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.