S.F. has a portrait of a young woman wearing a turban over flowing hair, with her delicate hands in a prayerful gesture. The piece is signed Popo and Ruby Lee, and underneath the signatures we see the astrological glyphs for the sun, Pisces, the moon, and Virgo. The piece is dated 1974.
Popo and Ruby Lee are artist-legends on the Central Coast. They met and married during the heyday of counterculture in San Francisco, but worked and lived in Ojai for five years. Both had worked as solo artists before they met, but one day on North Beach, in 1972, a handsome, dark-eyed man said to the pretty, petite Ruby Lee, "Let's do a painting together!," and the rest is history.
A website dedicated to Ruby Lee, says that neither artist was in the habit of signing canvases, until one day in Ojai when the vice president of Disney Productions negotiated for one of their jointly painted canvases, clinching the deal by asking for a signature. So Ruby signed both "Popo and Ruby Lee," and, as stated on the site mentioned above, "a Myth was born."
Ojai has traditionally been a breeding ground for artists, and the canvas in question is part of that story. Two artists "painting together" is fraught with difficulties. At school, Ruby studied classical art history and longed to paint like da Vinci. The figuration and detail in renaissance art became her direction. Popo, says the site, painted freely, on white canvases, using broad brushstrokes. Ruby soaked up Popo's method, combining it with her own, painting spontaneously in thin oil washes.
S.F.'s portrait assumes the guise of an oil sketch but in the palette of an old master. She says about her work: "The form, line and content, whether in stillness or in motion, is intended to reflect with beauty and grace a state of perfect harmony, so that perhaps — even for a moment — you may awaken to the wonder of Being." In the mid-1980s, Ruby set off on her own. That makes S.F.'s portrait more valuable to those who collect the duo artists.
S.F. contacted Ruby Lee to gather facts. The painting's date of 1974 matches the date of purchase by S.F.'s husband's mom that year in Santa Barbara. S.F. would like to know how this image is valued.
Many artists, Ruby Lee among them, paint in a series informed by their philosophy or worldview at a specific era of their lives. Therefore, a group of works may have a common theme or mood, indicated by similar scale, subjects, palettes and titles. Ruby Lee, in the early to mid-1970s, had a series called "Morning Prayer," which includes this portrait. Ruby Lee's life indeed included the study of yoga and tai chi. In fact, when she arrived from London to New York City in 1969, after a bohemian trek across Europe, she headed for Northern California, where she had heard about the flower children and the beliefs of American Indians. So it was natural that the prayer-like reverence we see in S.F.'s portrait became a theme of morning and nature's inevitable cycles. She is quoted as saying: "Art is an alchemical processing of Life! My work is a visual-emotional record of a journey into the human spirit and its archetypes."
Individual paintings within a beloved series are more valuable than standalone imagery by an artist, as collectors often buy a certain genre. Those who collect Popo and Ruby Lee together or those who admire the "Morning Prayer" series would pay more.
Another factor in valuation of this particular artist is the provenance of a given original work. Many times a piece of hers entered the iconography of popular culture. An added value, therefore, S.F., would be gained if your original had become a poster or print, and you owned the original. Here's a good example: The famous clown, Wavy Gravy, discovered Ruby Lee at an Earth Day Festival in the mid-1980s, when he sat for a portrait of himself, and later that portrait was used on a poster designed by Alton Kelley. Then the portrait was purchased by David Crosby. So we see that a few strong market factors are at play in her work: the original, the print, and the entry into the celebrity market. That is called provenance.
Many galleries carry Ruby Lee's vintage works, as well as the site mentioned in this article. I would assume that your piece would fetch $10,000 to $15,000.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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