Business: Harwich Artist Odile Transitions From Clothing To Oil Painting

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Business , Arts

Painter Ruth Odile Davis. COURTESY PHOTO

When traveling abroad, Ruth Odile Davis has spotted women wearing the art clothing that she has created in Odile Designs for the past 35 years.

And it’s no wonder, since Odile Designs, with a shop in Harwich Center, has a following of over 8,000 fans and a loyal customer base.

So when, on Aug. 12, Davis sent out an email titled “Big News from Odile,” the reception was bittersweet.

The big news is that “as much joy as I have felt from this long career, I’ve had a yearning for my real voice to be expressed on canvas… Yes, I am retiring from clothing so that at long last I can return to my truer love,” she wrote.

That “truer love” would be Davis’s award-winning fine art oil paintings. And now that Davis is retiring her clothing line in favor of devoting herself to painting on canvas, her customers have showered her with gratitude.

“People say they’re sad, they’ll miss me,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “I’ve had wonderful emails.”

One woman thanked her for making her life better. Another woman said she had bought many items from Davis through many years, and wished her the best.

And the words that she wrote in the email to her customers are true: “Seeing each other at shows, sharing our life stories, laughing and sometimes crying, we grew old together.” She estimates women ages 40 through 80 are wearing her clothes today, with 25-year-old pieces still in use.

Growing up in Pittsfield, Davis began studying art at the Berkshire Art Museum when she was in the second grade. Later, “I went to college to be an art teacher, but I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she says. “I did it as a career.”

When Davis turned 30, she decided she wanted to spend her money on something other than rent. So, she moved to Cape Cod, where she had enjoyed camping in Nickerson State Park with her family when she was growing up. It was here, in her kitchen, in 1983, that she began painting on T-shirts.

Fabric paints hadn’t yet been invented, so she used a dye and a thickener to paint on the T-shirts. When fabric paints came along, the process became easier. Eventually Davis got sick of painting on T-shirts, and she designed her own clothing line. At one point she worked with six reps who sold her clothes wholesale to major department stores all over the country. While Davis employed a cutter and sewers creating button-tops, jackets and pants for women — “the whole shebang — ” she still hand-painted each garment. “The amount of eyeball buttons I sewed on my face shirts alone is not to be believed,” she wrote in the email. She did that for 10 years before switching to retail sales in her own storefront.

Davis’s clothing has always been made to last. She found the best fabrics she could, many of them American-made cottons and fleeces. “You all loved the fact that you could machine wash your Odile and loved the pockets,” she wrote.

Davis’s shop, Odile Fine Art and Artful Clothing at 704 Main St., Harwich, will remain open but now features Davis’s fine art. (Last week she was busy selling out the last of her clothing line at the store.) She also plans to lead painting workshops in the store’s studio space. This fall she is teaching a class called “Get Loose: A 24-Hour Painting Challenge” at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in Yarmouth. She will begin her own workshops on weekends this winter followed by week-long classes in the spring. One of her interests lies in teaching beginners how to use oil paints — how to mix colors and what materials to use.

“A lot of people are afraid of oil,” she says.

For her own paintings, Davis goes out with a sketch pad and also takes notes wherever she finds herself viewing lowlands, marshes, waterways, streams, lakes and “sometimes a puddle.” While she probably won’t paint the puddle, she notes how the light hits it, forming little diamonds. On a larger scale, she observes things such as the way waterways meet the land. One thing she does photograph are clouds, “for reference.”

“Photography really tightens you up,” she adds. “Painting from memory keeps my style loose and I’m all about strong brushwork and color.” Davis is known for her stunning oil landscapes where water meets land and sky. Her paintings capture many types of lighting and moods. She also does abstract oil paintings. She signs her work “Odile,” her middle name, which was from her French grandmother.

She says her all-time favorite painter is Matisse, particularly during the period when he worked in Nice. She loves his colors and “room settings with people chilling.” But she also loves Picasso and Renaissance painters, for different reasons.

Davis has spent her life making art, and has made her living through art. “I’m hoping some of these customers will follow my art,” she says. “It’s not just about the sale — it’s the connection with people.”

For more information on Davis’s art, visit