Ruth Olive Rosekrans Hoffman

1926, Denton, Nebraska ‒ 2007, David City, Nebraska

(Rosekrans Hoffman)
(Ruth Rosekrans)

Born and raised in Nebraska and returning to the state for the last years of her life, Ruth Rosekrans Hoffman was an illustrator of more than 30 children’s books, songbooks, and textbooks. Indeed her name was known far beyond her home state, which she visited often, especially Lincoln where she supported the Bennett Martin Public Library’s Heritage Room collection of Nebraska authors. In 1983, the Heritage Room’s support group, The Nebraska Literary Heritage Association, sponsored a candlelight dinner honoring Hoffman in the Rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol. At that event, Hoffman showed posters she had designed as a fundraising project for the Heritage Room.

Ruth Rosekrans was born January 7, 1926 in Denton, Nebraska, a small town south of Lincoln, to James C. and Pearl Hocking Rosekrans. She had an older brother, James, who settled in Columbus, Nebraska. For her strong sense of independence, Ruth credited her father, who ever “avoided the finality of a paved road.” (Cloyd) She also had much respect for her mother, which was publicly apparent in 1978 when Ruth, at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, “announced the establishment of a scholarship in memory of her mother, Pearl Rosekrans.” (July 23, 1978)

In 1948, Ruth graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and then moved to New York City “where the art world was happening.” (Cates-Moore) As an artist trying to make her way in a sophisticated milieu, she experimented artistically with the prevalent style of Abstract Expressionism, and was successful enough that prestigious venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and Brooklyn Museum exhibited her work. However, like her father, she was not content to stay on the ‘main road.’

By the early 1970s, her interest had turned to children’s book illustration and, hiring a marketing agent, she was successful in obtaining commissions. She found great joy in creating fanciful, whimsical images of people and animals, and in turn, she stirred wide appeal, not only among children but with people of all ages. Of the total of her production of nearly 30 publications, she wrote as well as illustrated two children’s books, Anna Banana and Sweet Sister Ella, and for the remainder she did the illustrations, collaborating with the authors.

During this time, she and her husband, Robert Hoffman, built a countryside home in Connecticut, where she worked from “a bright room with a large window,” and was surrounded with “all of the odd and wonderful things she has collected over the years.” (Cates-Moore)

For ideas, Ruth spent very little time looking at other people’s work. Although she and her husband never had children, she just sensed that children learned expression before words. With this in mind, she created animals with distinctive expressions, unique and often slightly out of proportion. “But never cute. I don’t ever want my work to be thought of as cute, she said.” (Cates-Moore). For paint, she mixed bottles of ink to highlight color, and strove to convey the hues of the Nebraska plains. She said she was very conscious of expressions. “Even the animals in her books have a distinctive character. They grimace, they grin, they look perplexed. Noses are another thing that gets noticed. I do rather like long noses.” (Cates-Moore)

In contrast to the lightheartedness conveyed by her books was the physical pain that Ruth endured from the time she was age seven when she developed osteomyelitis, a bone disease. Effective medicines were not available; most victims had short lives, but miraculously Ruth lived a long time with it. Looking back she told of spending 18 months in a full body cast, and then gaining mobility only with wheelchairs and leg braces. However, a positive result from this affliction was that, to pass time during the long confinement in bed, she continued her drawing which had been an obvious talent before she contracted the disease.

Fortuitously, this way of coping led to her signature illustration style that made her work so appealing to youngsters because she literally reached down to their level visually. This vantage point was linked to the many hours she spent as a child lying confined on her bed. She said that it “gave me a new perspective on life….in bed in the body cast, horizontal, I saw things I wouldn’t ordinarily see. I wasn’t a child looking up, but more like a part of the land. From my prone position, I used to eye my food like an explorer surveying the horizon. Piles of mashed potatoes took on the proportions of mountains against the skyline. Undersides of chins, nostrils, palms jumped out at me. I studied expressions, the details of wallpaper, and tiny hairs peeking out of people’s ears.” (Cloyd)

In 1990, Ruth and Robert Hoffman, after living for many years in West Haven, Connecticut, moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, after Robert’s retirement. Following his death and towards the end of her life, Ruth moved to David City, Nebraska to a nursing home where she died in 2007 at age 81.

Knowing of her general approach to life, the quotation from Sue Patch and the Crazy Clocks illustrated by Hoffman seems reflective of her attitude about her own death. “Why it is time for me to go. She put on her pinwheel hat, grabbed her bag of tricks and climbed to the roof of the palace. Up, up, up, into the sky she went. And she sailed for home.”

Many of her drawings, posters, sketches, and correspondence are in the collection of the Heritage Room at the Lincoln Public Library. Her work is also at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha; and in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

Memories of Rosekrans and Hoffman: A merger of art and energy.

Written by Stacy James, “As recalled by Stacy James and Bob Ripley”

Much has been written about Nebraska artist Ruth Rosekrans Hoffman’s life and work. A sketch of her early life, mostly before her post-college career, is published in the Denton, Nebraska, Community Historical Society Tales and Trails Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 3, June 2001, pp. 1-5, written by DCHS member, Sue Williams. However, Ruth’s incredible body of work would not have been possible without the support of one person in her adult life who deftly guided, gently managed and lovingly supported her: her husband of more than 40 years, Bob Hoffman.

Bob was a native New Yorker, born in 1922 at 120 Bennett Avenue in Manhattan. This is the upper Eastside, close to Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters, and the area Bob lovingly called “his hood.” In his later years, Bob would fondly recall stories about how close people and families were in this neighborhood. When Bob’s father died, a very poor neighbor knocked on the Bennett Avenue door to express his sympathy. The neighbor didn’t have much to offer, but reached into his pocket and gave Bob a $5 bill. Bob was sure it was every penny the man had, but he graciously accepted it anyway.“ That was just the way our people were in those days,” Bob would say proudly.

This unlikely East Coast and Midwest couple trace their beginnings to a mutual love of New York City’s Louis Armstrong-fueled jazz scene of the early ‘50s. Ruth had bravely moved to this world capital of artistic expression after a successful academic career and a BFA from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Ruth and her friends would frequent famous jazz clubs and concerts called “The Sessions,” at 111 Second Avenue, and produced by Jack Crystal, the actor Billy Crystal’s father. At one of these mid-‘50s concerts, a fresh-out-of-the-army Sergeant Bob Hoffman spied an attractive woman who enjoyed the music as much as he. Theirs was a fusion of creative energies. Bob appreciated his jazz. Ruth loved her art. Rosekrans and Hoffman were married in 1955 and for the next 35 years, they pursued their careers and an interesting East Coast life, mostly in New York and Connecticut.

People familiar with Ruth’s work are in awe of her rich and quirky visual interpretations – people and animals in a colorful imaginary universe only Ruth could bring to life with her pen and watercolor brushes. It would be hard for anyone, lest a gentle Manhattan-born nuts, bolts, and screws salesman to maintain an equal marital footing with such a profoundly imaginative artist. As Bob would say with a wry smile, “It’s not easy being married to someone who looks at the world from upside down and sees people’s noses so differently.” Yet he knew how to handle and manage Ruth’s inner artist. It was a partnership that worked on so many levels. Even though Bob and Ruth had no children of their own, Ruth’s works expressed the richness of a child’s imagination that, unlike most people, never faded and got better with time.

While living on the East Coast, Ruth never forgot her Nebraska roots. She and Bob would frequently return to visit friends and family. In the early ‘90s, she and Bob moved back to Lincoln and lived the rest of their days there. Ruth continued her work in her home studio and Bob would retire to days filled with managing and enjoying an important collection of live jazz he recorded while in New York City. Ruth gave of her time and works to benefit the University Place Art Center and the Lincoln City Libraries. A complete collection of her works is now archived in the downtown Bennett Martin Library’s Heritage Room.

Throughout their married life, Bob and Ruth were cat people. In Lincoln they had a droll and sleek black cat named “Boy,” who demanded their attention at mealtime and relaxed and shed on one of the beds. Boy’s feline image will live on as he played many a cameo role in Ruth’s books and illustrations.

Sadly, in 1995, Bob was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He never let that physical limitation get in the way of his active social life. He and Ruth had many new and old friends from their New York and Nebraska days. They were always ready to dine out, go to a movie, or just stay home and entertain guests with gourmet meals and their whimsical humor and quick wits. In Lincoln spring times, Bob enjoyed sitting on the green berms listening to Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery’s Jazz in June Concerts. Of course, he knew most of the works by heart.

For the many people in their lives, Bob and Ruth were once-in-a-lifetime special, talented, loving and generous couple. Bob passed away in 1999. After Bob’s death, Ruth moved to a small nursing home in David City, Nebraska, as she no longer felt she could carry on alone. Ruth died in 2008, closing the last chapter in a beautiful life of art and energy that she and Bob created together. Today, the Rosekrans and Hoffman legacy is a wonderful body of work that will vividly remain in children’s imaginations, and in homes, libraries, galleries, and museums throughout Nebraska and beyond. Ruth Rosekrans was the artist. Bob Hoffman was the man behind the artist who made it all possible.

Addendum from Stacy James:

My husband, Bob Ripley, and I first met the Hoffmans sometime in the early ‘80s when they often visited Ruth’s family in Nebraska. My mom, Lincoln artist and community volunteer, Jeanne Holtz James, had known Ruth since the early University of Nebraska days. Their friendship was rekindled when Ruth would visit her father, James, in Denton. Ruth and Jeanne joined forces to enhance Lincoln’s creative community. Jeanne was one of the founders of the University Place Art Center (now Lux Center for the Arts) and an active member of Lincoln’s Junior League. Ruth contributed her time and works for the Art Center, the Junior League, and the Bennett Martin Library. After they moved to Lincoln in 1990, Ruth and Bob became two of our most special friends. We fondly remember dinners at their East Lincoln home, savoring a good bottle of wine, eyeing a precious Picasso on their living room wall, listening to a special jazz selection, or playing with their grumpy black cat Boy. Ruth, also a gourmet cook and accomplished seamstress, usually played the “straight man” to her husband’s quirky shtick and offbeat sense of humor. We, like many people in Lincoln, were so lucky to have almost 10 years of great memories with Ruth and Bob. I call them our wonderful Rosekrans Hoffman days.

 

The Museum of Nebraska Art has two works by Ruth Rosekrans Hoffman.

Sources:

Ancestry.com, Oct. 2015

Cates-Moore, Kathryn, See Museum of Nebraska Art files

Cloyd, Stephen, “A Book Artist’s Vision: Rosekrans Hoffman-A New Display in the Heritage Room,” Nebraska Writers blog of the Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room, Web, Jun. 2016

Lincoln Journal Star, newspaper: 10/28/2007, Anderson, Erin, Obituary of Ruth Rosekrans Hoffman

Museum of Nebraska Art files: Miscellaneous notes; “A Celebration of the Works of Ruth Rosekrans Hoffman,” July 28, 1983, State Capitol Rotunda, Program; Lincoln Journal-Star, newspaper: 2/10/1991, Cates Moore, Kathryn, ”Once upon a time, there was a Nebraska artist“

Omaha World-Herald, newspaper: 7/23/1978, 7/31/1983

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project: Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945