You may have eaten off her art in the form of a restaurant placemat. You might have seen her maps in tourist shops. They are artistic and informative, maps with points of interest highlighted by line drawings of boats, houses, forts, fish, even a sea serpent.
These maps are not for navigation, but they could launch an adventure. Ruth Rhoads Lepper, artist, illustrator and musician, has been making maps for three-quarters of a century. She shrugs off being nearly 98 years old. She’s a busy lady; places to go, things to do. Her maps are still in demand, from the more recent one showing historic Maine writers and their locations, to earlier maps that detail famous vessels such as Rockland’s record-setting clipper ship, the RED JACKET, and Admiral Donald “Mac” MacMillan’s arctic schooner, the BOWDOIN, docked beside a sailing fishing vessel in Boothbay Harbor.
Ruth keeps busy sketching nudes, updating her many maps of Maine places, taking trips. She sailed on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 to England when she was 96. “You don’t see the water unless you make an appointment,” she said.
“My sister and I used to go on canal boats in England. You tie up every night. They have you eat on board. We never managed to go to bed at the same minute because only one could undress at a time – little things like that.”
Ruth Lepper (Gardner is her married surname but her friends and family just call her Auntie) was born June 27, 1905, in Norwood, Massachusetts. She studied at Pembroke, the Rhode Island School of Design and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Ruth first learned about maps through a U.S. Navy job she held at Newport, Rhode Island. She has never ceased to be intrigued by maps, and says it’s important to leave white space – to make a map readable by not crowding things too much. Maps are precise, time-consuming projects, but Ruth shrugs that off. If your work gives you pleasure, what the heck.
She married Cornelius Gardner in 1942, who in his later years was a Southport town clerk and tax collector. She’s been a widow since 1977. Her only full-time companion, in the three-story home she calls her “nut house,” is a tri-color cat named Budapest. She grows indoor plants, and friends drop by and help her with meals and housework. A niece lives in Portland and comes to stay with her. Ruth has never really slowed down much.
She isn’t playing cello these days, saying her eyesight isn’t up to it. “Otherwise I would be,” she said. “I played for years. It was a lot of fun. I took lessons when I was kid. I played in orchestras. I’m not a soloist.”
She keeps up with her summer drawing class in Boothbay Harbor. “We have a nude model pose every week and we all go draw. We’ve had a couple of skinny ones lately,” she said, adding that she was amazed at where one woman, an art student herself, pierced her body for rings. “We’ve been doing the class for 20, 25 years.” She said her poor eyesight matters less because “when I draw nudes I can make up about half of it.” Most of her map work is highly detailed and she can’t see to do it any more, except with a large, moveable magnifying glass suspended over the drawing table in her studio.
Her house, built by a couple of men who lived together, is full of art and whimsy, full-length mirrors, the fragrance of hyacinth and items like Ruth’s stuffed lion that growls, electronically. Years ago, the two men tore down a wall between upstairs bedrooms and built a 26-foot boat – on the third floor of the house, in a 28-foot space. There is no trace of the opening through which the finished boat was lowered to the ground, but the dividing wall was never rebuilt. Ruth knows a lot of people. Not surprisingly, at her age, many friends have died. Good friends include artists and musicians up and down the coast. She sold land for a cottage to Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, who found inspiration for her marine biology and environmental advocacy on Southport Island.
Ruth is devoted to Maine, and finds inspiration in all sorts of places. She has been a guest aboard the tugboat SUNBEAM, which brings religion to Maine islands. She herself isn’t very religious. “I was raised Universalist. We’re practically heathens.” As a young woman she lived on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, New York. “Everybody has to go down to New York for a little while,” she said. “The Hotel Earl, at that time, was on the next corner, and we’d watch the old ladies go to bed and when they took their corsets off you could almost hear them go, ahhhh.”
She worked at Macy’s to get enough money to eat, and remembers Wall Street financiers leaping to their deaths from buildings during the Depression. Her roommate worked on Wall Street. “We didn’t suffer. We didn’t know the difference. What the heck.”
A year-round Southport resident for many years, Ruth said her parents first courted in Southport. As a summer resident with her parents, she grew up playing with local children. In Southport, she said, kids could “raise more hell and get in less trouble doing it” than back home. She remembers when the road in front of her island house was a dirt “cart path.” It is now paved, and town built a parking lot by the beach, smack in the middle of her view to Seguin Island.
A part-owner of the beach built a seawall along the road, then deeded it to the town. The town then added blacktop for parking. Ruth sounds philosophical about the development, which gives the public car access to the beach.
Ruth posed for a photo with a big pottery frog on her porch. She didn’t seem tired after a two-hour interview, during which she never sat down. She offered her visitor grapes and said, “come again.”