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Rucker’s work tells story of community institutions and prominent persons

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

The mural along the wall leading from the lobby of the Winston Lake Family YMCA to the basketball courts depicts a kaleidoscope of activities related to recreation and youth development.

There are boys in basketball jerseys huddled around a coach at tipoff, young men in jackets and ties arrayed around a pool table and swimmers diving off a floating platform on a lake, to name a few.

In the midst of the various scenes in the mural, painted by Winston-Salem artist Leo Rucker, is the stern visage of Moses Lucas, who worked at the YMCA for four decades before retiring as youth and family director in the early 1990s.

Lucas, now 86, comes to the YMCA nearly every, regularly arriving around 4 p.m. and staying for several hours. His granddaughter drops him off and picks him up. He sits on a bench across from the front desk.

“I’m a youth person,” Lucas said. “Right now these kids what they need is for a man to be part of their life. Now, what they have is mama’s boyfriend. I became father to all these boys. Some of them are now in their fifties. They call me ‘Pop.’” Rucker recalled how he learned the history of the YMCA, including Lucas’ role, and looked at snapshots to develop a plan for the mural.

“I got a sense of how [Lucas] built that up as an institution that empowers young people,” Rucker said. “He was hardcore.”

The innumerable Moses Lucases — towering figures who made singular contributions to their community by mentoring young people, building businesses and teaching skills — abound in Rucker’s work, which includes murals at the YMCA and the Experiment in Self Reliance.

Much of Rucker’s work is commissioned, lending his pieces a hagiographical glow. Depending on the patron, they honor a specific person or articulate a social purpose, while generally celebrating community. Rucker’s knack for capturing his subjects in almost exact likeness has kept him busy with projects since the mid-1990s, but he is currently experiencing an outpouring of exposure with two simultaneous solo exhibits at the Delta Arts Center and the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, both in Winston-Salem.

“He’s like a country singer who has been singing for 25 years,” said Lafayette Jones, a marketing executive who has played an active role in Rucker’s career, “and people say, ‘Oh, he just showed up.’” Jones discovered Rucker when he was looking for someone to illustrate a series of portraits of extraordinary black women called Role Model Beyond Beauty. He mentioned the project to Gerry Patton, executive director of the NC Black Repertory Co.

“She said, ‘I know this guy who works in a warehouse; he can paint anything he sees,” Jones recalled. “I met the young man, and asked him to show me some of his stuff. I said, ‘Lord, he really can paint.’” To date, Rucker has completed 177 portraits, ranging from Rosa Parks and Fantasia to Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, executive producer of the National Black Theatre Festival.

The Sawtooth exhibit is comprised of the Role Model Beyond Beauty portraits, while the Delta Arts Center show takes a broader look at Rucker’s career, focusing on portraits as a component of larger community life. The Sawtooth School and the Delta Arts Center recently inaugurated a reciprocal relationship to give their respective members access to programs offered by each institution.

“Leo’s show is a perfect bridge for that,” said Kevin Mundy, sales and marketing manager for the Sawtooth School.

WANNA go?

Leo Rucker: An Artist in our Community is on display at the Delta Arts Center through July 20. “Role Model Beyond Beauty” exhibit opened on Monday at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art and runs through Aug. 5.

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