John Ratto was very thoughtful and deliberate when working, and there was something bug-like in his mannerisms, they way he would hold his quivering hands up to chest before starting like a preying mantis ready to pounce on an unsuspecting spider. He drew with a shaky hand, constantly and automatically, usually with red crayon or pencil on anything he could find. He would sometimes steady his hand with the other, moving in jerky surges across the paper as if guided by an Ouija Board spirit. The figures he made – the men – all in a row overlapping, morphing out sometimes to unrecognizability. Towering figures with square shoulders and straight legs joined together like robot paper dolls; the hands were balls, the head an expressionless bump, all standing at attention, ready to serve. It was an infinitum line of intimidating red crayon figures, and we often wondered who or what he had seen to sear this image into his memory with so much compelling urgency that he would recreate it daily for over 45 years. He would have to create it; red crayons, pencils, paint were always the first supplies to run out in the art room, sometimes he would find the tiniest stump of a red pencil, and gingerly grasping it in his trembling hand, would draw his men until he was merely imprinting the paper with the invisible marks made by the broken wooden fragment. He sometimes drew in reverse creating mirror images, or upside down images. Often he would layer the images or overlap them, and sometimes he would draw on other people’s artwork resulting in brilliant random collaborations. A few times he would switch to blue pastels, maybe just to keep us guessing. Sometimes he would work with staff direction, drawing from pictures and using other colors. Some of these rare drawings are included in his online portfolio. Sadly, many of his earlier drawings were thrown away by new/non-arts staff at the Center.
He enjoyed stealing your coke can, maybe because of its red color, and would drink as many as he could get. He sold his work quite regularly and was included in many prestigious exhibitions. The money he got meant nothing to him unless you could convert it to coke cans or red crayons.
He got sick suddenly and when we saw him in the care facility he was on oxygen. He was gone a few hours later. We had a ceremony for him at the Sacramento Memorial Lawn Cemetery in a small room in the back. No one came but us, no family, all gone or forgotten. He was buried in the potter’s field behind the main building, most likely with a stub of a red crayon in his pocket.