WILLOW CREEK — One can hear Paula Mattocks’ pain in the pops, cracks and snaps that emanate from her shoulder. It can also be heard in the Hoopa-based artist’s voice, which she tends to lose when the pain is at its worst.
It’s a pain that can also be seen in the braces that secure her right arm and wrist, almost concealing an eight-inch scar that nearly runs the length of her forearm. It’s also in her teeth, which are starting to crack from the constant clenching of her jaw.
It’s also in her paintings. It’s embedded in the landscapes, which burst with colors and textures. It’s not a pain that manifests itself in dark and dreary abstracts or images of widespread suffering; rather, the pain is the painting. Without it there would be no image, no paint and no artist.
Mattocks’ art career took root as her nursing job in a Nevada assisted living center came to an end. It was 6:45 p.m. July 2, 2000 — a date and time that Mattocks said she will never forget.
”My life was changed that day, but I didn’t know the extent of it for two years,” she said.
Moments after starting her shift in the center’s high-risk unit, Mattocks was assisting other nurses with cleaning and changing a combative
patient who had soiled himself when something went terribly wrong. The man resisted, grabbing Mattocks’ right hand and bending it back until the back of her hand was flush with her wrist, ripping all the wrist’s tendons and causing substantial nerve damage in the process.
Three surgeries, countless hours of physical therapy and years later, the pain remained, but in a more debilitating form. Mattocks was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSDS), a chronic pain syndrome that affects more than 200,000 people in the United States, according to the RSDS Association.
The pain was constant and kept her from sleeping, working or even holding her children. The only escape came in the form of cortisone, injected with an eight-inch needle into her neck, next to her trachea. And even that, which Mattocks referred to as her oil change, only happened twice a year and relieved the pain for just a couple days.
”For those two days, it’s absolute heaven,” Mattocks said. “There’s no pain.”
Today, Mattocks anticipates a reconstructive shoulder surgery in her future, and until then, more pain.
But, even out of the pain, something in Mattocks blossomed.
After moving back to Hoopa in 2004 with her husband, Drew, to be closer to her great aunt, Ruby Jarnaghan, and her parents, Gemma and Bob Carmony, Mattocks’ mother-in-law gave her a set of paints and a how-to book by painter Bob Ross of PBS fame.
She didn’t think much of the paints at the time, but one pain-filled night a couple of months ago, she picked up the book, grabbed her paints and the one brush she owned, and stood in her pantry, painting lefthanded, for 13 hours until she had finished her first piece.
”I did it all in one night because the pain is so outrageous that I just painted until it was done,” Mattocks said.
That was Nov. 3. Two weeks later, she had completed a dozen landscapes with color contrasts, shadow work and textures uncanny for a novice.
”People say oils are hard, but I can’t see how they are,” Mattocks said last week. “I don’t even know how I blend the paints to be honest with you. … This was literally a gift from God, and I’m not a religious person.”
She left the paintings stacked around her home until they were noticed by a friend, who insisted that Mattocks look into showing them. Mattocks then took a digital camera, loaded with pictures of her work, over to The Lost Arrow Trading Company in nearby Willow Creek, which was quickly making a name for itself by showing the work of local artists.
”When she came in,” said Dana Davis, who along with his wife, Connie, owns the Lost Arrow Trading Company, “she was so nervous she could hardly stand still, and when I said, ‘Your paintings are great. We’d love to show them,’ you could just see the tears welling up in her eyes.”
”I just started crying,” Mattocks recalled. “It was a moment we didn’t have control over.”
Since then, the pain has remained, but something else has emerged.
”From that day on, she’s like a totally different person. She has hope now,” said Connie Davis.
Inspired by how well her paintings were received, Mattocks then decided to follow through on one of her other ideas. Having long noticed that fry bread and Indian tacos were hugely popular at local fairs and festivals, she decided that a fry bread mix could have big sales opportunities.
She formed a mix that, combined with only water, would allow the average person to make fry bread in their homes. She jarred it, labeled it and took it down to The Lost Arrow Trading Company, where, known as Rez Fry Bread, it has been flying off the shelves ever since.
”As soon as we put it in the store it started selling,” said Connie Davis.
While the fry bread is the business opportunity that Mattocks hopes will eventually provide a better life for her three children and even provide the funds to sponsor a Hoopa Head Start program, it’s the painting that has captivated her.
”All I know is I want to go see art everywhere now,” she said. “I never looked at it before. I would notice the paint and the colors, but now I want to see the grains and textures. … It’s almost like a drug addict’s fix, I need to paint.”
Still, Mattocks said she hasn’t picked up a paintbrush in weeks because she ran out of oil paints and has had trouble lifting her left arm. But, she insists she’s ready for whatever is in store for her.
”Fate — it’s the driver of the car, we’re just passengers,” she said.
Mattocks then talked about being a good role model for her children, and both instilling in them a sense that they can do whatever they want and giving them the motivation to do it.
”Now, my kids know they can do anything,” Mattocks said, “one handed or two.”
Mattocks’ currently has one painting on display at Arcata Bay Arts, 791 Eighth St. in Arcata, and an assortment on display at the Lost Arrow Trading Company, 39047-A Highway 299 in Willow Creek. For more information on Rez Fry Bread mix, call 407-9645 or write to P.O. Box 567,Hoopa, CA 95546-0567.