Rincon entrepreneur tells diverse stories of Indigenous community through two TV series

Indigenous entrepreneur Ruth-Ann Thorn stands among sculptures on display in front of the gallery she owns.
Indigenous entrepreneur Ruth-Ann Thorn stands among sculptures on display in front of the gallery she owns, Exclusive Collections, in Solana Beach.
(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ruth-Ann Thorn will launch her second series — ‘This is Indian Country’ — in November


Walking around her Solana Beach gallery, Ruth-Ann Thorn proudly shows off different works of art, including a bright blue surfboard emblazoned with cheerful sunflowers painted by Gloria Lee and whimsical bronze statues created by Paul Lotz.

“I always wanted a sculpture garden,” she said while gazing outside at the collection of Lyman Whitaker metal sculptures fluttering in the wind on the path leading up to Exclusive Collections Gallery.

Although not an artist herself, Thorn has found a passion for the arts through years of working in and owning galleries, and from being sandwiched betwixt two generations of artists. Three years ago, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians tribal member launched “Art of the City,” a docuseries featuring artists throughout the region and beyond.

This November, the gallerist, entrepreneur and TV host will launch a new series, “This is Indian Country,” a travel-style art program with the stories of Indigenous people across the country.

Starting on the West Coast, each episode will feature interviews with creators of art, culinary delicacies, music and tattoos. The show’s initial lineup of guests will include celebrity appearances by Black Eyed Peas rapper Taboo and Red Hot Chili Peppers lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis.

“I would say it’s like an Anthony Bourdain meets Indian country,” Thorn said.

Indigenous entrepreneur Ruth-Ann Thorn stands next to paintings by Joe Hopkins, titled "Billy Jacks" and "Sitting Bull
Indigenous entrepreneur Ruth-Ann Thorn stands next to paintings by indigenous artist, Joe Hopkins, titled “Billy Jacks” and “Sitting Bull.”
(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The goal through the new series is to show the great diversity among the nation’s Indigenous people, while also highlighting the communities they are a part of.

Even with popular network shows like “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” Frank Blanquet said Indigenous people aren’t accurately depicted or represented in mainstream media often enough.

The Maya community member is a producer and director with FNX — First Nations Experience — the channel devoted to Native American and World Indigenous content where viewers can watch both of Thorn’s shows.

“When the majority of the population thinks of Native Americans, they think of either history and historical figures, or casinos,” Blanquet said. “But we’re not historical figures, we are very present in modern society.

“We are artists, doctors, skateboarders, lawyers, filmmakers, and I think that this program will teach people about contemporary Native people.”

That’s an important message for Thorn, who didn’t often see stories of Native people in the media growing up.

Born in San Francisco, her parents were both activists when they met. In the 1960s, her mother was an artist and an advocate for women’s rights, while her father (Henry Rodriguez, a Rincon tribal member) was a part of the American Indian Movement participating in the peaceful occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.

Following her parents’ divorce — and later, the divorce of her mom and stepdad — Thorn eventually ran away from home, becoming unhoused at 14. Struggling to make it on her own, she became a drug runner, transporting cocaine across the border.

“In my teenage years, I really had an identity crisis,” Thorn said. “It was kind of a rough start for me ... and I did that until I had some very bad things happen to me, and then my life started to shift.”

At 17, she said, she was robbed and raped at gunpoint, and that trauma sent her into a deep depression. Although she had never been much of a cocaine user before that, she started using the drug heavily, eventually causing her to overdose twice that year.

“It took me a long time to really share that story, because I really have a lot of shame about it,” Thorn said.

The second overdose caused to her to have a five-day bout of amnesia, which Thorn said was so scary she then decided to turn her life around. She prepared for and passed the GED test, got married, and eventually moved to Hawaii, where she started her career working in a gallery.

Thorn worked there for six years, eventually moving back 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, Colo.

During her years in the art world, Thorn said she too often felt that the stories of artists were ignored until after they died. She initially 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 up to a ninth grade education, Thorn has built several businesses in addition to her galleries and the two TV series.

Her brand N8iV Beauty is a skincare line with products made from acorn oil, a traditional Luiseño food staple. Through Imprint, artists can protect their work from intellectual property theft by uploading their work and registering it through 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 that she has found her passion in the arts, and there’s so much need for business acumen in the Indigenous art world.”

Her family connection to art from both her mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Isabella Thorn, helped her grow that love and appreciation for artists.

“It’s just been such a joy to work with artists — at my core, my passion is for the arts,” Thorn said. “ I feel like everybody has a calling, and mine is that I’m like the keeper of art and culture, specifically for Native arts, but I think for all art.”

The upcoming “This is Indian Country” will premiere Nov. 24 at 5 p.m. with a repeat at 9:30 p.m. In San Diego, both it and “Art of the City” can be watched online at SoCalBTV.