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Who is the local lady who invented finger painting?

Ben Steelman

People have been finger painting, in one form or another, since prehistoric times. However, it was Ruth Faison Shaw (1889-1969), a Duplin County native who taught in Wilmington for many years, who patented the first modern formula for finger paints and who wrote “Finger Painting: A Perfect Method of Self-Expression” (1934). An educator and art therapist, Shaw popularized the medium for use in schools throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Born Oct. 15, 1889, on a farm outside Kenansville, Shaw was the daughter of the Rev. William M. Shaw, pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church and president of James Sprunt Institute (then a Christian girls’ school) and his wife, the former Alberta Columbia Faison. She studied at James Sprunt Institute, graduating in 1906, then taught at schools in the Appalachian mountains, in Wilmington, Rochester, N.Y., and Tarrytown, N.Y.

During World War I, she volunteered for service with the YMCA; from February to June 1919, she was posted at canteens near Verdun, in France, playing piano for troops, serving coffee and doughnuts and leading songfests. She briefly returned to Wilmington to live with her mother and taught music in Southport.

In 1920, she returned to Europe on a grand tour and, through YMCA contacts, landed a job for two years with the Sailors’ Club in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). This enabled her to make side trips to Athens and other sites in Greece and, through a study of Oriental fabrics, to pursue her growing interests in colors and dyes.

Shaw returned to Wilmington in 1922 but was promptly invited to Rome by friends in the U.S. Foreign Service, including the U.S. ambassador to Italy, to organize a school for English-speaking children. The result was the Shaw School, an “experiential” institution for ages 5-12. Although largely unaware of the “progressive” education movement, Shaw innovated in her curriculum, taking students directly to historic sites, museums and galleries around Rome for lessons.

The story goes that Shaw discovered finger painting by accident, while dealing with one of her pupils, the son of an Italian prince. One day in 1926, the little boy cut his finger, and Shaw sent him to the bathroom to put iodine on the wound. Some time later, the boy had not returned, and Shaw went looking — only to find the prince happily smearing iodine on the tiles of the bathroom wall. The other children were enthralled and wanted to join in the smearing, too.

Shaw may have been aware of Etruscan tomb-painting, in which the paint was applied by hand. At any rate, she quickly recognized this was an activity that children immediately enjoyed, which channeled their creativity. After years of research and experiments, along with other teachers at her school — seeking a paint that was water-soluble, washable and non-toxic — she introduced finger painting to her students in 1931. The name came from one little boy who used the words “because we don’t use brushes.”

Shaw remained in Rome until 1932, then introduced her technique at the International Congress of New Education in Nice, France. Soon, she was invited to lecture on finger painting across Europe and to lead a demonstration at the Sorbonne in Paris. She taught in English-language schools in Paris then, later in 1932, returned to the United States, where she introduced finger painting as a visiting teacher at The Dalton School in New York.

Soon, the technique was being written up, and praised, in Time magazine and The New York Times; an exhibit by some of Shaw’s students was posted at Rockefeller Center. Shaw began manufacturing her safe finger paints at a small factory on the East River and opened the Shaw Finger-Paint Studio. In 1935, she patented her process; a year later, Binney and Smith, the creators of Crayola crayons, had bought rights and were mass-producing finger paints.

In 1942, Shaw was appointed a lecturer at Teacher’s College, Columbia. Meanwhile, she began to explore finger painting with adults, especially as a therapeutic tool. In 1947, she became an instructor in the School of Education at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan., but continued to travel, working with delinquents in New York and the elderly in Massachusetts and lecturing to groups of doctors and psychologists.

A skilled self-promoter, Shaw made friends with Walt Disney (who gave her some original drawings from “Snow White”), gave finger painting lessons to Jack Benny and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and even appeared on “Tonight!” with Steve Allen in 1955.

In 1956, Shaw settled in Chapel Hill, where she served as a consultant with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, a post she would occupy until 1968. She also consulted with the Murdoch Center for children at Butner. Between 1961 and 1963, she did 17 episodes of “Finger-Painting for Family Pleasure,” which aired on public television station WUNC.

Shaw, who never married, died on Dec. 3, 1959, in Fayetteville and was buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. Her papers are now deposited at the University Library in Chapel Hill.

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