A powerful voice for Native American women and youth was lost with the passing of Warm Springs artist Susana Santos, Nov. 17, but her positive influence will live on through her artwork and the people she inspired.
Known by her artistic name "Apolonia," the multi-media artist and social activist died Nov. 17, of ovarian cancer, at the age of 52.
Santos, who was of Tygh, Yakama and Filipino ancestry, grew up and attended school in Warm Springs and did traditional fishing at Sherar's Falls with her mother Lena Teewee Santos.
She began painting at age 15, inspired by her older artist brother Carlos Santos. After graduation from high school, she attended Colegio Cesar Chavez for four years, which sparked her social activism, then attended the San Francisco Art Institute, and earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland.
Creating contemporary Native American art pieces, Santos was best known for her large, bold serigraphs (Japanese-style printmaking) of swimming salmon, Indian dancers, huckleberry picking, and Indian fishing scenes; but she also did painting, photography, fabric arts, jewelry, and wrote poetry.
When she first returned to Warm Springs, she had to fish and pick huckleberries to earn enough money to buy art supplies. But with the backing of an anonymous patron she was able to resume her very tedious and expensive serigraph work. Her talent was quickly recognized and her artwork appeared at shows nationally and internationally.
When Art Adventure Gallery opened in Madras in July 1986, Santos was the first featured artist, which helped give the gallery the boost it needed to get started.
Santos was active in getting tribal women and youth involved in the arts as a pathway to self-expression, independence and economic self-sufficiency. She organized environmental summits and cultural events, and was a Greenpeace fellow on national fisheries legislation.
In 2002, she was hired as the consultant and curator of the Kah-Nee-Ta Art Gallery at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort.
Resort General Manager Garland Brunoe said, besides taking care of the gallery, Santos was diligently working on three initiatives to expand art opportunities in Warm Springs.
These included the creation of an artists' village complex, library and healing arts program; an educational collaboration with the Oregon College of Art and Craft; and an art marketing study to sell tribal art nationally and internationally.
"Her heart was in opening avenues where (tribal) artists could display their art and do business in art. She was really moving in that direction for the tribes," Brunoe said.
"Part of her dream was an artists' village that would educate young tribal members and be a place of healing for youth," he added.
"I will miss her. She was always very professional, had an upbeat attitude, was very flexible and didn't let things discourage her," Brunoe said.
The Museum at Warm Springs also recognized those qualities and in 2004 presented Santos with the first annual Spirit of the Arts Award for promoting native art, and for her positive influence on youth by helping them attend youth art camps.
Museum development officer Dora (Goudy) Smith said Santos exhibited often at the museum's gallery, always donated to its fund-raisers and was a great supporter of the museum.
"She was a dynamic individual and a wonderful person, who had a great heart and spirit," Smith said.
Just recently, according to Smith, Santos had an exhibit scheduled to hang at the United Nations Building in New York.
"What an honor for her work to be selected from artists around the world to hang there," she noted.
Santos helped establish an annual youth art camp, at the Portland campus, in conjunction with the Oregon College of Art and Craft, and 2007 will mark the camp's fourth year.
"She was the driving force behind the camp as a way to introduce youth to art. And she would bring in Native American artists to work with students," Smith said.
"She always had the vision of getting youth focused on healthy, positive venues, rather than drugs and alcohol. And that was one of her dreams that she fulfilled," Smith said.