As early as age three, Charles “Chuck” Rucker suffered from asthma attacks. During one of these battles, his mother, Anna Rucker, stumbled upon a temporary cure.
It became his permanent obsession.
“His mom would sit him down at a table, give him a pencil and a paper,” said Clark Rucker, Charles’ son. “He would just draw. That’s how he started. Those are the humble beginnings of an artist.”
Charles became a composite artist for the San Diego Police Department in 1954 and later an instructor at Southwestern College in 1971. He also painted, beginning in the early 1950s until his death in 2003.
Influenced by African and Caribbean cultures, Charles’ paintings captured and articulated the happy, mundane moments of everyday life. In shades of all colors, mostly vibrant but sometimes earthy, he painted people walking, talking or commuting to work on canvases with acrylic, oil and watercolor. He also painted baboons, fishes and portraits of himself looking stately and fierce.
His art transcended race, though it often depicted it. People of color were his central focus. Conversely, in the lives of people he met, he was theirs.
In February, Charles Rucker (1933-2003) and his wife of 47 years, Julie (1932-2014), were posthumously honored at the SWC Unsung Heroes and Sheroes ceremony that celebrated African-American History Month.
During their lives, together and individually, they strived to make positive differences in their community. Julie worked as a government employee for 34 years, first for the Department of Navy, then for the Social Security Administration. She volunteered with several organizations, including the African American Museum of Fine Art, Salvation Army’s Women’s Auxiliary and Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa.
Charles served four years in the U.S. Air Force and 17 years with the San Diego Police Department, working as an officer, an assistant to the Chief of Police for Community Relations and a composite artist. In 1971 he retired from law enforcement and taught Administration of Justice at SWC. He retired from teaching in 1991.
In conjunction with the ceremony, the SWC Art Gallery hosted a two-day memorial exhibition for Charles and Julie Rucker that featured more than 40 pieces of his artwork. Some dated as far back as the 1950s, others as recent as 2003. All were from Clark’s collection.
In one extraordinary collage titled “New York, New York,” brightly colored buildings and streets illuminated an otherwise dark, midnight gloom. Intricately woven together like a mosaic, slum village, the elements played delightfully against the lush backdrop of purples and blacks. This painting was among his finest in the exhibition.
Other paintings depicted people, his signature theme. People singing, dancing and living modestly made their presence known. There were also photos of Charles and Julie, Charles’ police badge, several painted button pins in a large framed case and a video of Charles helping children make art, which streamed in an isolated corner of the gallery. More than 40 of his friends and family came to visit the exhibition’s opening reception. Many more visitors came during its two-day run.
Bill McCurine, Charles’ nephew by marriage, said as famous as Charles was for his art, he was equally as famous for his parties.
“Charles was the life of the party,” he said. “Everybody was his friend, nobody was ever a stranger. Whenever we wanted to celebrate, nobody asked where do we go. It was always to uncle Chuck and aunt Julie’s house. He could pull a party together without hassle.”
McCurine also noted Charles’ fine cooking skills and his ability to concoct “the world’s best gimlets.”
“It had a kick, but you didn’t know that at first,” he said. “Halfway through the second one, you’d realize you’d just been thrown for a loop.”
He added, “When he would laugh, he would throw back his head and he’d just laugh with his whole body. I think I miss that the most, or him putting his arm around you and saying, ‘You haven’t had a gimlet yet.’”
Jeffery Rucker, Charles’ nephew, said he remembered helping his uncle install exhibitions in Los Angeles. People from all walks of life would come, he said.
“It might be a bum on the street coming in, just looking at the art, or a congressman coming, walking through, looking at the art,” he said. “He would sit and talk to all of them the exact same way, and make the little man feel just as important as the big man. He didn’t tear anybody down. He always built you up.”
Dr. Donna Arnold, dean of the School of Arts and Communication, a friend and former neighbor to the Ruckers, said Charles shared his belief that everything one achieves in life should be earned, not given. Arnold recalled being interviewed for a position at SWC and Charles, who was on the hiring committee, said he was going to make sure that SWC hired the best person for the job.
“‘Go ahead,’” Arnold remembered telling him. “When the interview finished, he came up after they had hired me and said, ‘You know, you were the best person for the job.’”
Arnold said Charles frequently brought his chicken wings to the college.
“That shows that he saw education as more than just being in the classroom – but an expression of love of his students and for his community,” Arnold said.
Clark said his dad thought it was important to create art so people could appreciate him long after he died.
Charles left a legacy not only with his art, but also with his words, Clark said.
“(My dad taught me to) never judge. Be open. Be kind and considerate and not be biased. Be fair. Love my family.”