Strolling through her Solana Beach gallery, Ruth-Ann Thorn proudly displays various works of art, including a bright blue surfboard adorned with happy sunflowers painted by Gloria Lee and whimsical bronze statues created by Paul Lotz.
“I’ve always wanted a sculpture garden,” she said, gazing outside at Lyman Whitaker’s collection of metal sculptures billowing in the wind on the path to the Exclusive Collections Gallery.
Although not an artist herself, Thorn discovered a passion for the arts over the years working and owning galleries, and being sandwiched between two generations of artists. Three years ago, tribal member Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians launched “Art of the City,” a documentary series featuring artists from across the region and beyond.
In November, the gallerist, entrepreneur and TV host will launch a new series, “This is Indian Country,” a travel-style art show featuring the stories of Indigenous peoples across the country.
Starting on the West Coast, each episode will feature interviews with creators of art, culinary delights, music and tattoos. The show’s initial guest list will include celebrity appearances by Black Eyed Peas rapper Taboo and Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis.
“I would say it’s like an Anthony Bourdain meets Indian country,” Thorn said.
The aim of the new series is to show the great diversity of the country’s indigenous peoples, while highlighting the communities of which they are a part.
Even with popular network shows like “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” Frank Blanquet said Indigenous people aren’t portrayed or accurately portrayed often enough in mainstream media.
Community member Maya is a producer and director at FNX – First Nations Experience – the channel dedicated to Native American and Indigenous content around the world where viewers can watch Thorn’s two shows.
“When most people think of Native Americans, they either think of history and historical figures or casinos,” Blanquet said. “But we are not historical figures, we are very present in modern society.
“We are artists, doctors, skateboarders, lawyers, filmmakers, and I think this program will teach people about contemporary Indigenous people.
It’s an important message for Thorn, who hasn’t often seen Indigenous stories grow in the media.
Born in San Francisco, her parents were both activists when they met. In the 1960s, her mother was an artist and women’s rights activist, while her father (Henry Rodriguez, a member of the Rincon tribe) was part of the American Indian Movement participating in the peaceful occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.
After her parents divorced – and later, her mother and stepfather divorced – Thorn eventually ran away from home, becoming homeless at age 14. Struggling to fend for herself, she became a drug dealer, transporting cocaine across the border.
“In my teens, I really had an identity crisis,” Thorn said. “It was a rough start for me…and I did it until really bad things happened to me and then my life started to change.”
At 17, she says, she was robbed and raped at gunpoint, and the trauma left her in a deep depression. Although she had never been a heavy cocaine user before, she began to use drugs heavily, which eventually led to her overdosing twice that year.
“It took me a long time to really share this story, because I’m so ashamed of it,” Thorn said.
The second overdose caused her amnesia for five days, which Thorn says was so scary that she then decided to change her life. She prepared for and passed the GED test, got married, and eventually moved to Hawaii, where she began her career working in a gallery.
Thorn worked there for six years, before returning to San Diego County. She opened her own gallery in La Jolla in 1998, followed by several others in Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Breckenridge, Colorado.
During her years in the art world, Thorn said she too often felt like artists’ stories were ignored until they died. She originally launched “Art of the City” about three years ago on YouTube to tell the stories of living artists, and it was eventually picked up by FNX.
Although she only received an education until ninth grade, Thorn established several businesses in addition to her galleries and the two television series.
Her N8iV Beauty brand is a skincare line featuring products made from acorn oil, a traditional Luiseño staple. Through Imprint, artists can protect their work against intellectual property theft by uploading their work and saving it via blockchain technology.
“She’s very dynamic and engaging – a businesswoman with a lot of integrity,” said Denise Walsh Turner, Thorn’s distant cousin and colleague. “I think she’s really lucky to have found her passion for the arts, and there’s so much need for business acumen in the Indigenous art world.”
Her family connection to art from her mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Isabella Thorn, helped her develop this love and appreciation for artists.
“It’s been such a joy to work with artists – deep down my passion is for the arts,” Thorn said. “I feel like everyone has a calling, and mine is that I’m like the guardian of art and culture, especially for Indigenous arts, but I think for all art. “
The upcoming “This is Indian Country” will premiere November 24 at 5 p.m. with a repeat at 9:30 p.m. In San Diego, he and “Art of the City” can be viewed online on SoCalBTV.