Family heirloom incites search for local artist

By April Jaynes

August 10, 2014

GALLIPOLIS — When Jo Gills, of Point Pleasant, decided to track down the artist of a special painting that had been in her family for a number of years, she didn’t realize it would lead to the discovery of a local artist that also produced pieces for former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Gills, originally from Gallipolis, wanted to identify the artist of a painting that used to sit on her father’s mantle for years because she plans to donate it to the Point Pleasant River Museum.

“I’m going to dedicate the picture in memory of my dad and his great-granddaughter who passed away when she was 5,” Gills said.

The painting, titled “All Aboard” and dated Aug. 24, 1977, depicts a river boat in the Ohio River across from Gallipolis City Park. The painting was signed by a “Liz Richards,” but the card to Gills’ father was simply signed “Sis,” and read; “In appreciation of needed help and friendship. Thank you for being you.”

With this information, Gills asked family members, friends, locals and anyone else that she thought might know who “Liz Richards” was — only to stumble upon the answer while talking to a friend in town who happened to mention, “Sis.”

“I was trying to track it down, since it said ‘Liz Richards’ on the painting. I contacted people in my family several years back, but they didn’t know who I was talking about because I said ‘Liz Richards,’ and then it dawned on me,” Gills said. “She (the friend) knew who I was talking about.”

From there, Gills was able to identify the artist as Emma Elizabeth “Liz” Richards.

Gills then contacted Richards’ daughter, who pointed Gills in the direction of Holzer Senior Care, where Richards, 93, now resides.

Richards initially painted the riverboat for Gills’ father as a “thank you” because he had allowed her to stay in his home while she was transitioning to a new home. Gills’ father, John E. “Jack” Gills, was Richards’ cousin.

Gills recently met up with Richards to talk about the painting, catch up on memories and learn about Richards’ artistic journey.

“I’ve been trying to track her down, and finally found out where she was,” Gills said.

Born on Dec. 12, 1920, Richards was called “Sis” by almost everyone she knew because she was the only girl out of seven children.

Richards became a mother of seven children of her own and now has five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

She worked as a caretaker and homemaker before working at Bob Evans and then at the Gallipolis Development Center, where she worked for 25 years before retiring. She began painting in her mid-50s as a hobby, rarely accepting money for any of her creations.

“It was a hobby. One I showed at the French Art Colony, I got $125 for it. We had to sell them when we showed them there,” she said. “There was one woman who had me paint her home with a snow scene, and with a spring scene, and she gave me $50. She wanted to give me $100, but I didn’t want to take it.”

Richards said she only took a total of five art class sessions and simply painted because she wanted to.

“I just promised if I could paint, I would never make money off of it,” she said.

Almost all of Richards’ pieces were given away to whomever she felt she should give them to, including two she sent to former presidents Carter and Reagan.

Richards sent Carter a painting of Plains (Ga.) Baptist Church, which he attended. She said the painting hung in his bedroom for 30 years, and a rock that she painted for Reagan sat on his desk in the White House.

“I don’t know why I did it. I just knew I wanted to. I had a desperate need to do it,” she said.

Also a writer, Richards self-published a total of 10 poetry volumes, and one poem she wrote caught the eye of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

“I got a letter from Jackie Kennedy, when I wrote one about (John F. Kennedy’s) funeral, about wanting to use it in her memoirs. But I’ve never seen it in any yet. And I had to send a notarized thing back to them for that. It was a poem about how she walked with grace and the little kids. I think that’s what thrilled me the most, when I got that letter from her,” Richards said.

Although Richards no longer paints or writes, she is an active member of the senior center’s Community Council and still values involvement and the opportunity to leave a legacy.

“I’ve seen so much change. You wouldn’t believe it,” Richards said. “I think you should be very active and think of the future, not just what you can do right now. I think a lot here, since I’ve been here, of the future. What will it be like for my children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren?”