technique is reduced to a minimum, offers a highly desirable situation for the study of personality expression” (Bonner, 1935, 4).
In the spring of 1942, Shaw would be appointed “lecturer in guidance” at Teacher’s College. James C. Boudrea, Director of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, asserted, “I cannot remember when a new approach to an old activity…showed such unlimited possibilities as your finger painting. The complete release from the long drill in typical mediums is probably its greatest asset”(Bonner, 1935, p.4). These affirmations must have been pleasing to Shaw whose explorations into finger painting had been so long and arduous.
The artist as author
Shaw crystallized her ideas in her book, Finger Painting, A Perfect Medium for Self Expression (1934), which was written especially for parents and teachers. She strongly believed that adults should let children be children. Shaw viewed the role of the teacher as being “a quiet reassuring presence.” The teacher provided an atmosphere, so that creative work could thrive unimpeded (Shaw, 1934, 24). The relationship between the teacher and the student was all-important, but there was no doubt in her mind that the teacher was the “intellectual leader” of the child (Shaw, 1933, 1).
Shaw wished to lay a foundation for the teaching of art in the upper grades (Shaw, 1934, 26). Her philosophy was in marked contrast to the prevailing philosophy of progressive education, which was in vogue. For example, Maria Montessori viewed the teacher as the “keeper” of the environment, whereas Shaw viewed the teacher as the “intellectual leader” of the child. The teacher observed and intervened from the periphery. Shaw, in contrast, viewed the teacher as an active agent in the educational process.
During her years in New York Shaw also developed workshops in finger painting for adults. The workshops were limited to six adults with new groups beginning every six weeks. The lessons included rhythm, rhythms to music, pictorial, symbolic and abstract forms, illustration and so forth. Little or no previous experience in art was required, however, both spontaneity and originality were expected with the ultimate goal being the simple satisfaction of accomplishment.
The Karl Menninger Foundation
In 1930, Shaw had begun a long professional relationship with Karl Menninger, M.D., one of the founders of The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. She attended a national meeting of psychiatrists and noted educational leaders in Topeka and lectured on the finger paintings of her students from the Shaw School in Rome. In 1936, Shaw was again invited to Topeka to give a finger painting demonstration to a group of noted psychiatrists at the Southard School, which was affiliated with the Clinic and a boarding school for children with emotional and personality problems. In 1937, she became a member of the Board of Trustees of the school. In 1946, Shaw moved from New York City to Topeka. She gave a short course on finger painting for doctors at Winter General Hospital, a Veteran’s Administration hospital, which was the largest psychiatric training program in the world.
In the following year, Ruth Faison Shaw became an instructor in the Department of Education of the Menninger Foundation. Shaw also engaged in a trial research project under the Research Board of Winter Hospital. Although it never materialized, Dr. Menninger and Shaw were planning to create a diagnostic manual based on the diagnosis that she believed that she could make from the style of finger painting of the patients whom she encountered. Menninger valued her work highly and later wrote, “I think her work has great importance. It is one of the modalities of the adjunctive therapies which we are using so widely in our psychiatric hospitals” (Menninger, 1955).
While in Topeka she was also invited to teach in the Department of Design at the University of Kansas at Lawrence during the summers of 1946 and 1947, where she was well received by her students at the university.
America's psychiatric community and other professionals also increasingly recognized the value of Shaw's finger painting technique during these years because of its therapeutic value. Adolph Meyer, Chair of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University expressed an interest in her research. Also, Dr. C. MacAfee Campbell, Harvard University, called Shaw a “phenomenon in the teaching world,” and invited her to the Boston Psychopathic Hospital throughout a five-year period to give an annual lecture and demonstrate her method.
Always in demand as a speaker, Ruth Faison Shaw’s hypnotic personality combined with her wit and soft Carolina accent mesmerized any audience. Shaw lectured throughout the United States, spreading the gospel of finger painting to teachers, recreation specialists, parents groups and also worked with delinquents, prisoners and the blind. She lectured in Cambridge, England where she met H.G. Wells, the novelist, and Bertrand Russell, the philosopher. Shaw also established a life long friendship with Walt Disney who gave her a set of the original drawings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She gave finger painting lessons to Jack Benny and the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall. Some of her more notable friends and associates included the film actresses Helen Hayes and Gertrude Lawrence, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, and Dr. Otto Rank, the internationally known psychoanalyst and author of The Artist (1932), among others. In 1955, she was a guest on Steve Allen’s nationally televised program, Tonight!
Robert R. Cadmus, M.D., the former Director of the Hospital at the University of North Carolina frequently witnessed Shaw’s finger painting demonstrations. As she prepared the materials, Shaw would talk informally about children, art, body movement and finger painting. She dressed in dark voile in the style of an earlier period. As she talked, she rolled up her long sleeves, spread out her paper and began smearing without any concentration while standing. She engaged her entire body in the act of painting. Although she was the expert, she always pointed out that the end product, the picture, was not as important as the imagination and self-expression of the finger painter. To the artist each image had an inner meaning. When finished, she would plunge her forearms into a tiny bucket of water that she had brought with her, swish them around, and dry them on a small towel. She would then roll down her sleeves and button her cuffs. After an hour of painting she was as immaculate as when she began painting (Cadmus, 1981).
UNC, Department of Psychiatry
Shaw’s North Carolina roots were always important to her, and in 1956 Shaw returned to her native state and became a training consultant in the art of finger painting in the Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She continued in that position until 1968. Arthur J. Prange, Jr., M.D., Professor of Psychiatry wrote of her contributions:
Ruth Faison Shaw was a distinguished member of our Department, University, and the worldwide community of people who seek to reduce the terrible morbidity and mortality of mental illness. Perhaps the most important aspect of Miss Shaw’s long and distinguished career was to introduce the modality of finger painting as a diagnostic and therapeutic technique with mental patients. This met with great success first at the Menninger Clinic and later here in Chapel Hill. Finger painting has now found its rightful place among the several modalities by which we can effectively approach severely disturbed patients, and this is widely recognized among hospital psychiatrists throughout the world (Prange, 1985).Shaw was unique in that she was the only person in the country working as a finger painting therapist using her unique method and materials. Moreover, she taught classes for psychiatrists, who using her approach, hoped to gain a greater understanding of their patients. Shaw was concurrently an art therapist at the North Carolina Memorial Hospital (now the UNC Hospitals) and neighboring John Umstead Hospital in Butner. She was also a periodic guest lecturer in the Department of Health Education at the University of North Carolina. Her unique therapeutic contributions were recognized in 1965 by the faculty of the School of Medicine and the Medical Alumni Association at the University of North Carolina when they awarded her its Distinguished Service Award.
Shaw’s studio was filled with racks of portfolios containing hundreds of pictures and case histories. They were filed under various diagnostic categories, for example, birth trauma, psychosis, the primal scene and so forth. These portfolios represented hours of work and analysis which she had collected during her various positions working in psychiatric hospitals and centers. Shaw graciously donated them to the Memorial Hospital for research.
No elitist, Shaw was always willing to share her ideas with a larger audience. During these years, Shaw simultaneously taught classes in finger painting from her modest Chapel Hill cottage at 112 North Estes Drive and, on occasion, held exhibits on her backyard fence. Moreover, between 1961 and 1963 she hosted a local television program, Finger-Painting for Family Pleasure, a series of seventeen live programs, on WUNC-TV which originated at the University of North Carolina television studio. Shaw described and demonstrated finger painting and asked the young viewers to send in stories about her paintings. She asked her audience to paint a story of their own at home. Shaw also asked her young audience to create their own story and painting and send them to her at WUNC.
In the final series of programs, she also asked for stories which were a joint effort of all the family with paintings submitted by the parents. The program also revolved around two sea horses, “Dobbin” and “Daisy”; their mother, “Widder Mite”; “Neptune, King of the Sea”; “Miz Medders,” the teacher; and their travels and life at the bottom of the sea. The show was entertaining, but also educational in that it stimulated children’s interest in geography, history, mythology, botany and zoology. Shaw told a story as she painted numerous pictures to illustrate her commentary and was a continuation of her educational philosophy at the Shaw School in Rome (Lazar, 1960, 8-IV). As a result of her outreach, the benefits of finger painting became known and appreciated by a larger audience.
Although her reputation as an educator and proselytizer of finger painting was well established by the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1940s that her own talent as an artist was recognized. Her finger paintings were exhibited in Paintings by Ruth Faison Shaw, from April 15 to 28, organized by the Ferargil Gallery on 57th Street in New York City, which specialized in American art. Howard DeVree of The New York Times wrote favorably about her exhibition as he said, “The variety and progress evidenced by the present show are quite remarkable” (DeVree, 1940, 10). In June 1940, one of Shaw’s watercolors was included in Ferargil’s Annual American Watercolor Exhibition, along with the work of the distinguished painters Arthur B. Davies, Hans Hofmann, and Winslow Homer.
In 1945, Shaw purchased and restored a 1798 coach house and stable at 422 ½ West 46th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen. “The Coach House” served as her residence, studio, and, on occasions, as an exhibition space for her own paintings. Interestingly, her Shaw Finger Paint Collection included the works of such recognized artists as Luigi Lucioni, a landscape and still-life artist who taught at the Art Student’s League; Leon Dabo, a principal organizer of the famed Armory Show; and Grant Wood, the famous regionalist painter. In 1947, The Menninger Clinic presented the Ruth Faison Shaw Finger-Painting exhibition at the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City from August 3 to 31. And after her death in 1969 in Fayetteville, numerous exhibitions of her finger paintings were held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Since 1997, the Chapel Hill Museum in Chapel Hill displays a continuing exhibition of selections of Shaw’s finger paintings.
Several years after purchasing the “Coach House” in New York City, Shaw also purchased a eighteenth-century house on Cape Cod in Dennis, Massachusetts at 15 Mashantum Road, which she called “Summer Hill,” where she spent the summers painting, teaching and exhibiting her finger paintings. She also operated a guesthouse on the premises. The Cape Playhouse, America’s oldest professional summer theatre which was famous for its glamorous theatrical visitors and excellent drama, was nearby. Parks Reece, a contemporary Montana artist, fondly remembers a childhood summer when he, Shaw, his mother, Gwyn Finley Reece, also a finger painter and close friend of Shaw, all painted together at her home in Dennis (Reese, 2003).
Although finger painting has been used principally in education and therapy, Ruth Faison Shaw’s legacy has continued through the efforts of several of her former students. John Thomas Payne (1922-2000), a psychologist who worked with Shaw at John Umstead Hospital, became her authorized successor and continued her finger painting method after her death. Payne, in turn, taught Bryan Carey, who continues Shaw’s method in the Durham, North Carolina area. Another former student, Elizabeth Dabbs, created children’s books, and in her publication, Pete the Penguin, (Dabbs, 2001) continued Shaw’s technique. Mary Ann Brandt, a former commercial artist, began finger painting while in a Jungian dream group and continues to expand the parameters of finger painting in Virginia.
Moreover, Parks Reese, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute who lives in Montana, and whose wildlife paintings are tinged with surrealism and humor, also acknowledges Shaw’s influence, and continues to use her technique even today.
Ruth Faison Shaw’s rediscovery of finger painting had a profound impact in both art education and psychiatry. By chance, she rediscovered an ancient technique, carefully researched its potential and then implemented it with her young students. However, it was her own early childhood experiences, supportive family and enriched formal education that gave her the foundation to pursue her interest. Her native intelligence, fertile imagination, persuasive personality and vision were equally important ingredients in her accomplishments. Educator, art therapist, artist, writer and lecturer, Shaw believed that we are all artists and provided an encouraging and supportive environment in which creativity could flourish for both the privileged and underprivileged. Ruth Faison Shaw was, truly, the first lady of finger painting.
--Betts, Victoria Bedford. Exploring Finger Paint. Worchester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications, Inc., 1963.
--Bizzell, Oscar M. and Virginia L., Editors. The Heritage of Sampson County, North Carolina. Winston Salem: Sampson County Historical Society/Hunter Publishing Company, 1983.
--Bonner, Amy. “Finger Painting.” Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 1935.
--Cadmus, M.D., Robert R. Unpublished paper, 1981.
--Dabbs, Elizabeth Ohlrogge. Pete the Penguin. Franklin, Indiana: Franklin College, 2001.
--Devree, Howard. “A Reviewers Notebook.” The New York Times, April 21, 1940.
--Fast, Francis R. “Finger Painting, An Outline of Its Origins and History.” The Bulletin (Ridgewood, New Jersey Women’s Club). 19 (4), January, 1945.
--"Fingerpaints." Time. 21 (5), January 30, 1933.
--James Sprunt Institute. (1906-07). Annual Catalogue. Kenansville, North Carolina. In the archives of James Sprunt Community College Library, Kenansville, North Carolina.
--Jewell, Edward Alden. “Art in Review.” The New York Times, March 11, 1933.
--Lazar, Nancy Von. “Finger-Painting Originator Says Art Is Reciprocal Life.” The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, October 16, 1960.
--Lyle, Jeanetta and Shaw, Ruth Faison. “Encouraging Fantasy Expression in Children.” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 1 (3), January, 1937.
--Menninger, Karl. Letter, January 22, 1955.
--Namuth, Hans. Jackson Pollock. (1950). Ten-minute documentary color film directed by Hans Namuth and produced by Paul Falkenberg with narration by Jackson Pollock and music by Morton Feldman. Also see Hans Namuth, Pollock Painting. Dodd Mead, New York: New York, 1980.
--Napoli, Peter J. Finger Painting and Personality Diagnosis. New York: Genetic Psychology Monographs, 1946.
--Pope, Amanda C. Stroke of Genius: Jackson Pollock. (1984). A film directed and written by Amanda C. Pope and produced by Karen Lindsay. Cort Productions Inc.
--Prange, Arthur J., M.D. Letter, January 8, 1985.
--Reece, Parks. Interview by telephone, 2003.
--Shaw, Ruth Faison. "Finger Painting." unpublished paper, 1933.
--Shaw, Ruth Faison. Finger Painting: A Perfect Method of Self Expression. Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1934.
--Shaw, Ruth Faison. Shaw Finger Paint. New York: Binney & Smith Co., 1946.
--Shaw, Ruth Faison. Finger Painting and How I Do It. New York: Leland-Brent Publishing Co., 1947.
--Telfer, Gladys. Unpublished interview with Ruth Faison Shaw, n.d.
--Turner, Jane (editor). The Dictionary of Art. 34 volumes. London: Macmillan, 1996.
--Gao Qipei’s finger painting, Quail c. 1730, 30X35 cm, 75.62.3, is in the collection of The Herbert J. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Two Magpies Playing in a Willow Tree, Object number 1992.413, Album of Flowers, two album leaves and a hanging scroll are in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
--Wysuph, C.L. Jackson Pollock’s Psychoanalytic Drawings. New York: Horizon Press, 1970.
Darwin Marable, PhD is a photo/art historian, critic,
and independent curator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He was graduated from the University of New Mexico in the
history of photography and art. He has lectured at a number
Bay Area colleges and universities including the University
California at Berkeley Extension, San Francisco Art Institute
and California College of the Arts. His essays, reviews and
interviews have been published in Afterimage,
Artweek, Black & White Magazine, History of
Photography, Lenswork, Photo Metro and
The World & I, among others. He has been researching
the life and work of Ruth Faison Shaw for the last several
years, including researching her archives in the Southern
Historical Collection, Manuscripts Department, Wilson
Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and
at the Chapel Hill Museum.