Through her work in multi-media and photography, Tricia Rainwater has opened up a dialogue between past and present which has explored a place of vulnerability and resilience. Contemplating stories from her ancestors and her own life, she becomes, learns, and fully exists. Paraphrasing writer Terese Marie Mailhot, “once you name your transgressions and transgressors, you are able to put down your pain.” Tricia has started walking this trail.
Currently based on Ramaytush Ohlone land (San Francisco), Tricia was raised in the Central Valley until the age of ten and then started going back and forth between New Mexico and Navajo Nation. In San Francisco, she has established her practice not only as an artist but an educator and organizer. Along with Alma Leppla, they are the co-founders of Queer Rain, a bi-annual publication celebrating queer BIPOC femme and gender-expansive artists.
In this conversation Tricia shares part of her journey and some of her most revealing moments, including her first encounters with the photographic camera and her most recent project where she spent two weeks retracing the Trail of Tears in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
I spoke with Tricia for the first time in June 2022 over Zoom and our conversation continued with a series of email exchanges and online talks. I am deeply grateful to Tricia for her patience, openness, and willingness to share the stories that have formed this memory trail.
Claudia Pretelin: Your relationship with the arts is influenced by both of your parents whom you’ve described as very artistic. It was your father who gave you a camera when you were very young. Can you talk about some of your first experiences taking photographs and how this practice has changed now that you are an adult?
Tricia Rainwater: My relationship with my camera as a child was (for a while) one of ease. Photographing was my favorite thing to do and I took it very seriously. I would lower my body to the ground to get shots looking up at trees and would climb up high on fences to get a bird’s eye view. I experimented more as a child and found more joy in the process. This was up until I began photographing my family and started to notice things that I did not want to admit were happening. I began to look at my photographs and noticed the dysfunction in my family. What had been a relationship of ease became me exposing family secrets through my photographs.
There is tension now as I photograph, specifically as I notice the parts of me that I try to hide from the world. They feel very clearly in focus as I create photographs. Though this is the point of my work, it is often painful.
CP: Growing up in a very conservative environment with both sides of your family close to religion and the Evangelical church you decided to study theology and work towards becoming a pastor. This was a decisive and life-changing moment in your life. Can you speak to this trajectory and how it moved you close to your artistic practice?
TR: I always knew I wanted a college education and also felt like I would probably never have one. College was far too expensive for my mother to afford. I suggested taking out loans and my mother was very worried that I would end up in as much debt as she was from her education. I eventually took off to work with native youth in the Dakotas. I spent months in communities on Rosebud and Pine Ridge. I took children to summer camps and spent time with a few different evangelical congregations on the reservation. It was here where I met the man who would recruit me to the college I attended and who would also come to badly harm me. College was a confusing time and the college I attended in many ways felt modeled after Indian boarding schools. We were asked to not wear any traditional jewelry. We were made to sign papers saying we would no longer take part in any type of traditional ceremony. There were so many ways we were made to feel shame about being native. I left college after a series of assaults. It would be many years before I would turn back to art and creation as a way to hold my grief,but when I did, I saw reflections of the girl who simply wanted to belong and feel affirmed.
CP: Throughout your practice, you have explored ways of processing grief and intergenerational systemic trauma. Can you talk about the moment of becoming aware of these ideas and how art has allowed you to address them?
TR: My therapist Niku suggested I begin taking self-portraits around the time I entered a new relationship. There were ways my partner’s silence seemed to exacerbate all the internal fears I had and, in turn, I would have big, fearful reactions. For a long time, I would go into our spare bedroom, set my tripod up, and shoot. Sometimes I would come out with 20-30 shots of me sobbing on the couch and other times I would scream my fear into the camera lens like it was a person listening. My first major self-portrait series was called ‘Transpose’. The project was created in a high school in San Francisco on a weekend. A friend helped me set up a tripod. I borrowed seats from a friend’s van that resembled my father’s Aerostar van that he had transported me in to be abused and I spent a full morning and afternoon posing my body in the positions of my childhood abuse. The idea when it first came to me felt very bold and subversive and I realize now that I was only beginning to touch and dive into the pain of processing what had happened to me.
CP: There is a close relationship between your visual work and storytelling in your writing. You’ve said before that your relationship with writing is a difficult one. Could you explain more about this?
TR: There have been so many wonderful people who encouraged my writing. My mother was one of them but I have always felt self-conscious as someone who has not been trained as a writer and who had a less than ideal education. The education I received as a child really formed in me a belief that I was not good enough. I fight this daily.
CP: In your most recent work, you spent two weeks retracing the Choctaw routes of the Trail of Tears in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Could you speak about some of the challenges and moments of revelation during this trip?
TR: A few months before my trip to the South I dealt with a lot of grief over the reality that I could not take the journey on my own. I considered many people to go with me and none felt right. Eventually, after months of discussion, my partner and I decided that we could take this journey together. I remember sitting in a bar a few weeks before the trip and watching them write a list on a napkin with our needs for the journey along with our individual personal goals. All of them felt reasonably attainable until we started the journey. At night when we would return to the hotel we would be so exhausted we would pass out and there was little time for much journaling, reflection, or connection. I did not realize how much grief and overwhelming sadness would come up for me on the trip. There were many places in the South where it was clear we were not welcome and yet southern charm stayed true. It is clear when you’re welcomed and also unwanted.
Nature held so much for me on the trail and yet I still did not feel at ease there. I constantly felt fearful and was unable to relax or even get a deep sleep after grueling days of shooting and being in my homeland. Native people are still not welcome on our lands. This last part was quite heartbreaking.
CP: As Marianne Hirsch notes in her work on photography, family, and memory, photographs can provide an especially meaningful sense of connection over time and place for people whose lives were “shaped by exile, emigration, and relocation.” You grew up in Central Valley until age ten. After this period, you moved back and forth between New Mexico and Navajo Nation to finally relocate to San Francisco. How do you define homeland? Is there a place you feel most at home?
TR: I am not sure I have found the place that I feel most at home. I am working to make my own body my homeland and yet I am unsure I will ever reach that point. Both of my childhood homes in the Central Valley and New Mexico hold so much pain and heartache but when I return I have some joyful memories and in those, I find moments of peace. San Francisco has changed so much over the decade that I have lived here. My homeland lies in memories of the city of the past. I remember hundreds of queers packed into a long-gone lesbian bar. I remember my mother, out to lunch with me at a cafe that has been turned into tech offices or being picked up from BART on a Friday evening by my mother excited to hear all of the trouble I had gotten up to that week. I guess, in some ways, homelands feel like people and mainly people who have died. I am working to find new homelands or at least to make peace with the ones still here.
CP: You’ve said that you see this recent project as a long-term project. You’d like to continue traveling and learning more about the Trail of Tears and how the displacement of your ancestors has affected you in the present. What would people learn from your work once you complete this project?
TR: I hope the work encourages others to step into the power of doing hard things and revisiting the pain points in their lives. My life has often been washed over by sadness and it has been easy to sink into it. But in the past year, I have worked to put distance between myself and grief. I visit the moments I need to and then I put them away.
CP: Queer Rain is another project of yours. Could you speak about how it contributes to fighting the lack of representation of queer women and artists of color in the Bay Area?
TR: San Francisco and the Bay Area art world tend to only prioritize straight cis white people as artists. Yes, mainly men but also mainly white folks. The odds of being featured go down when you factor in being from any marginalized community including the queer BIPOC community. Though the queer community has a rich history in San Francisco, our voices are not being centered or appreciated. My dear friend Alma Leppla and I have felt this within our art practices and the visible/invisible boundaries we can’t seem to cross. Through Queer Rain, we discovered there are so many queer femme and gender-expansive BIPOC artists who were making profound work and it just isn’t being seen. We hoped that through our publications people would find their work and feature them. Our communities are so deserving.
CP: What other projects are you working on right now?
TR: I am currently working in collaboration with my grandmother Gloria who passed on this year. Through this new work, I am hoping to unpack some of her traumas and the beliefs she died holding. I am hoping for the opportunity for healing for both of us and looking at how the harm she endured informed my family’s trauma and my own beliefs about myself as a native woman.
CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?
TR: Letters and notes. I have boxes of notes and cards written to me over the years. I love to look back and remember a moment. I have notes my parents sent to each other as well and it has explained so much about their relationship. I am glad my mother saved them for me.
CP: Thank you, Tricia!
Tricia Rainwater (she/her) is a mixed Choctaw Indigiqueer multimedia artist based on Ramaytush Ohlone land. Tricia’s work ranges from self portraiture to large sculptural installations. Her work has been featured nationally and internationally through group shows and artist features. In her work, Tricia, focuses on creating pathways to a resilient and hopeful future by centering the process of grieving and healing. She is a recent recipient of the SF Artists Grant through the SF Arts Commission. (she/her) is a mixed Choctaw Indigiqueer multimedia artist based on Ramaytush Ohlone land. Tricia’s work ranges from self portraiture to large sculptural installations. Her work has been featured nationally and internationally through group shows and artist features. In her work, Tricia, focuses on creating pathways to a resilient and hopeful future by centering the process of grieving and healing. She is a recent recipient of the SF Artists Grant through the SF Arts Commission.
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