Retired CSC art instructor Don Ruleaux draws on his Lakota heritage to create his photorealistic creations

April 3, 2018

CHADRON — At 86, Don Ruleaux spends most of his days drawing pictures in his Chadron home. Like many retirees, he offers his finished artwork to his grown children.

“I used to have 50 paintings hanging in my house. When my kids show up I give my work to them and tell them, ‘This painting has to stay in the family,’ Most of my kids have quite a collection of my work.”

What makes his gifts special is that Ruleaux’s works have won scores of awards in juried shows. He’s been honored by the governors of South Dakota and Nebraska. His paintings hang in museums, galleries, colleges and universities and in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. He’s sold his vivid watercolors, many depicting Native American life, in 35 states, as well as Japan, Canada, Scotland, England and South Africa. He’s not sure how many he’s painted or how many he’s sold.

“A lot of times I don’t even know where they are, if they sold out of a gallery,” he said. “You don’t know who bought them.”

Retired for almost a decade, still get invitations to show his works.

“I turn all of them down,” he said. “Some people tell me I’m a famous artist. I don’t feel famous. I don’t advertise or go to art shows anymore. I just hang out here. At my age I live moment by moment.”

For 35 years, Ruleaux was an art teacher in public Schools, including three years in Gering. After a period of semi-retirement, he spent 10 years teaching art at Chadron State College. Today he sketches, using a silver-tipped drawing pencil using a technique once employed by Leonardo da Vinci.

An elder of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Ruleaux got his surname from his great-grandfather, a French fur trader mentioned in histories of the Oregon Trail who married a native woman, White Buffalo. His wife left him three children when she became ill and died.

“He took those children by horseback to eastern Kansas. It was the only school that would take Indian children,” Ruleaux said. “He never saw those kids again.”

The trapper re-married, to Ruleaux’s great-grandmother, Hawk Woman. Ruleaux’s grandfather, Nicolas, was one of their three children. He was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, a boarding school that immersed Indian children in European-style culture in an attempt to assimilate them into white American life.

“He got really brainwashed in Carlisle,” he said. “The kids had to wear a uniform. They cut their hair short. They wanted to take the Indian out of them.”

But Nicolas knew the Lakota language. He returned to South Dakota and served as an interpreter for writers and historians who questioned Native American witnesses about the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Ruleaux was born in Martin, South Dakota, in 1931 and moved a few years later to Pine Ridge, as the Great Depression was winding down. His father was a cook who was “always scratching out a living.”

“All of us had a really good time on the reservation. We didn’t know we were poor. Everybody was poor,” he said.

Ruleaux’s school offered an after-school program where he had his first exposure to art.

“The classes had really nice treats. They had an art class. I always went to that,” he said. “I didn’t do a lot of art. I watched the other kids. Some of them could paint some really good horses.”

When he was in fourth grade, the family moved to Gordon, where he graduated from high school in 1950.

“Back in those days they didn’t teach art in school,” he said. “I checked out library books and copied a lot of the illustrations. That was my art all through high school.”

After high school he worked with a crew for the U.S Geological Survey, making maps of the Sandhills. That led to work as a government cartographer, inking contours on maps, determined from aerial photos. He joined the Navy during the Korean War era, serving four years as a third class petty officer in the western Pacific while serving on several ships. During a leave in San Diego he married his wife, Betty, who had grown up in Rushville. After his discharge, Betty encouraged him to pursue his interest in art. He was concerned that he’d never make a living at it.

“Betty knew I was interested in art. She wanted me to go to college,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it.”

He took his first art class at 25 after moving to Chadron. After one semester, he moved to Kansas City to study at an art institute, but left to spend almost a year as as a package designer for the Bemis Brothers Bag Company. Betty insisted that he return to college, and the family moved back to Chadron. He decided he could teach and pursue his art at the same time. He graduated from Chadron State College in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in art education. But his art ambitions sat on the back burner for nearly three decades.

“When you’re teaching you don’t do much art, except in the summer,” he said.

He pursued some fellowships in the interim, studying at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1968 he earned a master’s degree in art education at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Eventually, he took early retirement.

“I got burned out after 35 years,” he said.

Ruleaux works in a style called photorealism, faithful to the details of its subjects. Some of his instructors urged him to take up illustrating or try other styles, but over time he proved them wrong. He usually takes photos of his subjects before painting or drawing them.

“I don’t like being out there in the sun and wind,” he said. “It’s more convenient for me to work from photographs.”

After stepping away from teaching, he offered workshops and worked from a studio in South Dakota. Northern Plains Tribal Arts in Sioux Falls invited him to show some of his work. He was an exhibitor in the juried show for the next 15 years, from 1988 to 2003, consistently winning awards and beginning to sell some of his paintings.

“I was working on a lot of Indian subjects — powwows and buffalo,” he said.

The show was an attempt to bring attention to northern tribal arts and compete with a similar show in the Southwest. He also exhibited in the Red Cloud Indian Art Show on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which still displays a lot of his work. Recognized for his contribution to tribal art, he served on the South Dakota Arts Council for five years. He began receiving four-figure checks for his paintings.

“That turned things around. I was able to pay the rent,” he said.

At Betty’s insistence, he began raising his prices.

“Betty said, ’You don’t know how good you are. She got my work up to $3,000 to $4,000 for a picture,” he said. “A gallery sold one of my paintings for $8,000 ... A German lady ended up buying $20,000 of my work.”

During that time, he was offered a job during the filming of a 1994 movie, “Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee.” Working 12-hour days six days a week, he painted set designs, created blueprints, made drawings of sites, painted a mural and even made signs.

“It was filmed on a ranch near Rapid City,” he said. “They couldn’t film on the reservation. It was a great job. It paid like clockwork.”

Afterward, Ruleaux and his wife returned to Chadron. As a senior citizen, he learned he could take free classes at the college. Offered a position teaching art to future elementary teachers, he remained on the faculty until 2010.

He later had to move Betty, who died in 2014, into a nursing home. Ill and suffering from dementia, she’d become angry when he wouldn’t take her home after his visits. To make her feel better, he began drawing Chadron residents to show her he was still pursuing his art. Using the silverpoint technique, he completed about 30 portraits, as well as drawings of the college rodeo team.

“Some people wanted to buy them,” he said. “I gave all of them away. I’m not making any money. I get by with my Social Security and a small pension.”

In the technique, which resembles a light pencil drawing, silver is deposited on specially painted paper, tarnishing over time to a warmer beige tone.

“The most important part of art is drawing. If you can’t draw it, you can’t paint it,” he said. “From now on all my work is going to be drawings. I sit here drawing almost every day. It’s not something you’d take to an art show.”

He struggles with rheumatoid arthritis, which leaves both wrists, a shoulder and a knee aching and swollen with fluid.

“Getting old is hell,” he said. “I haven’t been upstairs in over a year. I don’t shovel snow. I don’t mow the lawn. But I can still do my drawing and painting.”