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Indian Realism: Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez's Art of Endurance

Her life spun out of control one night in 1983, when her husband died in a car crash. Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez had been proud of his efforts to quit drinking, but that night, he relapsed and tried to make it home. He didn't. Even before his death she walked a mental tightrope, but the reality of his death pushed her over the edge into a psychiatric ward. Hers is a tale of valor. Despite life's pain, she can still smile through tears. To stay alive, she paints. Painting is her pressure relief, her life-jacket, her respite from the fray.

Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez is an artist from the trenches. She's been beaten, lied to, abandoned, widowed, abused, raped, driven mad, driven to end it all by swallowing pills, yet she survives, paintbrush in hand, daubing oil on canvas, trying to make sense of the chaos within, trying to quiet the demons that wail. Self-taught -- some might classify her an artist from the Naive school -- she paints without pretense of the pain in her heart and her mind.

Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez. | Photo: Courtesy Gordon Johnson.
Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez. | Photo: Courtesy Gordon Johnson.

Now 58, she is a Luiseño/Choctaw Indian from the La Jolla Indian Reservation, near Palomar Mountain. She lives in what Indians call a Linda Vista house, a house built in San Diego for wartime, then given to Indians when they were no longer needed.

Because they were temporary, they were built on the cheap, walls thinly constructed without insulation. Cold in winter, hot in summer, the house has little in the way of comforts. But Cathy has turned hers into a home. She's got a wood-stove for winter, a window cooler for summer. For company, she has a good mongrel dog, Samantha, and she has her painting. Her paintings cover nearly every available inch of wall space.

She lives high up in the hills, not far from the small Catholic church, not far from the tribal burial grounds. Her front yard is shaded by a giant oak, gnarled and wizened, witness to comings and goings of many La Jolla generations. The house next to Cathy's home is an old adobe wamkish, a ceremonial house where her father's valorio (wake) was held. It's run down, not used anymore, but it's Cathy's dream to restore it, to bring it back to life as a gathering place for the people.

Cathy has been making art for as long as she can remember. As a youth, she drew with pencil in a Chief tablet with ruled foolscap, and she drew what she saw, her house, her brothers and sisters, her pets. At school she got to try her hand with real colors, poster paints, and water colors, and she loved the colors. She brought home paintings and her mother displayed them in a cubby hole cabinet.

"But then we moved and all the paintings got trashed," Cathy says. " I wish I still had them." Unfortunately, much of her art has been destroyed. In 2007, wind-fueled wildfires swept through the reservation destroying many homes, including a shed where she stored her paintings. "Yes, it was heartbreaking, but what can you do? Many people lost everything," she said.

Her father, Theodore, was her first male disappointment. He was a funny guy, a crack up, a dad who told them wonderful bedtime stories, but they were scary stories, "the man with the golden arm," kind of stories. They created in her and her twin sister, Susan, a liking for horror movies that holds to this day. In her home, at the top of her VHS pile is Dracula, a holdover from her past. But her father, a man she clung to, was a hard drinker. He died when she was 13, of liver problems and heart troubles, leaving her fatherless, and crushed.

Before he died, her mother also started drinking, making for a sometimes unruly home life. Cathy paints pictures of the waiting, waiting for the arguments between her father and her mother to end. Her Escondido High School years weren't any better.

Poverty spoiled the time when she should have been happily blossoming into womanhood. "The best dress I ever had, I got from a box," she said. She envied the rich girls who went to the parties and dances and football games that she couldn't attend. Even back then, she painted, committing to canvas the feelings of alienation, forming a personal tradition of art-imitating-life that continues.

'I loved it when my sons were little. They really cared for me then. I made sure that they knew how much I loved and worshipped them. They were always clean and fed. They never did without. My eldest blames me for a sexual assaultthat he endured. He never told me about it until years later during a drug and alcohol induced rage. My youngest had just overdosed on crystal meth. I watched him convulse all the way to the hospital. I was petrified as I witnessed yellow foam ooze from his gaped purple lips. He is now on anti-seizure medication. My psychotherapist says that no parent has control over their teenagers. Why does it feel like I am the only one. Why do I feel like its all my fault? Am I wrong to not allow them to live with me because they refuse to help out or stay off of drugs and alcohol? I can still hear my eldest son's screams calling me a f-----g bitch. I am told that these hard years will be over soon and my boys will once again love me. I wonder if I will live that long or if they will survive the pollutants that they are putting into their bodies? I guess all I can do is wait...' | They Loved Me Back Then by Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez.

She walks gingerly in the kitchen past the cast-iron wood-stove that glows with comfort on winter nights. The stove is not far from her bedroom, and the heat drifts in and soothes her. She paints in her bedroom, a strong light aimed at an easel at the foot of her bed. She paints from an office chair, bowls of brushes and tubes of paint at the ready. But with art supplies as high as they are, she plows much of the money she makes selling paintings back into supplies. She's had more than a dozen shows over the years, including the Mingei Museum in San Diego, the Oceanside Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institute Museum of the American Indian. She's sold many paintings over the years, and the Smithsonian recently bought $2,000-worth of her work.

She has posted many of her paintings on Yessy.com. [Just type her full name into the search engine to find them.] Sleep has always been elusive. Too haunted, she gets maybe two hours of sleep a night, the rest of the night she paints. She finds creativity in the night. But there's also the seven spirit women that visit at night. She maintains they are real, because her mom has seen them too, she says. She's painted them, and believes they come to help. "I've been beat up, ditched, widowed, and I'm bi-polar, but I try to tell the truth in my work, descriptions of what I've gone through," she said. "There's a few things that I haven't touched on. That will come later."

Her subject matter is seldom what most consider beautiful. There are self portraits of her fist-bruised face and broken heart. There are scenes of open caskets in the local funeral home. There are scenes of her crying in the shower, climbing out of a well, of her cocooned in pain. She often writes narratives to accompany her paintings like this one:

The web of insanity surrounds me, nothing but death can set me free I am trapped inside my mind pills and therapy only cause me to doubt I suffer daily though at times it's at ease, but when I'm gripped inside my mind there is no help to release the evil that is inside of me. Kill me please ...

And this one:

I cling to the edge of this well for as long as I can but I slowly descend. I scratch and claw the cold dark walls to try and stop my fall Weeks then months drift by cloudy and dark until the blackness surrounds me.

She's been on a painting binge lately. When her knee went bad, she couldn't paint, because it was too painful to sit. She had the knee replaced 18 months ago and it's finally getting back to normal. Now the pent-up ideas for paintings clamor to get out.

And she must get them out. "It's a healing thing," she says.

She likes Van Gough. "I know, boring," she says with a laugh. "But we connect." She also likes Edvard Munch, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jackson Pollock. And their influences are apparent. Her paintings are characterized by vibrant color, sometimes conforming, sometimes rebellious, always intense.

About four months ago she had a scare. The going got too tough, and she swallowed handfuls of pills in attempt to kill herself. She still doesn't know who found her, but once again she ended up in the psychiatric ward. This time they gave her 12 shock treatments that erased much of her memory. The problem is, she says, that while she can't remember much of recent events, the shocks have unleashed bad memories of being raped and assaulted that she's worked so hard to suppress. "All of a sudden it was there, the memories, the paranoia, the fear, and the anger at being alone," she said.

She paints to heal herself, and to heal others. She feels like she is getting better, like she's on the mend. She wants other women to know they are not alone with mental illness and depression, that others suffer too. She wants women who are abused by their spouses, and knocked around by life, and who are depressed to seek help. It's part of why she paints.

'When I started this painting all I could think about was my death. I prayed that God would take me before I hung myself. Taking a ton of bootleg pills just ended me up in the hospital, then off to the Fisher Unit. Twelve shock treatments later I was still suicidal. Worse, my memory was shot. I couldn't even remember my pets names, my house was unfamiliar and people I've known all of my life were strangers. I'm still having problems. Horrid memories I'd buried resurfaced to torture me yet again. New medications take forever to work, if they do at all. Who ever thinks that being bi-polar is a farce has never experienced the well of depression or mania. Lucky them.' | My Ascension by Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez.

Another part is to convey the reality of Indian life. She hopes to break some popular stereotypes -- that all Indians are rich casino Indians and Indians are noble savages. Cathy laments the changes she has seen Indian life undergoing. "A big part of our village mentality has been eliminated. When I was young, when someone got sick, the women would come over with home remedies, they'd help clean the house, and bring over food." That seldom happens anymore. But she holds on to traditions. She is one of the few who still makes weewish, the acorn pudding that was once the staple for Indian people around here. She still makes tortillas, keeping alive the good memories of her cultural past.

And she paints. Tonight, while you're sleeping, she will more than likely be painting, trying to keep the bad thoughts at bay, and trying to mend things that are so hard to repair.

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