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A dad she never knew

Artist Noelle Garcia digs through her father's past, making discoveries that shape her and her work

April 30, 2011|Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — While Noelle Garcia was pregnant with her son, her mind often drifted to her thorny relationship with her father.

Garcia's memories of him resembled a stack of old photographs: Many were blurry, and the most hurtful ones had been tucked away. Her father, Walt, had died years earlier, and she didn't know much about him outside their fleeting interactions. A Halloween here. A birthday there.

It was 2007 and Garcia, then an aspiring artist, was 22. As a gift to her son, she began drawing him a coloring book, "The Legend of Walt," whose cover depicts a brawny man in a baseball cap and sunglasses. She hoped it would give her little boy an understanding of the man who had shaped her work.

The book launched a journey both artistic and deeply personal in which Garcia dug into her father's past, the subject of some unsettling family stories. In time, her understanding of him would change dramatically. So too would her art.

The book begins: "Walt was truely [sic] a legend." He stands in front of a sign, "DO NOT FEED THE SQUIRRELS," and a fence topped with barbed wire. Other pages show him taming a bronco and posing with Garcia as a diaper-clad toddler, the same fence looming behind them.

In each drawing, Walt has no facial features. There's the hair, the ears, the jaw line. But at the center of the image, there's just shadow.

One page says: "Walt was a family man, even from prison."

Another page: "Some say he killed a man with his bare hands."

Much of Walt's adult life unfolded in prison, though Garcia didn't really know why. Perhaps theft? Or a DUI?

Her family was so sprawling that, over the years, many things said about Walt were embellished enough to resemble a game of telephone. But Garcia never pressed her mother for the truth. "I was worried about upsetting her," she said.

Garcia romanticized her father in a manner common to the children of absent parents. Walt's buckaroo swagger helped. On the rodeo circuit, where he was known as "Choppo" or "Crosby," he rode bulls and broncos.

At home, he was cowboy gruff, saying little and emoting less. But compassion slipped through: Though Garcia's older half sister Sarah Ritch had a different father, Walt treated her as his own -- when he was around.

Walt married at least twice and fathered about 14 children with various women, Garcia's relatives told her. His nickname for her was "Tuffy," possibly because it sounded like "tough," a quality he prized.

She and her three siblings were initially raised on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in northern Nevada. Every few months, they'd visit Walt in the prison yard, returning with the Polaroids Garcia replicated in "The Legend of Walt." The photos show a man with leathery skin, a shock of black hair and a button-down shirt. In one photo, he balances an apple-cheeked Garcia on his knee.

"I was favored by Dad," she recalled. "I got as many Cheetos out of the vending machine as I wanted."

Whenever Walt was released from prison, he and Garcia's mother, Rose, clashed -- sometimes violently -- over his drinking. Her mother moved the family to Las Vegas when Garcia was about 8, telling her Walt had died.

A few years later, Rose reversed course, saying Walt had actually been in prison again and would be released soon. Garcia didn't question her mother's about-face. She was too busy seething over her father's return. "She was angry he hadn't been there," said Garcia's husband, Shane Waters, whom she met in fifth grade.

An ailing Walt lived with the family -- his role more roommate than patriarch -- and then in his own apartment. He cleaned rooms in a run-down motel. He chain-smoked. He showered infrequently. A Native American, he burned sage outside as a blessing.

Yet, in his halting way, he would show affection. One day after father and daughter quarreled, he left Garcia a duffel bag packed with her favorite snacks: Pepsi and SpaghettiOs.

When Walt's health worsened -- cancer had spread throughout his body -- he went to Oregon for medical care. As his final hours neared, his family drove up to say goodbye. Skeletal and barely lucid, Walt tried to smile at his 13-year-old daughter. "But," Garcia recalled, "he didn't have teeth."

Walt died in 1999 at age 63. Brown cowboy boots were placed on his grave.

As Garcia studied art -- at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is pursuing a master's degree -- she often re-created scenes from her youth with vibrant craft paint. Walt's face, like those of her other subjects, was often left blank. No eyes. No mouth. It was done partly to give him an everyman quality. But it was also the result of time-fuzzed memories.

In 2006, the year before she made the coloring book, Garcia based a painting on a photo from a childhood Halloween. She is 3 or 4, and dressed as a clown: face white, lips red, ponytail long and shiny and black. She giggles while sitting on Walt's lap and reaches for a green ball. Though his face is blurry, the image has the warmth of a holiday card.

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