Ruth-Ann Thorn – A Story of Resilience and Passion
Most people who have experienced the trials and tribulations which Ruth-Ann Thorn experienced would have given up, but entrepreneur and philanthropist Ruth-Ann Thorn isn’t most people. Born in San Francisco during the height of the Hippie movement to activist parents, Thorn saw first-hand what it means to fight to achieve greatness. Her mother was only 18 years old when she gave birth to Ruth-Ann. Art and culture surrounded her as a child. Her mother was an artist and was involved in the women’s rights movement, while her father, part of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, was one of the first Native Americans to occupy Alcatraz in an effort to gain equal rights for the Native Americans living on reservations, who at the time weren’t allowed to vote.
After spending some time in Portland, Oregon, Thorn relocated to Southern California so her family could reconnect with the tribe. During that time, her mother and stepfather were going through a divorce which left her life filled with chaos. She found herself living on the street at 14 years of age. The poverty level on the reservation was extremely high and Thorn knew she could not succeed working in the fast food industry, so she decided to become a drug runner. “I got involved with some mid-level dealers and would go to Tijuana, Mexico to pick up bags of cocaine and bring them across the border,” she says candidly. “I actually learned everything I know about business from the drug trade. I learned about supply and demand, quality control, margins, risk evaluation and demographics. I decided to strike out on my own, but security was an issue. One night I was robbed and raped at gunpoint.”
This led to a dark period in Thorn’s life. She began using drugs heavily and suffered two overdoses. “I realized I better get my act together or I will be dead. I prayed to the spirit for help and things started shifting.”
Thorn began cocktail waitressing and went back to school to earn her GED. She then made her way to junior college and moved to Hawaii. It was there that she met gallerist and art publisher Andrew Fisher. He hired Thorn to work in his gallery and from that point forward, Thorn’s life changed. “I fell in love with the art world. I thought to myself, why am I going to school when I already know what I want to do?”
After years of working with Fisher in Hawaii, Thorn moved back to California where she began organizing pop up art shows featuring mostly Asian artists. From 1995-1998, Thorn traveled the country, putting on exhibitions in hotel spaces from Philadelphia to Seattle. She would travel wherever she found a high concentration of collectors.
Thorn opened her first physical gallery in La Jolla with her mom in 1998 and just a short 3 years later, opened a second gallery in San Diego. This was followed by galleries in Las Vegas at the Forum Shops, Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills, and Breckenridge, Colorado. Thorn realized she also needed to diversify her collection of artists, so she began discovering and developing emerging, the first being Henry Asencio, who she met in the back of a frame shop in San Luis Obispo. “He had such an edgy style, so I brought his work into my gallery and I immediately knew he’d be successful. I told him he needed a publisher so he can get his work out to a larger group of people and after a few meetings, he decided to ask me to become his publisher.” Not knowing anything about the art publishing business, Thorn was hesitant at first, but it was the beginning of an incredible partnership which generated millions of dollars in sales of Asencio’s work.
The next artist Thorn brought on was Michael Flohr. “I had his art in the gallery for 6 months, but it wasn’t working. I told him to create more of what is selling. He started to create more bar scenes and street scenes and it started to explode. He became a top seller.” Thorn also represents an emerging artist named Daniel Ryan who creates animal conservation pieces. He paints animals on verge of extinction and raises awareness in a positive way. “It’s a celebration of the lives of these animals and he’s a favorite among younger art collectors.”
Thorn’s favorite aspect of running a gallery is seeing the joy that art brings people. “That is the whole reason I am involved in art. People underestimate the power of art. You do not know you miss it unless you’ve been exposed to it. A lot of people don’t get the exposure, but once they do it’s like adding another layer to their existence.”
The concept for Art in the City is something Thorn has been pondering for a while. Her goal is to bring an art show to people who are not art people. “I want to create something for someone who doesn’t know if they like art. Whenever I see other shows on artists, it’s more about what they create and how they create it. I want to show the artist as a human being. How they arrived in a city, the layers of life experience, the special thing they have that allows them to create and how their environment allows them to create.”
Thorn aims to profile and document artists who have lived in a city for 20 years and artists who have impacted the world with their art. “You see the art but it’s not really an art show, it’s a people show.” One of her favorite episodes so far featured New Orleans artist Willie Birch, who Thorn describes as an ‘encyclopedia of life’. Birch has had one-man shows at the Guggenheim and his work sits in the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art.
When she isn’t running her art empire, Thorn is busy volunteering with The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women initiative and the Monarch School, an organization devoted to promoting the arts in economically challenged neighborhoods throughout the city.