After a years-long battle with leukemia, artist Martha A. Rodriguez died on Tuesday, July 5 at 62 years of age. Her vibrant paintings often reflected her struggle with cancer and her desire to continue fighting it.
Rodriguez painted and sculpted at her “Estudio Martita,” a workspace inside 1890 Bryant Street studios. Her work examined life, death, and womanhood, often depicting robust, larger women as an expression of powerful femininity.
(Martha Rodriguez was featured in this 2014 Mission Local video about open studios)
Throughout her second bout with the cancer, Rodriguez continued to send messages of gratitude and wrote to friends about her desire to live in the present and enjoy the time she had left. She continued to create art even during a stay in a Seattle hospital, including a work entitled “Determination.”
Bird Levy, a curator, remembered Rodriguez as a gracious professional, who never quibbled over sales but was always ready to contribute pieces to the annual Pasión de Frida exhibition at Puerto Alegre on Valencia Street.
“She just wasn’t ready to leave them and I just can’t say enough about her fierce fierce fight that she put up,” Levy said. “She will always be an inspiration to me every day.”
Maria Sanchez, who runs the gallery Sanchez Contemporary in Oakland, had known Rodriguez for some 12 years. Two of Rodriguez’ works are currently on display at the gallery, and Sanchez has set up a small memorial space for people to share memories and grieve.
“She was a warrior, she was so brave. If there’s anything she taught me it’s to be brave no matter what circumstances you face in life, and to have compassion not just for other people but for yourself,” Sanchez said.
But throughout her battle, Rodriguez remained bright and open.
“I can’t tell you how inspiring and strong she was,” Levy said. “[She] always showed up with her red lipstick and her smile on her face even though I knew she had just had a chemo treatment or some other invasive awful thing.”
Doreen Villanuevas, Rodriguez’ college roommate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, saw her as an inspiration.
“She made a difference in my life just to work harder in what I did, and to not to feel sorry for myself,” Villanuevas said. “I had lost my job. After looking at what she was going through I had no reason to complain.”
Rodriguez was from San Jose but a resident of San Francisco for many years. She attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and later University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a degree in Social Welfare. After earning her degree, Rodriguez went on to work in public health to research the causes and effects of HIV.
Villanuevas remembered her insistence on being well dressed and her dedication to social and cultural work.
“The way I always remember Martha is we always had to dress up, even though we were in college, and she would kind of get on my case about being a little sloppy,” Villanuevas said. “I always remember her being that way with us, always in a good mood good spirit, never upset about really a lot of anything. When I ran into her again [later] she was the same, she hadn’t lost it, she was genuine.”
Later in her life, classic red lipstick was one of Rodriguez’ hallmarks – Diana Gaspar-Pena remembered a conversation with the painter and sculptor about that particular bit of flair.
“It’s passion, you know?” Gaspar-Pena said. “We talked about it one time and she said… She didn’t want to be a shrinking violet. It’s like, you know, here I am. Red.”
Gaspar-Pena also saw Rodriguez’ earliest expressions of her social consciousness, attending high school walk-outs and rallies for farm workers with her.
“She still was very gregarious, she always just had a really good attitude,” Gaspar-Pena said.
Rodriguez’s postings on Facebook demonstrated this attitude. On June 13, she wrote: “World events continue to happen, the good, bad and very ugly. I continue to sit in my hospital room effected by fevers that come and go and come back again. I have no control. My personal tolerance for this latest treatment has been tested. Doctor says the worst of the car t Cell side effects may be yet to come. While world events continue, the Syrian war, the IRA KILLING of AMERICAN adults and children, I’m housed in a bubble. This is what I’ve been given: to be an advocate for my disease, Leukemia. Perhaps if I can get through this I can find those issues close to my heart.”
Rodriguez’s posts could be just as exuberant about the everyday wonders of life. A few weeks earlier, she posted photographs of Seattle views and exclaimed; “This is what I woke up to this morning- SUNSHINE in Seattle. It’s kind of breathtaking!”
Villanuevas also remembered Rodriguez’ early efforts to be civically engaged. She and another classmate by the same name ran for student council as “the Marthas.” Naturally, they won.
“We were always, as Chicanas, trying to do something to better the community,” Villanuevas said. And throughout her illness, Rodriquez reminded friends to visit an exhibition or to support a fellow artist’s show.
Rodriguez kept in touch with friends and family with frequent updates about her condition and her state of mind. She and her friends, many of them also Latina women artists, kept each other going.
“We would keep in touch with each other and just keep each other motivated,” Gaspar-Pena said. “It’s tough to be an artist.”
In late May, Rodriguez wrote an email update for her friends.
“Your wishes of love, light, health, prayers are so welcomed. I have been surrounded by your love,” she wrote. “You have all given me strength, a meaning for a my life and a powerful desire to stay with the living – for as long as I can.”