“I didn’t grow up with art on the walls or art around me,” said artist Anna Lisa Escobedo now in her 10th year working to restore San Francisco’s reputation as a cultural beacon and destination for creative people from around the world.
Escobedo connects artists within and across cultural lines — an art in itself — with élan and a wisdom beyond her years. A painter preparing for her first one-woman show, she’s finishing her MBA and works as an executive assistant at the California Historical Society, which through exhibits and programming uses the state’s past to inform its present. She’s also a volunteer council member and leader of the committee devoted to preserving the art assets of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, a community besieged by gentrification issues.
“You don’t realize what you don’t have, if you’ve never had it, and you don’t realize what you’ve lost until it’s gone,” said Escobedo who grew up in the ‘90s and ‘00s in Compton, California.
It was a time and place when music, movies and news media depicted South Central Los Angeles as a gangland and the most visible art to emerge from there was hip hop.
“The only art I saw there was graffiti,” she said.
Her own first glimpse that art could be a career choice was in 2008, after she arrived as a student at San Francisco State.
“My first apartment was in the Outer Sunset,” she remembered. “My neighbor was Guatemalan, supporting three kids and a wife: He painted all day and sold his paintings at the Wharf.”
Her first taste of life among locals and younger working artists happened when a friend drove her around the Mission.
“She took me to Bissap Baobab and to Roosevelt’s Tamale Parlor, back when Diana Gameros was still singing there” said Escobedo of the Senegalese nightspot and one of San Francisco’s oldest Mexican restaurants featuring local art and entertainment. She immediately moved to Bernal Heights and began volunteering, at Red Poppy Art House and Precita Eyes Muralists, where she was encouraged by Mission artist Cindy De Losa.
“My first project was at the Women’s Building,” said Escobedo. “Cindy embraced me, even though I was afraid of heights.” She started to paint, met local muralists Juana Alicia and Edythe Boone, and learned mural history.
Now working on canvas in gouache, acrylic and watercolor, Escobedo’s inspiration is drawn from indigenous America and contemporary styles; vibrant colors and mythological images meet bright and dark themes to tell sometimes difficult stories rooted in heritage and hope that neither colonization nor the recent roll back in rights can erase.
Escobedo’s parents were immigrants: Her mother arrived to Los Angeles from El Salvador before the war and her father from Mexico. A highly educated man and artist, he passed away when she and her brother were children and before her sister was born, though all of them received his artist’s gift.
“My mother said I could take art classes if I learned to swim,” she said, but she never took the lessons and didn’t receive art instruction until she was a high school senior. Despite her widowed mother’s hardships, she insisted Escobedo choose among the five Northern California schools to which she was admitted.
“I didn’t want to leave L.A.,” she said, not knowing then that her practical and formal education in all things San Franciscan, cultural, and specifically Latinx, would one day find her at the center of The City’s celebrated arts and cultural history.
Introduced to Encantada Gallery’s Mia Gonzalez by poet and professor Alejandro Murgía, Escobedo worked at the Valencia Street gallery, as well as at Jonathan Siegel’s retail and performance venue, Viracocha (both have since closed).
“Jonathan and Mia taught me about working with space and in community,” said Escobedo of her mentors. As youth liaison to Calle 24, she organized neighborhood artists, nonprofits and businesses to work collaboratively which is how I came to know her, though she kept her painting a secret.
“I didn’t grow up with a tight community, I didn’t have access to a lot of these things,” she said speaking of the museums, bookstores, restaurants and cultural events she appreciates to the degree she spends even her downtime working for them: She’s campaigned for Yes on Prop E, which proposes directing money in the Hotel Tax Fund toward the arts, without raising taxes.
Tireless, and with an astonishing sensibility of local history and hotspots, whether where to get the best coffee and breakfast, or the location of a displaced botanica, Escobedo appears to know as much if not more about The City than the average born and raised San Franciscan.
“LA is less centralized,” said Escobedo of how an Angeleno manages to capture the discreet nuances of our City. “It’s like an island here: If something’s happening in North Beach, you’ll probably hear about it in the Mission,” Not necessarily, though Escobedo has made her way here and lucky for all of us, she intends to stay.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.