Mission high photography teacher makes art painting bodies

A crowd at a gallery and a woman in a red dress talking to them.

As a student, Andrea Nicolette Gonzales learned the importance of empathy–of getting under someone’s skin. And that, in a fashion, is what she’s done in a compelling exhibit, Currency, that opened Sunday at the Mission Cultural Center for Latin American Arts. 

The show, which runs through August 26, features 32 portraits of Latinx educators in San Francisco whom Gonzales, a Mission High School photography teacher, has, literally, painted with an element of their life stories.

The project involved two stages: first Gonzales, who does body painting as well as photography, spent an hour or more with each teacher to hear about their lives. In a second session, she painted an element that reflected the teacher’s experience. 

On Sunday, Alejandro Ledesma, a dance teacher at the exhibit on Sunday, stood with friends in front of his portrait, one in which his torso, painted in black and white stripes, arches back in an elegant pose. “I love it,” he said of the portrait, which was inspired by his talking to Gonzales about Michael and Janet Jackson’s music video Scream, which is set in a spaceship. 

Another teacher, Rosalia Lopez surprised Gonzales when she told her she was taking a sabbatical during the pandemic. The teacher’s father was dying of cancer and she wanted to be there for him. In her interview with Lopez, Gonzales recalled driving around with her father. He would notice an edible cactus and say, “That would be real good for dinner.” 

Clearly, Gonzales said, the teacher had a deep connection and love with her father. 

So Gonzales suggested meeting her for the painting session in the cactus garden at Fort Mason. “I painted her to be part of the cactus,” said Gonzales. 

Many of the models attended Sunday’s opening. Visitors can listen to conversations with a few at an audio station in the gallery. While it would be helpful to have a short explanation of the inspiration behind each painting, even without this, the canvases tell a captivating story. 

Gonzales called the project, funded by a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, “a beautiful experience.” 

“I feel like I’m a part of something that’s so much bigger than me; to hear everyone’s story” and all the connections, she said. “I didn’t expect it to nourish me this much.” 

One of the first Gonzales interviewed and photographed was the math teacher Maria Martinez. One photograph is in the show, a second has been accepted to be part of The de Young Open 2023, a juried community art exhibit that will be on display from September 30 through Jan. 7, 2023.

Gonzales began teaching at Mission High School in 2016 after earning her M.A. in fine arts from the now-closed San Francisco Art Institute. In her eight years there, she has created a photography program, moving from iPhones to Sony and Canon cameras. 

After school opens on Wednesday, Gonzales looks forward to bringing her students to the cultural center to see the exhibit. The best part of teaching, Gonzalez said, is connecting the classroom with her studio work – she has a space at 1850 Bryant – and exhibits around town. 

“I can say, ‘Hey, you know, we’re learning about this and talking about this, but let’s go to this event,’”  she said. 

Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts

2868 Mission St.

The show’s closing reception will be on August 26 at 2 pm.