By Dave Fountinelle | email@example.com
“What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” – Aldous Huxley
When Fresno-based artist Bobby Von Martin was in his early teens, he spent his summers living in a Bakersfield hotel notorious among local law enforcement for being a drug den. Martin’s parents struggled with addiction, and he grew up surrounded by the crime, violence, and desperation that came with that life. Consequently, Martin dealt with severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm as he fought against the hopelessness of his environment. Martin’s one outlet to escape from all of the negativity around him was art. One of his first paintings created during those teenage years depicted a Native man crying and holding a beer bottle filled with blood. Martin painted it as a gift for his mother, who was an alcoholic. He had hoped that it would encourage her to stop drinking.
“I gave it to her hoping she would just look at it every day and realize she was killing herself,” he said.
Martin began drawing when he was only four years old. Growing up in a family of professional artists, he was exposed to artistry and creativity from an early age, so expressing himself through art came naturally. Martin also turned to art to cope with the loneliness and isolation that resulted from his chaotic childhood.
“I moved to 10 different schools by the time I was in 5th grade,” Martin relates. “I didn’t have toys like other kids. I never really had a chance to make friends with anyone in school before moving to a different one. So, I would occupy my time drawing with a pencil and paper.”
Pencil and paper would eventually be replaced with acrylics and spray paint as Martin got older and could finally purchase proper art supplies.
Still, a connection to his Native American heritage and the Indigenous culture was missing from Martin’s life. However, a friendly yet persistent elder and a growling stomach would change that.
Martin recalls, “[When I was in Bakersfield] I would always hang out with my two cousins. One day, an elder from the Tule Reservation drove by in a van, stopped, and asked us if we were hungry and wanted to go sweat and pray. The first couple times I said no, because we didn’t know who he was. The third time he came around I was really hungry, so I decided to go with him.”
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that would have a life-changing outcome.
“[The elder] took me to a place on the Tule Reservation where there were families eating together, praying, just having a good time without getting high, getting drunk, or fighting,” Martin explains. “That day literally changed my whole direction. I give credit to that elder for changing my life. Because of that experience, I took a different path than my cousins did. Had I stayed on the path they were on, I would probably not be here today.”
That fateful day set Martin on a path of self-discovery. Connecting with his Native heritage and culture filled a void that had been missing from his life. It gave Martin pride in himself and a sense of purpose that was nowhere to be found scattered among the empty bottles and cigarette butts that littered the floors of that Bakersfield hotel.
Martin’s newfound path would lead him to become a proud, enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And it would inspire his artwork tremendously. The vibrancy and spirit of his Native community splashed across his canvases, even as they carried the painful messages and tragic lessons of Martin’s youth.
“Coming from a broken home I have been able to use my art to bring to light issues such as domestic violence, suicide awareness, sober living, alcohol prevention and anger management,” Martin explains. “Growing up I used art as a coping tool, and I try to promote that to encourage other people to use art in the same way.”
One of Martin’s paintings depicts a young Native man holding a beer bottle to his head like a gun, with blood spraying from the other side. The vivid swaths of color surrounding the man and splayed within his shirt make the violent image seem almost beautiful, making the picture all the more poignant. In the thick black border surrounding the man are the words, “Your family, dreams, wife, children, job, culture, freedom.” Indicating all the things addiction takes from a person before finally taking their life.
Another painting, in stark black and white, depicts an elderly native man staring solemnly in front of a background of old newspaper postings advertising “Indian land” for purchase by white settlers. Despite the stone-faced expression on the Native elder’s face, his eyes betray his sadness, welling with tears and conveying heart-wrenching emotion, remarkably captured by Martin’s talented brush strokes.
However, not all of Martin’s paintings tell stories of sadness and loss. Many, like his colorful portrait of a Native mother doing her daughter’s hair in traditional squash blossoms, or butterfly whorls, celebrate the beauty and pride of the Indigenous culture. The duality of Martin’s work reflects both his love for his people and his awareness of their often tragic history.
As Martin explains, “I want to use my art to help raise awareness of Native American issues. I hope that it will inspire our youth to get in touch with their culture to relearn their culture. A lot of history is not told in schools today about Native Americans; we as a community and nation need to change that. American History often glorifies certain people and past leaders that were actually the largest mass murderers of the Native American people.”
Like the bright colors that frame a sometimes dark image, Martin’s work seeks to inspire hope in the face of adversity, to look into the sad, broken eyes of the past and find the strength it takes to keep going.
Martin’s journey took another life-altering turn a little over six years ago when he met well-known Mexican and Native American artist James Luna. Luna was impressed with Martin’s work and introduced Martin to his extensive network of art aficionados.
“I showed him my work, and the next thing I knew, I had sold all of my paintings,” Martin recalls.
At that moment, Martin realized he could have a real shot at being a successful professional artist – able to support his family while also educating others about Native American culture and history.
Over the next six years, Martin would check off several outstanding professional accomplishments. Martin’s work has been published in ten different Native and non-Native magazines. Two of his original paintings hang in the Choctaw Nation headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma. He recently sent another original piece to the USDA headquarters in Washington DC, where it will hang proudly and permanently in the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture. Martin also recently finished illustrating a Native American book for author Kim Rogers about an Osage leader named Clarence Tinkler. The book, published by HarperCollins, is set for a spring 2023 release.
Yet, if one were to ask Martin what the proudest accomplishment of his career has been so far, his answer is simple.
“The thing I am proudest of, that brings me the most happiness and satisfaction, is being able to teach the youth,” Martin says humbly. “That’s my passion. That’s what motivates and inspires me.”
On that front, Martin’s dance card is currently kept quite full, with contracts from dozens of schools and non-profit children’s groups across the Central Valley and with Native communities all over the state.
Still, Fresno is where Martin calls home, and the love and support he has received from the local community never fails to uplift and inspire him. Martin has returned that love by sharing his art with the people of Fresno. Perhaps the most breathtaking example is a giant mural he painted on a building wall near the corner of Divisadero and H street. The painting is in his signature style of contrasting stark black and white portraits with vivid color, in this case, a bright yellow and red four-square background behind three black and white native portraits. The first is an elder Native woman, and the second is an elder native man. The third portrait is that of a young native woman with a bright red handprint across her mouth. The red handprint symbolizes the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement. It represents the thousands of women who have been tragically silenced.
Martin has also chosen Fresno to be the home of his annual “Walk with Your Ancestors” and “Honor Your Elders/Mentors” exhibits, which he has hosted for the past six years at Fresno’s City Hall. These events provide an opportunity to not only showcase Martin’s work but also celebrate and share the Native culture through music and dance performances.
He’s also using his platform to help promote other local Indigenous artists, including his brother, James Martin.
“We have completely different styles when it comes to painting,” Martin says. “But I think the local community will really enjoy his work.”
As his list of accomplishments grows, Martin has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
“There are still many stories left to tell, and many people who have yet to hear them.”
Bobby Von Martin is the owner of Bloodline Art Studios, where he sells his original art, clothing, and merchandise: www.bloodlineartstudios.com. He’s also on Facebook: Bobby Von Martin, and Instagram: @bobbyvon14.