Fleeing war in El Salvador, a young Servio Gómez began life in the United States working at a Cadillac dealership in Southern California.
He didn’t like it, and a friend suggested trying a job at a framing shop in Encino. The work suited Gómez so much better that, only six years later, in 1985, he opened his own framing shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco, calling it Back to the Picture.
The following year, Back to the Picture became a gallery as well. It was fortuitous timing. The Mission District was alive with artists who were young, productive and organized, spearheading the opening of arts centers like Galería de la Raza, which opened on 14th Street in 1970 and later moved to 24th Street; the Mission Cultural Center in 1977; and the Mexican Museum in 1975. Art abounded.
It has been 25 years since the gallery first opened, and hundreds of artists have shown their work there. On Saturday night the framing shop and gallery will celebrate its Mission history by opening a month-long anniversary show featuring 33 local artists. Each will exhibit two pieces.
“They were more political than the artists today, but the movement is still there,” said Gómez, referring to many of the artists who worked during a time when the 24th Street BART plaza was known as Plaza Sandino because of the many demonstrations in favor of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution and against the U.S.- backed government of El Salvador.
Some of the well-known artists who will return to the gallery on Saturday include Michael Ríos — who does much of the art for the band Santana and is responsible for the mural at the 24th street BART station showing BART carried on the shoulders of the workers — Calixto Robles, Ester Hernández, Carmen Loza Garza, Yolanda López and Patricia Rodríguez. There are also artists who arrived in the 1990s, including Sirron Norris.
The gallery has always shown a lot of printmakers’ work, and the anniversary show will include both old- and new-guard prints, such as the political work of Juan Fuentes, who directed Mission Gráfica from 1999 to 2007, and the more whimsical prints of Hillary Williams.
On July 9, the gallery will host a panel discussion on how Mission District art has evolved over the decades.
“It was a lot more underground in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Randy Figures, Back to the Picture’s manager.
Art outside the gallery has evolved as well, as murals became widely accepted and continue to thrive. In the ’80s “people were a lot more sheepish about what they wanted to see in public,” Figures said.
For his part, Gómez said, “it wasn’t easy” to remain open through all of the changes in the neighborhood, including the onset of the AIDS pandemic and the more difficult days of Valencia.
The gallery will dedicate the show to José Ramón Lerma, an abstract landscape painter from the Salinas Valley and one of the first Chicano artists to attend a formal art school. A member of the Beat Generation, Lerma was a “great influence and mentor for us,” Figures said.
Gómez and his family recently participated in the opening of a second gallery — more of a community project — in the Bayview, Art 94124.
The family also owns two San Francisco cafés, both called Javalencia, on Valencia Street in the Mission and on Third Street in Bayview.
“I got into the coffee shop business by mistake,” Gómez said.
In 2000, the landlord of the coffee shop next to Back to the Picture was looking to sell, and Gómez thought he might buy it and expand the gallery. Then his wife, Martha, who was working at the Four Seasons Hotel, was laid off, and decided to open Javalencia in the newly-acquired space. She opened the Bayview location in 2008.
Gómez also opened other framing shops, including two in Oakland that he sold after his two daughters were born. “I want to spend time with my kids; it’s not the money, it’s the quality of life,” he said.
That’s also been Gómez’s philosophy regarding the artists who show at Back to the Picture. Galleries usually take 40-50 percent of the price of an artwork as commission. Gómez said he takes 25-30 percent.
“I don’t feel right to take 50 percent of the commission. The artists are starving. They have to pay the studio. It’s hard for them to survive.”
“When you look at the art in the Mission through the community, buy art to support art,” Gómez said.
Ahora en La Misión
Back to the Picture Celebrates 25 Years of Art
934 Valencia Street, San Francisco 94110
Exhibition: June 19-July 17
Opening reception: Saturday, June 19, 7-9 p.m.
Artist panel discussion: The Mission: An Art Scene in Transition
Friday, July 9, 7-9 p.m.