Mission residents hardly need a gallery to experience the work of Juana Alicia, a galvanizing force in the neighborhood’s internationally recognized mural movement since the 1980s. Her works adorn walls and buildings around the world, but she’s an unavoidable presence here, including “Alto al Fuego (Ceasefire),” once at 21st and Mission streets, “Maestrapeace” on the Women’s Building, and “La Llorona’s Sacred Waters” at York and 24th streets.
Now, a solo exhibition in the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery offers a different view of the artist, providing an opportunity to get up close and personal with her creative process while introducing a new body of work reinterpreting the Yucatec Mayan myth of La X’tabay.
Curated by Marco Antonio Flores, “Me Llaman Calle: The Monumental Art of Juana Alicia” runs through Sept. 23 and features sketches for several iconic murals, pages from Alicia’s sketchbooks, and illustrations from a forthcoming graphic novel with her husband, writer and artist Tirso González Araiza. Presented as a hand-printed artist’s book in codex form, the project reclaims La X’tabay, a Yucatec femme fatale who “seduces and murders her victims when she meets philanders in the jungle at night,” Juana Alicia said. “Tirso has rewritten the traditional story with a feminist twist.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, the SFAC is presenting “Dreaming in Color,” a two-day symposium delving into Alicia’s life, work and pervasive influence. Co-presented Friday by The University of California, Berkeley’s, Latinx Research Center, the first day includes Alicia’s keynote lecture, followed by a conversation moderated by professor Laura Pérez, director of the center. While the event is sold out, it will be available via livestream.
Taking place Saturday afternoon at Brava Theater Center, Saturday’s program expands the focus, with two panels featuring muralists influenced by Alicia, including Cece Carpio, Maria Castro, Meera Desai, Irene Pérez, Laura E. Pérez, and Marina Pérez-Wong. If she’s been a generous mentor for younger artists, Alicia is quick to credit the people who shaped her during her formative years.
Growing up in Detroit, blocks from the Detroit Institute of Art, she absorbed the work of Diego Rivera, turning the institute into her private academy. Cutting high school classes, she “spent a lot of time there, studying how to use color in a graphic sense, creating a strong impact from a distance,” she said. “I was also very much influenced by more contemporary work, pop art, Disney and Peter Max, hallucinogenic Fillmore Auditorium posters and the imagery and icons that my generation grew up with.”
Years later, studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, she came under the wing of Rivera’s former assistants Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Demitroff, distinguished muralists in their own right. “They trained me and many of my contemporaries,” she said, noting that she dedicated the San Francisco International Airport-commissioned fresco “Santuario/Sanctuary” to them.
“Each one, teach one has been a seminal philosophy for me,” she said. “I’ve spent 40 years teaching,” including launching a mural program at Berkeley City College that the school shut down when she retired.
Priced out of San Francisco in the mid-‘90s, the Araizas have long lived in West Berkeley. But she’s still an inextricable part of the Mission landscape. “The Monumental Art of Juana Alicia” happens to mark the 40th anniversary of her first work in San Francisco, “Las Lechugeras” (which was destroyed and replaced with “La Llorona’s Sacred Waters).” She doesn’t necessarily mind having a little physical distance from ground zero in the Mission, as living with her work in public could be complicated.
“People can see all your mistakes,” she said. “You’re putting something out there permanent and physical. You have a lot of social responsibility putting work on the streets, making sure it’s something that satisfies your own standards and also responding to critiques of your colleagues and neighbors. Not that you have to follow everything others recommend, but while you’re painting you have to be responsive.”
As the SFAC exhibition makes clear, she continues to create bold new work. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m stuck in the ‘80s,” she said. “I’m still producing.”
Beth Custer at the Red Poppy Art House
If Juana Alicia embodies the Mission’s cultural ferment in the 1980s, San Francisco clarinetist/composer Beth Custer could stand in for neighborhood’s musical golden age in the ‘90s. From composing silent films scores for Club Foot Orchestra and creating musical settings for Joe Goode Performance Group to leading half a dozen bands, like Trance Mission and Eighty Mile Beach, she was at the center of the action, playing Bruno’s and Radio Valencia.
While Custer has kept a relatively low profile in recent years, she’s got a spate of upcoming gigs with Brooklyn guitarist Will Bernard, a Berkeley native who was a regular Custer compadre for some three decades. With performances Friday at Berkeley’s Hillside Club, Saturday at the Red Poppy Art House, and Sunday afternoon at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Community Center, they’re celebrating last week’s release of “Sky,” a sublime duo album focusing on original tunes that gently unfurl like conversations between old friends who need only a few phrases to evoke shared memories of bliss, whimsy and melancholy.
Their collaboration was born in the Mission, “and when I look back at those times, I feel like I’ve had the great life,” Custer said. “Club Foot was blossoming. I had sung with Club Foot and I recorded my first song with Eighty Mile Beach. In some ways that era was so fruitful, and living in the city was affordable.”
Check out our calendar for other events around the Mission.