By Karla Ingemann
“Art is a lens through which the culture may be interpreted, through which we derive an understanding of the past and present, and perhaps even gain a glimpse of the future.”
Ok, to elaborate for those few who are unfamiliar with the name Ruth Thomas – or for those who need a refresher – she is the first person most locals think of when it comes to Bermudian culture, arts, and heritage; and quite rightly so! Ms Thomas has spent her entire life (41 years in the Bermuda Government alone!) creating, advocating for, and embodying art.
This woman is fierce! As if having poise, charm, style, and beauty were not enough, Ruth Thomas is also one smart cookie. When it comes to culture in Bermuda, she literally wrote the book.
Born in Devonshire Parish in 1932, Thomas received her early formal education from the Central School, and Skinner’s School before attending the Berkeley Institute. The latter school she, specifically, credits with having the greatest influence on the direction her life would take.
She affectionately remembers the teacher who told the students that they were of value, and were beautiful, and the music teacher who helped to refine her elegant mezzo-soprano voice. In fact, it was her talent as a musician that inadvertently ushered her into academia; something she had absolutely no interest in.
Shortly after graduating from high school Ms Thomas was approached by Dr Kenneth Robinson, who had been searching for a music teacher. She was incredulous. “I’m just out of high school, I can’t teach!” Yet, she could – and did well.
This trial by fire birthed a career path that no Bermudian before her had walked; a vocation that combined conventional education with music, dance, theatre, literature, poetry, folk tales, the natural environment, history, politics, and local traditions – or, as Ms Thomas proclaims, “culture.”
She went on to study at the Ottawa Teachers’ Training College, the London University Institute of Education, Queen’s University, Indiana University, Goldsmith’s College, and the BBC. Her qualifications and certifications are too numerous to list.
“Bermuda has no culture” was the prevailing mantra of Ms Thomas’ early skeptics. However, as she matured and learned, she grew ever more determined and defiant in her mission to prove the ‘haters’ wrong.
A tireless warrior for culture; her career achievements read like she was blessed with more hours in a day than the rest of us.
She helped to develop and implement the pre-school education curriculum within the Bermuda Government, and, in doing so, became the first Education Officer for Pre-Schools in 1972.
In 1988 she was the first Cultural Affairs Officer for the Bermuda Government, serving for over two decades in the post. During her lunch breaks she promoted Bermuda through lunchtime talks to tourists – and other interested persons – about the country’s history and traditions. She went on to hold workshops on painting and writing, often combing the two mediums.
Her supportive spirit led her to found the Premier’s Concert, an event held once a year that showcases some of the talented visual and performing Bermudian artists, between the ages of 10 to 21.
Ms Thomas, in fact, was a founding member of most – if not all – of the earliest island wide initiatives which promoted Bermudians in the arts. This includes the Bermuda National Gallery, where she assisted in raising the organization to the highest international standards; even pinch-hitting as a judge at the Biennial. “I was one of the judges – not world class, or experienced, or professional – for the first two biennials.”
She was also a founding member of the Bermuda Festival, and was on the Festival Programming Advisory Committee.
As a longstanding member of the Bermuda Arts Council, she served as Chairman for 12 years. In this capacity, she helped to establish the Achievement Awards Scheme, which recognizes and champions the work of Bermudians in the arts.
The first recipient of this prestigious endowment was photographer Richard Saunders, whose work has been celebrated around the world, but was barely known in his homeland. His work has appeared in Life, The New York Times, and Ebony to name a few renowned publications.
Ever the innovator, Ms Thomas added producer to her extensive resume, and started a production company called Mosaics Productions, in 1984.
A prolific writer, Thomas wrote and directed over 90 plays about Bermuda and/or Bermudians, which featured casts filled with Bermudian actors. These plays were later compiled into one remarkable volume titled, Mosaics.
No matter what medium she utilized, she was always firm in her message: “The focus always remained the same, to educate people about Bermuda’s culture and history.”
Her bold nature guided Ms Thomas to yet another role, that of television producer. As a producer she created programmes that were inclusive, informative, and entertaining. Included in the line-up was The Learnalots – a half hour programme for children. Every episode of The Learnalots was based on a theme related to Bermuda, and starred Bermudian children. The wonderful Treasures featured stories about Bermuda’s Seniors.
As an editor – another notch on her CV – Ms Thomas oversaw the publishing of the book, Bermuda Recollections, which is a compilation of oral stories, told by Bermudian Seniors.
Her assiduous dedication to her work did not go unnoticed. She was honoured with both the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Founders Award from the Bermuda Arts Council, and won the Edgar Humann Award of Merit from the Festival of the Performing Arts – having, inevitably, played a role in the creation of both organizations.
In the 1994 Queen’s New Year Honours List, she was awarded the MBE for her work with education and the arts. Fittingly, her portrait was painted by well-known portrait artist Henry Ward, who also painted Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Ms Thomas was also chosen to be one of the subjects for noted local photographer John Weatherill’s book of portraits of Bermudians entitled, Faces of Bermuda, Vol. II.
All of this from a woman who started out just wanting to sing.