The act of doing is so closely linked to being—inspiration can strike from the smallest spark. When Madeline Ritter, known by her Liberty Township neighbors as “Sugar,” discovered a metal box of mementos that was passed to her by her father, it ignited a journey of self-discovery and compelled her to create something beautiful.
Ritter, 91 years old and a lifelong artist, cleared out the garage and began an evolving project that went way beyond anything else she has ever painted—a vibrant mural of her great-grandparents’ sprawling Kentucky farm, covering an entire garage wall with an idyllic scene of a bygone era.
As she sorted through the clippings, letters and photographs in the historic box, Sugar felt connected to her family in a new way. Through her art, she processes and celebrates her life, faith and relationships, connecting past and present in colors and textures. Sugar’s story isn’t a fairytale, but she creates beautiful pieces from moments of sadness and fear.
“I didn’t have the happiest of childhoods,” she shares. “Working on this project was a source of healing, mentally. It is helping me feel like I am a part of something.”
Ritter started painting as a teenager after she finished her schooling at Cincinnati’s Hughes High School. With no formal training and only a passion to create art, she developed her own distinct style based on the Romantic era, realistic portraits popularized at the end of the 18th century.
Ritter’s home is peppered with her pieces, paintings hanging over her fireplace, above the sofa and between doorways. The canvases depict historic people, places and even pets in her trademark Romantic style. The images allow glimpses into her life, sharing stories of loved ones who have passed and their influence on her.
The mural shines with Sugar’s signature sparkle: sequins, beads and rocks embellish the dresses, gardens and grounds recreated on her wall in a three-dimensional masterpiece that brings the scene to life.
“I want to add a lot of details—that’s what takes me a long time,” she says. “I have a lot of work yet to do.”
The 1864 home called Idlewild still stands near Horse Cave in south central Kentucky. She traveled with a cousin to see it in person. She researched the family home and studied original writings by her great-grandmother that give many details of the time.
“I never met my great-grandmother, but I’ve read all of her writings—she was a fantastic poet and a wonderful human being,” Ritter says. “I even have an original brick from the house.”
Ritter’s neighbors couldn’t help but notice the start of something important.
“You have to see this to believe it,” says Mary Beth Lachmann, Ritter’s neighbor in Hughes Woods. “She is amazing!”
Ritter bypasses any obstacles and pursues her passion for painting and art. She is still working on the mural, adding the details that are important to her memories to complete the image.
“I’ve got a bad foot and I shouldn’t be doing this, but I don’t let anything stop me,” says Ritter. “I told my kids I am not going to sit on the couch and wait to die,” she adds with a defiant lift of her head.
This mother of three adult daughters continues to create and grow. Like her mural, she’s not finished yet.
“I’m a work in progress,” she says with a grin.
"I don’t let anything stop me." -Madeline "Sugar" Ritter