Odile: A Life in Layers
Ruth Davis is known simply as Odile—her middle name and an homage to her grandmother—but there’s nothing simple about her. Like her paintings, she’s a study in contrasts and layers, beautifully complex.
First, there’s the Odile who’s an expert in the business of beauty. The daughter of a financier father and an artist mother, Odile excels in both worlds. Although she knew, from childhood, that she was an artist, she quickly learned that she’d have to be a pragmatist, too, if she wanted to make a living from her art. She therefore began her creative career in Worcester, working as a freelance graphic designer, which paid the rent and eventually enabled her to buy a house on the Cape.
“That house was an investment,” she says. “But it was more than that. We used to camp at Nickerson Park when I was a kid, and I remember sitting with my mother on the beach—I think it might have been Skaket—making watercolor paintings. She would hold my palette, and I would use the sea water as it came lapping in.” Moving to the Cape was therefore a return to her artistic roots. To the place where the ocean had literally found its way to her brush.
After getting married, Odile decided to give up freelancing in order to focus on her own work, but she continued to rely on both her business brain and her painter’s heart, launching a highly successful line of wearable art that would keep her busy for the next three decades.
Odile designed and hand-painted the clothes, initially using dyes that she mixed herself, since there was no fabric paint at the time.
It took her a whole day to make the dyes, which were useless after a day and a half, so she had to paint quickly before boiling out the excess and getting the finished clothes ready for market. “I worked alone in those days, so it was a lot to manage,” she remembers. “Then fabric paint came out, and I was able to use that, which was much less strenuous.” Even so, when boutiques and major department stores across the country began to carry “Odiles,” she needed help to keep up. “I still designed every piece, but I engaged ladies in Pennsylvania to do the sewing. When they sent the garments back to me, I hand-painted, heat-sealed, and sold the work wholesale.”
Over time, Odile developed such an efficient business model that she had an abundance of inventory, which she began to sell directly to the public at art shows and then, before long, at her own shop in Dennis Port.
“Is that an Odile?” quickly became a common question among Cape women who knew, loved, and wore her textiles. But the success of her clothing line kept Odile from concentrating on her first, best love: fine art.
Although she painted on canvas when she could, Odile was consumed by the endless work of producing clothes, running a business, and keeping pace with demand.
It wasn’t until she herself finally demanded more time and freedom that the scales began to tip in favor of the landscapes that satisfied her soul.
“That’s when I sold the Dennis Port shop and moved the business to Harwich Center to try a more balanced, hybrid approach. I still created clothing, but I painted more, too, and took my paintings to juried art shows across the country. For a while, it all went very well—and then COVID hit.”
Suddenly, there were no customers coming into the shop to buy clothing, no art shows where she could sell her garments. “I took it as a signal,” she remembers. “At the end of 2020, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ And I sold all the clothes I had in inventory and started to focus exclusively on fine art.”
Now, Odile paints, sells, and teaches in her Harwich shop but still travels to high-end shows where clients buy her work and sign up for her classes. “People spend time with my art and then want to spend time here on the Cape, making art of their own,” she says with a smile.
It’s easy to understand why so many are drawn to her work, especially the landscapes for which she is widely known. Her palette is vibrant yet nuanced, and each scene she creates is layered in two ways: first, from the marsh to the sea to the sky, each layer filled with color and light, the layers working together like notes in a chord, harmonizing to create an evocative whole; and, second, from the foreground through a series of dimensions that draw the viewer deeply into the scene. But imagination—both Odile’s and the viewer’s—is also a powerful part of the equation.
“I started painting landscapes because I love living on a marsh,” she says, “but I don’t paint any particular location. Instead, I paint from memory, how the land and the water come together. The way the water in the marsh winds out to the sea. And then the sky, as I remember it. As I imagine it. I paint from memory and imagination combined. By not painting a particular place, I invite viewers into the painting, engage their own imagination, and awaken experiences and feelings about places they’ve known.”
Why are there no figures in Odile’s landscapes? “I don’t put people or boats or other artifacts in my paintings because I want the viewers to put themselves into the scene, without the distraction of anything else, so they can be immersed in the atmosphere of the place.”
While landscapes are Odile’s passion, she understands the need to challenge herself and to allow new inspiration and ideas to inform her work. She therefore commits her winters to experimentation and exploration, venturing into new territory after the crowds have dispersed and the quiet has returned.
During one recent winter, Odile devoted herself to repurposing dozens of boards she had used when painting clothing, squares of composite material she would insert between layers of cloth to prevent paints from bleeding through. Over three decades, those boards had become accidental art themselves, a beautiful archive of the shapes and colors and patterns with which she’d adorned her garments.
Mounted on wood, those boards are both beautiful and interesting, and they symbolize an important chapter of her artistic story. “They really represent the layers of my life. Thirty years of my life. There are bright colors and there are dark colors and lots of changes over time.”
In the winter of 2022-23, Odile turned to more deliberate abstracts inspired by the conflict in Ukraine. “I felt I needed to make some order out of chaos. They’re abstract but orderly, in a way.” And, as if to counter the long, gray months of winter, she also created a series of forest paintings in which light, shadow, and a brilliant palette combine to hold the gaze and ignite both the senses and the emotions.
“I had painted some abstracts but wasn’t feeling a particularly strong connection to them, so I added a layer of trees and ended up with forest scenes. They’re chaotic, which is for me what the forest is: a lot of pattern. A lot of things happening. It’s dark in the forest but there’s always some kind of light. Something hopeful. These forest paintings therefore achieve the same things my landscapes achieve: an emotional connection. The feeling of being in the woods. When people see them, they often say, ‘This is exactly how I feel when I am hiking.’”
Each of Odile’s “winter experiments” represents an important step in her development as an artist and her understanding of who she is and how she reveals herself in her work. But it is the entirety and diversity of her oeuvre that tell her story best: from graphic art, to textile art, to landscapes, abstracts, and combinations of the two.
“I always think about how lucky I am, that I’m an artist,” she says, “and how I’ve been able to support myself that way for my whole life.”
But luck is surely the thinnest layer in the strata of Odile’s story, subordinate to her decades of hard work, willingness to embrace challenge, and talent for balancing enterprise and aesthetics.
More foundational by far is the dictum that the Sufi poet Rumi expressed eight centuries ago: “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” These are the words that Odile hears every time she picks up a brush.
Lauren Wolk is a celebrated author and artistic curator who has helped to shape the cultural landscape of the Cape.