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10 Must-Know Artists From San Francisco, CA

10 Must-Know Artists From San Francisco, CA

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Updated: 11 January 2017
San Francisco has inspired countless creatives to pursue their passion in art, music, and literature, and has given birth to some of the most iconic and celebrated individuals to come out of these fields. Throughout the last century, San Francisco has served as a home base for some of the most talented and revered painters, photographers, sculptors, and poets in the nation, some native to the city and others who spent time working there and who came to call it home.

Ruth Asawa

Sculpting is an age-old craft that has given way to some of the most iconic pieces of art throughout history, from Michelangelo’s David to Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. The prominent San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa finds herself in league with the great masters of old, as her life’s mesmerizing works ornament the city. Born in 1926, Asawa came to be known as an avid activist for education, and respected for her creations in wire and ornate fountain sculptures. Interned at the age of 16 following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Asawa credits the experience as setting her on the path to realizing her potential and becoming one of the most revered artists to come out of the Bay Area. Asawa passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.


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Richard Serra

As art evolves with the times, new ideas and innovative approaches to traditional media lead to mindbending creations. The minimalist sculptures of Richard Serra have very much redefined the craft by creating a sense of movement which invites the audience to engage with the work. Born in 1939, the San Francisco native’s pieces are defined by captivating geometry that towers over and wraps around the viewer. Serra’s work has graced countless exhibitions and galleries around the world, and his work with both physical and digital media has earned him a place among the greats.


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Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams’ photography depicts the artist’s lifelong relationship with western America. His work contains hugely reproduced environmental photography, black-and-white shots of abounding landscapes and personal snaps of lonesome subject matter such as trees, churches, and even factories. Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams boasts a career that spans over four decades; and a legacy of environmentalism that lives on through his work. One of the city’s most revered creatives, the artist passed away at 82 in 1984.

Fred Lyon

The work of Fred Lyon acts as an enthralling chronological account of San Francisco’s history and evolving culture. Having spent seven long decades behind the lens photographing the city’s people and places, and sharing his own experiences as a native son vicariously through his work, Lyon’s career has also taken him around the world. His photographs appear in over 50 published books, ranging from cookbooks to travel guides. Arguably the most prolific living San Francisco photographer, Lyon’s legacy continues to grow as the 91-year-old still spends his days doing what he loves most.

Learn about Fred Lyon, photographer and traveler.


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Maya Angelou

Poetry has always been a deeply personal craft that artists have used to express their innermost trials and triumphs for centuries. Masters of the medium find themselves exalted in the same vein as legendary sculptors and painters throughout history. Maya Angelou’s poetry and prose has elevated her to such a level. Through her work, Angelou shared stories of her incredible life, and inspired the world with her profound courage and inner strength. Having spent much of her life in San Francisco, and becoming the its first black streetcar conductor at age 16, the city inspired and touched the writer so much that she requested it be the site of her memorial service. In 2014, the late 86-year-old poet received just that.


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Gary Snyder

The late 1940s in San Francisco were characterized by a poetic vigor which would spark the imaginations of musicians and visual artists in the years to follow. Gary Snyder was one of the central figures during this period, known as the San Francisco Renaissance, and his poetry dealt with the concept of humanist harmony with the Earth in a simplistic and beautiful way. He was associated with famed poet Allen Ginsberg through the Beat Generation, a collection of bicoastal authors that created work in the post-WWII era, as well as iconic SF poets of the era. Having traveled to Asia and been a student of Zen and Buddhist ideologies throughout his life, Snyder’s influence on San Francisco and the nation-at-large through his poetic works has been profound and lasting. Now 85, the Pulitzer Prize winner is lauded for his impact in promoting ecological responsibility.

Ester Hernandez

Cultural identity is a powerful topic often showcased in murals and mosaics around San Franciscan neighborhoods. Ester Hernandez is perhaps the most impactful Chicana artist to work in San Francisco, and her creations often speaks about the struggles of Hispanic farmworkers and boast a positive feminist message influenced by the strong Latina figures of her own life. She has created many murals around SF, and her 40-year career has produced politically charged pieces that aim to give a voice to the often unheard Chicano populace in California. Born in 1944, Hernandez aims to bridge cultural, social and racial gaps in society through her work.


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Barry McGee

Much of San Francisco’s graffiti culture shares its roots with the political and social movements that inspire the city’s murals. While graffiti may once have been the trade of vandals in the night, the last decade has seen a shift in the world’s perception of the craft. Barry McGee, heralded as a pioneer of San Francisco’s graffiti scene, is possibly the best known and most respected street artist to come out of the Bay Area. Born in 1966, the SF native’s work has evolved beyond graffiti to include punchy paintings and other lucrative artistic endeavors, and McGee has gained notoriety through various collaborations and exhibitions around the world.

Robert Bechtle

Painting is a medium that has seen significant evolution throughout history through various art movements and time periods. Considered one of the earliest photorealists, the San Francisco artist Robert Bechtle has spent almost the entirety of his career in the Bay Area, creating work that is unique to both the man and the city. Through countless oil paintings of his surrounding locale, be it city streets, sidewalks, cars, friends, or family, Bechtle has pieced together a collage that tells the story of San Francisco through his own eyes. Born in 1932, Bechtle’s work has earned him numerous commendations and great acclaim both nationally and internationally.

Margaret Keane

A polarizing figure in the Bay Area art scene, although perhaps for the wrong reasons, Margaret Keane’s story is tragic and heroic all in the same swing. While living and working in San Francisco, Keane was forced by her ex-husband Walter Keane to sell her work under his name; he was believed to be the artist behind her signature ‘big-eyed’ portraiture until 1970. Court battles and public exposure ultimately vindicated the real artist, whose work has become well-loved around the nation. Her eclectic work has earned her the respect of several celebrities and political figures, including the Kennedy family. Forever immortalized in Tim Burton’s 2014 Big Eyes, Keane, now 86, has enjoyed substantial commercial success and continues to create new paintings from her California home.