Reservation Punk: Raymond Lafferty's Search for Home

Raymond Lafferty
Raymond Lafferty painting.

You may not immediately see it in the seeming chaos of his colors, but Raymond Lafferty's art is in many ways a search for home. Lafferty, 43, is a Kumeyaay Indian from the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation in the rugged backcountry of San Diego County. You'd think that would be home for him, plain and simple, but it gets complicated.

Lafferty is an abstract expressionist painter who also does performance art, makes films, composes music, and shoots photographs. He has shown paintings in the Oceanside Museum, and his art, in one form or another, has appeared at Art San Francisco, Cleveland Public Theater, Getty Center for the Arts Museum, Museum of New Zealand, the National Museum of the American Indian, Venice Biennale, The New York Museum of Art and Design. He is currently a contributing artist in "Beneath Silent Surfaces: Contemporary Art from Native American Artists of Southern California" at the Ruth and Charles Gilb Arcadia Historical Museum that opens Oct. 27.

Raymond Lafferty
Raymond Lafferty

Creative? Yes, but his creative nature has created problems for him on the personal front. Some might call him a contrarian. He has lived his life bucking convention. Others, especially those on his reservation, might simply call him weird. And therein lies the danger of nonconformity. It's difficult for Indians, who have a code of acceptable Indian behavior, to understand artists like Lafferty who don't abide those codes, who have always been, let's say, different.

It started when Lafferty became a young punk rocker. A reservation girl, a friend of Lafferty's, went to Paris on an exchange study and came back with Punk music -- the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Generation X -- the hard-driving music that buzz-cut and pierced Parisians were listening to. Lafferty heard the brash rebelliousness in it and was transfixed. It wasn't long before he was sporting a mohawk, razor-cut jeans dressing in his own rebellion, living the gospel according to Punk. At the time, most Indians were dancing to "Johnny B. Goode" and "Brown-Eyed Girl," while Lafferty was doing lord knows what to "London Calling." Most Indians would not be too taken aback by the mohawk. The hairstyle, after all, did originate with Indians. Lafferty's multicolored mohawk, however, unsettled grassroots rez Indians.

"They didn't get it. They looked at me like I was some kind of alien. But heck, the girls liked it, and I was getting laid," he said.

Always a smart kid, and maybe something of a smart aleck, Lafferty was frequently in trouble at Julian High School, where he didn't graduate. Teachers passed off the weird contrarian to other teachers, until eventually the only teacher who would have him was the drama teacher. He spent most of his school days in drama class, where he explored acting. He found donning the masks of other characters a refreshing break from himself. He learned accents and mannerisms that, to this day, salt his conversations. He does a polished English accent when he feels like it, effecting the high-brow tone of an English lord, an unexpected parlor trick for a guy who grew up on the rez. His time spent in London probably honed that skill. Slipping into various characters has become part of his persona.

At 14, he quit school, moved out of his house, got a job and was on his own. Independence, at such a young age, is often not easy, especially emotionally. Most troubling was his feeling of alienation, not just as an Indian trying to survive in white mainstream society, but also as an Indian trying to figure out where he belonged with his own people. When he was real young, he was well-liked by older people. But things changed as he grew older, and to them ... odder.

"Family and friends weren't hearing my questions," he says. "It was burdensome for them to listen to me, or maybe it was a bad time for them, or maybe they were too consumed by their own lives. Anyway, I was confused, in pain, and without much understanding from others."

Lafferty is descended from a well-respected family. His great-great-great grandfather was Cinon Duro, a famous Kumeyaay spiritual leader. His great grandmother, Rose Duro, was a tribal leader, a captain, who did her best to help the people. His grandmother, Lila LaChusa, went so far as to use her own car to ferry people down off the mountain to medical services. His parents, Tom and RayAnn Lafferty, are well-known and of good community standing. By rights, given his family background, he should be able to fit in. Yet, the separation between Lafferty and his people continued to widen.

He did much traveling when young, some might call it drifting, all over the country. It was a search for identity that wasn't bearing fruit. It wasn't till he was about 20, that a friend talked to him about therapeutic art, took him to an art store, put a paint brush in his hand, and bought him some colors.

He found the physical act of applying paint to canvas calmed him. "I didn't think the bad thoughts while I was painting," he says. He'd never painted before, never even drew much as a kid. Art just wasn't in his vocabulary. But that changed.

"I'd always suffered from being a nervous kind of guy. I started painting and it worked a kind of magic. Six months later, I had my first show," he said.

When he was a kid, there was a Sioux Indian, Johnny Hawk, who often hung around Southern California Indian reservations. He was a Vietnam vet who wore his olive drab field jacket like it was still his uniform. Hawk survived some hairy war experiences that never completely left him. He self medicated with booze. But between the booze binges, he painted. He was good. "Painting and booze was a way to escape the painful thoughts for Hawk. I picked up on that," Lafferty says. In some ways, Hawk was a mentor for Lafferty.

Lafferty calls the act of painting "the silent confessor." "When I'm painting, I can confess anything I want to the canvas," he says. "To be an artist, your thoughts are damaged. I'm damaged. I'm hurting from the pain of being away from home. And the longer I'm away from home, the harder it is to go back. People begin to forget you are one of them. Painting lessens the pain."

Lafferty lives in a tidy, one-bedroom apartment in Oceanside within walking distance to the shore. "I feel more at home on the coast than I do inland in the mountains," he says. "In many ways it makes sense. In pre-invasion times, we were nomadic, wandering the land for foodstuffs, and we spent much time on the coast, where we'd fish and gather abalone."

His workspace is a makeshift table in the kitchen, next to a window where he can see the Pacific above the roof tops and palm trees as he paints. He doesn't go into the water. Too polluted. He doesn't eat fish, for the same reason. He doesn't eat at a table. He prefers TV trays. He doesn't own a car or drive. "I'm like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. Believe me, the world is much safer with me not behind the wheel," he says with a laugh. He doesn't drink much either. Two years ago, his brother died mysteriously while drinking at a reservation bridge. Lafferty has pretty much lost his taste for alcohol since. But the taste for nicotine sill grips him. He smokes Marlboros.

Lafferty works most every day. He won't force himself to paint if he's not feeling it, but he usually puts in four or five hours a day. He works primarily in acrylics, much less toxic than oils, and they dry so much faster, crucial to some of his techniques. Lately he favors an egg dropping technique that involves filling a hollowed out egg with paint. He positions the canvases flat on the ground, stands on a high bank, and drops the paint-filled eggs onto the canvas. The eggs break, and paint splatters in whatever direction physical forces dictate. He allows the paint to dry in the sun, and the wind plays a role as well directing the paint according to its whims. So nature plays a big hand in his paintings.

Raymond Lafferty.
Raymond Lafferty

He takes the canvases back to his apartment, and where ever there are white spots, he paints in small dots with a superfine brush. He thinks of the dots, ironically, as people in a tight-knit community. He's extremely interested in textures, in colors, in art as becoming, and always interested to hear what people read into his art.

Lafferty's major influence is Russian-born German painter, Wassily Kandinsky. Jackson Pollock is also an inspiration. And there's a symmetry to it. According to Lafferty, Pollock was influenced by the Navajo tradition of sand painting, dropping colored sand to form religious images. Native art and modern art conflate in Lafferty's egg-dropping technique.

Lafferty envisions himself painting till death. He hopes his legacy will be a chapter in the art history books where he longs to find a home as a great Native American artist amid the grand masters.

"I think it's the one thing I can do for Indian people," he says.


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