WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES courtesy Sister Golden

Mar 1, 2024 | Featured, People

It’s raining buckets in San Diego, and artist Vicki Rawlings, who’s better known as V, is certain more is to come. The week before, there was flooding in the area so severe it made national news, and now meteorologists are warning residents about round two. She laughs and says, “They say it doesn’t rain in California.” She’s referencing the 1972 pop hit by Albert Hammond, “It Never Rains in Southern California.” The song is about plans diverted, dreams displaced, and downpours as destructive as Noah faced in the Old Testament.

The tune could be the soundtrack of V’s life. In 2011, when she was fifty years old, she was living in Evanston, Illinois. Her life was as sunny as a typical Southern California day. Happily married, a wonderful son and daughter, an active life; she had all the things that make living beautiful. A lifelong artist, V spent a lot of time in her studio, creating works of art using oil paints and canvases. She particularly liked to paint portraits. She was ridiculously healthy and mindful of how to stay that way. Along with her art, V had been a personal trainer for sixteen years. But as my grandma was fond of saying, it was fixin’ to come up a bad cloud.

The metaphorical rain started with a bacterial infection that caused V to go to the doctor’s office, a rare occurrence for her. When her doctor prescribed a fluoroquinolone antibiotic, she took it. (There is now a warning on the FDA site, issued in 2016, concerning use of these antibiotics in less serious bacterial infections.)

After ten days, she was a different version of herself. “It sounds dramatic, but it was as if I’d been struck by lightning,” V says. “I was in and out of Emergency three times in a week. Finally, the last time they said, ‘You’re staying in the hospital.’”

Her central nervous system was affected. “My nerves were a crazy mess. It was like someone put my body into an electrical socket… I had four different kinds of neuropathy that the neurologist found… My body was buzzing from head to toe, and my muscles weren’t working right… I was at home. I was afraid to move.” V’s art studio collected dust. Her running shoes grew rigid from disuse. Movement could bring on another cycle of pain, so V stayed still.

Her reaction was rare and devastating. V says there wasn’t much doctors could do, so she spent the next two years trying to fix herself using natural methods. “The nerve thing would be so bad that my eyes were fuzzy.”

Her grown daughter, Brooke, was living in another state by then and wasn’t there to witness V’s daily struggle. To Brooke, V was the mother who had been able to accomplish anything. The woman with energy left over at the end of the day. So, when she asked V to start an online store with her called Sister Golden, what could V say? “I swear, the universe always shows up for you. It gives you what you need. You can’t ignore it. And I’m one of these people who says yes first and figures out how to do it later.”

At that point, it was too painful for V to even hold a paintbrush. And Brooke wanted her mom’s artwork to be the backbone of Sister Golden. “I had a vase of flowers on the island in the kitchen, and I looked at it and decided I was going to play around with it. I sat down on the living room floor and was playing with the foliage, making faces. I was having so much fun, forgetting about everything. I had snapped a couple of pictures with my phone and sent them to Brooke.” Brooke saw the value in this new form of art and encouraged V to continue.

That meant she had to gather more foliage. “It got me outdoors. It got me away from thinking about where I was physically.” Little by little, she wandered farther and farther from her home, the lure of the perfect leaf or flower too much to resist.

Sometimes, she’d have an idea for an art piece before she left her front door. Other times, she’d be inspired by what she found.

Once her materials were gathered, she’d come inside and start “painting” with nature, using tweezers and scissors instead of a brush and palette. Twigs would become chins. Flower petals would become lips. Leaves could be hair, but so could the small branch of a tree or a swell of flowers.

Now, she works in her studio, on boards that are about twenty by twenty-four inches. She buys flowers from local places when she needs to, and she still forages. Nothing is tied down or glued. Everything sits gingerly until the photo is taken, and then the materials are either used in another piece (the longer-lasting ones) or sent back to God’s green earth.

Lips are particularly hard to create, but V has found that bougainvillea works the best and shrivels the least. Sometimes, foliage begins to wither before a piece is completed. For context, Forest Bathing took V an hour and a half to assemble. When that happens, she either gives up or starts over.

It’s been almost ten years since Brooke and V opened Sister Golden. There’s an online store and a brick-and-mortar store in Door County, Wisconsin, where V and her husband have a second home.

V has made forty-nine portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who was so unwell she was bed-bound at one point and painted while lying flat. “I have to make a fiftieth,” V says. No need to end on an uneven number. “There was a time when I was doing my art and in a lot of pain, and I’d think of her.”

RBG has her own portrait, as does Elton John, but it took a while. V was waiting for the right materials. One day, she stumbled across some banana leaves she’d been drying for months that she’d forgotten about. When she found them, they had turned from plant to an almost material substance. They were the perfect brown for Elton John’s hat. V’s voice is full of smiles. “It was like magic happened.”

The piece called Forest Bathing is on a dark background, with trees made of maidenhair fern. In that piece, the materials drove the artwork. V knew the tiny fronds would make perfect trees, and she set out to prove it. For V’s series of girls, it’s all about the hair. Recently, she came across the yellow, curly pods of a nearby tree and said, “That’s the best hair ever!” She even yanked a locust branch from beneath her bumper, which she’d found after leaving a Starbucks. The curvy wood cried out to be the crowning glory on one of V’s portraits.

Hollywood stars follow Sister Golden on social media. V’s prints have been sold around the world. It means a lot, but not more than the prints that hang in places like Boston Children’s Hospital.

It’s all so lovely; it’s all so temporary. The beauty of impermanent things. V, who practices meditation, finds acceptance in that. She brings Mother Nature into her studio. She fashions her into a different kind of beauty. Then, V lets it go. The here-and-now is all we have. Who knows what tomorrow brings? No one understands better than V, who still deals with the effects of fluoroquinolone toxicity that happened thirteen years ago.

It never rains in southern California, the song says. But here’s the twist: sometimes it pours. The floodwaters could sweep you away. Or you could build an ark. V’s ark is made of twigs and flowers, seedpods, and ferns. And it’s still carrying her today.

To see V’s work, visit She’s also written a book about her work that’s available on the site.

Do South Magazine

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