Choctaw artist is giving back to tribes and community through artwork and volunteering
By Shelia Kirven
September 1, 2023
Award-winning Fresno, California artist Bobby Von Martin paints Native American-inspired art. He has a passion for inspiring youth and adults and does a lot of volunteer work in communities to reach out to others.
Martin donates his time to local youth art classes and to local Native and non-Native activities for fundraisers and local events. His work is known worldwide, and he owns and curates the Honor Your Elders Art Exhibit in Fresno, one of California’s largest Native American art exhibits.
This year’s August event, complete with food, dancing and drumming, was organized, curated and funded by Martin and his wife, Soupie, as it has been for over half a decade.
Elders were honored and celebrated at the event through life-like portraits painted by Bobby Von Martin and his brother, artist James Martin.
“We see families crying, and it touches your heart when you start to talk to them and how they feel about it all and seeing their reactions. it’s a beautiful thing,” said Bobby Von Martin in a news interview.
Over $10,000 of hand-painted art was gifted to elders.
He said of the exhibit that though many tribes are represented, he still honors his tribal roots.
Martin talked to us about how the exhibit began.
“I started this show six years ago with my wife, Soupie Martin, as a way to give back to my community elders. As a child, my grandmother was my only safe place coming from a broken home with many traumas. Also, when I was twelve or thirteen, a local elder went above and beyond to help me learn the local tribe’s traditions, help me with trauma, help me understand why people struggle with addiction, who many of my family members struggled with. It really did give me hope for the future.”
According to Martin, he started working with local Native American youth by teaching art classes and giving them a positive tool through art.
“Because of my own childhood trauma, I’m able to make a connection with some of the youth who might be coming from a similar childhood. I’ve taught youth up and down California and Arizona hoping to give these youth some hope,” said Martin. “Working with them I’ve also seen the many elders who were also working hard to give these youth hope, so I wanted to start this show to honor them. The elders I paint locally are people I see and know out teaching language, tradition, working with our community to get clean from drugs and alcohol, and they need to be honored publicly. I can’t thank them enough for what they do for our youth.”
Martin has painted over 100 paintings and gifted them to elders or their families.
“Because I couldn’t paint enough, I asked my brother [James Martin] to help me paint them starting about three years ago. Every year he paints four or five out of the 20-25 that we s paint. It gives me the ability to honor even more during the show,” Martin.
For Martin, the most important part about the elders’ show is that the families of the elders themselves write their family member’s biography, and it sits next to their paintings where you get to view the art and get to know the elder as well.
In other projects, for every painting Martin sells, he gifts one to the community to keep the circle moving and put out positive energy.
“I hope our youth see what I’m doing, see how I honor our elders, and see a successful, positive person who grew up around drugs and alcohol, and violence,” said Martin.
The artist has received so much attention for his work that he has been contracted by the Save The Children World Organization for the past three years to teach art to youth in rural areas of the Central Valley. He also teaches art classes yearly at the Okla Chahta gathering in Bakersfield.
He says he has also been honored to have his “English Only” painting hang permanently in the “Hall of Nations” at the USDA AG building in Washington, D.C., where the halls are filled with art from Native Americans and used as a backdrop between tribal leaders and the President of the United States.
The artist credits the help of his wife, family and community for his success.