The Crown seeks to give exposure to local and international artists through The Crown Gallery, and hosts new artists every four months. The Crown Gallery is currently accepting submissions for the Summer of 2023, and is seeking artists who approach issues related to environmental sustainability, intersectionality, the City of Oakland, and of course, coffee. Contact us here with the subject “Call for Artists” if you want to apply!
As curator and Creative Director here at The Crown, I do a series of interviews with our artists so that everyone can hear what inspires them. The coffee industry is comprised of people with multifarious passions, and during my time as a coffee professional I have encountered people steeped in disciplines as disparate as music composition and astrophysics. It only seems fair to give time to one group I have met most frequently in the coffee industry: visual artists. So join us for an exploration of the natural world, Bay Area culture, and our favorite beverage with the resident artists at The Crown Gallery.
Calixto Robles has lived and worked in the Bay Area since 1983. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, he is a painter, printmaker, and ceramic sculpture inspired by Meso-America and First Nation people’s culture, as well as sacred imagery of ancient Eastern and Western cultures. Robles uses natural and supernatural figures such as angels, eagles, jaguars, horses, hearts, and moons throughout his work. Robles creates work around issues that he is personally invested in: social justice and climate change. He makes art to empower people to find strength to fight for justice. Robles’ work is positive and shows symbols of cultural history, survival, and strength.
Hanging his work at the Crown, I was immediately taken in by the strong use of color and the consistency of feeling across the pieces. It’s easy to spend a few minutes in front of each one, allowing the colors and shapes to soak in. The feeling behind the pieces is almost dreamlike, and I wanted to understand more about his motivations and background. I visited Robles’ studio at the Redstone Labor Temple in San Francisco to conduct this interview and learn a little more about his life and work.
Calixto’s work will be on display from October 2022 through January 2023!
Evan Gilman: What have you been working on lately? Do you have any new projects?
Calixto Robles: Lately I’ve been finishing a grant that I got from the City of San Francisco a year ago. The project is called Prints for the People, and I’m now doing promotional posters for my show. The show is on the 18th of November at Accion Latina, 2858 24th Street in San Francisco.
EG: When did you start making art? I see you use many different mediums when you make art, so can you tell us a little about your first introduction to these mediums?
CR: Like anyone, I started making art as a kid. We lived in this big house that my grandfather owned, and he rented some of the other rooms out to people. When I was five or six years old, I remember seeing this lady who had a loom making textiles like shawls or big blankets. During the day, she would bring big cans of water outside that she would pull threads of different colors out of; purples, reds, blues. And she would hang these dyed threads to dry on the patio.
Later, another person came to rent a room, and he was a ceramic artist. He did dishes and cups to sell in the market, and he built a kiln with bricks. All the kids would gather to watch the fire, and to see him put the pottery inside. When he took it out, you’d see the colors of the glaze appear. When he would leave the house sometimes my cousin and I would go and play with the throwing table.
I think those things made me aware of the colors and things we could make. And when it rained really hard, you could see the some of the colors in the dirt where the big drops hit. We would play with that dirt, and make different things of our own. In elementary school or kindergarten we would do a lot of art projects as well. So as a kid I was always exposed to art, and the colors around.
When I was going to high school and college later on, I always liked to make drawings. Watercolors as well. Some of my friends from high school went on to do fine arts, to study painting, music, and other things. I wanted to do the same, but my parents said “I think you should try something else like being a doctor – why don’t you study these things?”
So when I was in college I studied industrial chemistry because in the 1980s in Mexico, they had discovered big fields of oil. So the government began creating lots of positions for industrial chemists. But I never put my heart into that. I was always making drawings even as the teacher was giving lectures. I passed my degree, but I changed to a different university and began courses in administration, which I enjoyed more because it involved people. So I finished that course as well, and came here in 1983.
I always was interested in coming to the North. The public university in Oaxaca was very good, so I already spoke a bit of English, so that was helpful. I had a friend who lived in Oakland, so I traveled there first, and searched for a job. In 1983 it was a bit difficult, but I managed to find a job as a waiter. I brought applications to many places, but finally found a job in a very good Mexican restaurant in the financial district that I had heard about through a friend. I was very lucky because apparently someone had quit just that day and I was able to start as a busboy that very day. It was great to work in the Financial District because there were a lot of good customers. I worked three months as a busboy, then I had a chance to move up into the waiter position. I could work just two or three hours through the lunch rush, and make enough money to go and study further at the Community College to study English and computers.
During this time I also went to the libraries to study my roots, about the Aztecs, Mayas, and Zapotecs. When I was in Mexico I had never paid attention to those things; we studied the art of the Europeans. They taught about art from the European perspectives, I don’t know why. Studying my roots helped me to be proud of my heritage.
I started painting with watercolors because there wasn’t too much ventilation in my room. I was always painting, but what gave me big support is when I discovered the Mission Cultural Center. In 1986 I was walking down the street and saw this big building with flier for different things like free dancing classes, singing, guitar classes, dance and drawing classes.. So I went. They were free classes, so after working in the restaurant, I went to the drawing classes. The teacher for the class was the director of Mission Grafica, the printmaking studio. After a few months my friend and teacher, Rene Castro who was from Chile had just escaped the Pinochet regime, said “Hey Calixto, have you seen the studio upstairs?” I hadn’t, so I followed him upstairs to see the people doing screenprinting, and I was amazed to see what they were printing. I asked if I could come and volunteer. So the very next day I came to help racking the papers, cleaning the screens, and just help, you know?
I’ve stayed at Mission Grafica until now. From 1986. I learned, became a teacher to adults and children. I’ve done workshops at galleries, schools, and museums and even traveled to do workshops. So I’m very grateful for screenprinting as a medium. I like to share my knowledge, but I always learn so much from people as well. Printmaking is a very wide field, and there are always new tricks coming.
EG: How do you get into the flow of making art? Can you describe the feeling you get?
CR: Creating art can happen any time.
After working at the restaurant I would go to Mission Grafica to help, then would have the chance do a screen of my own, perhaps just one color. Then I would go home to sleep, but before falling asleep I would think “Tomorrow when I go to Grafica I want to put blue in this area, and red in another area..” But then the next day as I was putting down colors, Rene would ask me “Hey, how many colors are you going to do?” And I never knew, but it just became like an addiction to go and play with the colors because it’s very easy to add colors with screenprinting.
But now when I come to my studio I arrive at 8 or 9 o’clock, after my family goes to school. Usually what I do when I get here is light a little sage, and think good things. Then if I’m going to start a new piece, I just put the canvas on the table and start putting down color. I almost never make a sketch beforehand. Rene used to tell me to make a design or plan beforehand, but I like to make the lines first and during the process add the colors. One time I was starting to make a jaguar or a horse, but I had to tell him that I wanted to make it from my mind, not from a book. I showed it to my older daughter another time and she said “Daddy, that looks like a rat!” But over time I changed the design and now they are much more like jaguars.
The work mostly comes from my heart, from inside. And from doing it, practicing. My daughter is very good because they teach her to draw at school, and about how to handle light. Just practicing and doing it helps.
EG: Do you think that coffee influences the way you make art?
CR: Sometimes I’ll come here and have some coffee in the morning. There’s a coffee shop downstairs, and I’ll get coffee there. It makes me feel good! But also I realize that it can be something that you need to do, that you don’t feel good without. So now I just have coffee at home, and when I get to the studio I just have tea or water.
EG: The cinnamon tea you shared with me is great – I didn’t realize it could be so sweet!
(note: this was simply dried cinnamon sticks kept hot on a coffee maker, and it was incredible. I may end up doing this at home because it was perfectly delicious and satisfying, especially on a crisp November day.)
CR: Yes, so sometimes I’ll have coffee and it will put me in a nice place. It’s natural and comes from mother earth.
EG: Cafes have been central to many art movements. Do you have any favorite local cafes?
CR: For many years, when I used to work at Mission Cultural Center, I would go to a coffee shop near 24th street. I think you might know it because it has a long history: Café La Bohème. It has changed owners, but that was one of the first places I would go. You could go there to have a coffee, listen to cool music, meet people. That was one of my favorite coffee shops. I haven’t been there for some time, because my studio moved. I also used to go to Muddy Waters, and sometimes I like to go to Cafe International on Haight Street, another very famous cafe with a long history. Another things that cafes offer is that they open their spaces to shows, to political meetings, and other things. Besides being coffee shops, they allow people to meet and help the community.
EG:I see that the natural and supernatural are important in your work. Where is the best place to find the supernatural in San Francisco?
CR: Actually, you can find it anyplace. But I like to go to Golden Gate Park to walk the paths. One place I really like to go is in front of the bison. I like to sit down there and watch them; to see how strong they are and how resilient they are. I think about the Native Americans and all the struggles they’ve been through. To be recognized, to be respected, and the treaties. Still, when I see these bison, I see that they’re strong even beside the ocean.
But to find the spiritual, it can be anyplace.
EG: The jaguar and the horse are prominently featured in many of your paintings at The Crown. What is the symbolism behind them, for you?
CR: For me the jaguar represents my Mexican culture that’s still very strong. The jaguar is like a warrior that is taking care of our culture, guarding against all this materialism and capitalism. It’s a guerrero, a warrior.
And I like the horse because it’s a very beautiful animal, and it’s very easy to make a drawing. It’s easy to put into paint and to print because it’s so beautiful. I like to go see the horse races sometimes, because they’re such a powerful animal.
EG: You’re originally from Oaxaca. Did you experience coffee while you were there?
CR: Yes, so my father worked as a mechanic fixing trucks and other things, and there was an ice factory near our house where he would work sometimes. I would love to see them making the big blocks of ice, and taking them out to put on trucks. Outside the door at the front, I remember there was just a coffee plant growing there – and it was very healthy somehow. We could pick the fruit off of it just to taste, and it was so sweet. Delicious.
A lot people were poor in Oaxaca, but it has been better over the last four years because of the new government. There are a lot of programs to help the people in the mountains and villages. When I was a kid we were not poor, but were not rich either. This is what they said: If you don’t have money, at least you have coffee and bread. When you go to school they would have very thin coffee. Using just a little coffee you make a big pot, and it’s not strong because they were trying to save coffee – maybe one spoonful for a big pot, just like tinto. My mother used to make a small jar of coffee and we had a piece of bread with it every morning before school. So yes, we always had coffee.
EG: What do you think has changed here in the Bay Area since you’ve been here, both for the better and for the worse?
CR: Right now, there are a lot of drugs and people with disabilities in the street. It looks like the government isn’t doing anything for them. That’s a big change. When I came here in 1983 I never saw the streets full of people, and now you seen even young people on the streets. I don’t know why the government is not catching the people dealing the drugs, because you can even see them with groups of kids, giving them things. There’s not a lot of respect for kids or elders who pass by on the streets; now people are smoking in front of kids who are walking by. I hope that somehow this situation can be solved.
And about the good things: In San Francisco, there are still a lot of people with good hearts. People who are still doing their best to keep their families and friends close. San Francisco is still a nice place.
EG: How would you explain your art to someone who can’t see?
CR: Colorful and positive! That’s what I do.
EG: Is there anything you want to promote?
CR: I just want to thank you and The Crown for the opportunity to show my dreams and my forms with your audience!