SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – The iconic Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is a piece of art in and of itself, but inside you’ll find another impressive work of art — a 30-panel mural depicting historical events like the 1906 fire which burned most of the city to the ground. Cathedral Archivist Michael Lampen was acquainted with the Bolivian-born artist, Antonio Sotomayor.
“A very urbane gentleman with a Bolivian accent which he never lost… A very committed artist and I think his early years in Bolivia formed his art very strongly,” Lampen said of Sotomayor.
The mural was masterfully painted with acrylic on linen in Sotomayor’s home on Nob Hill. The painter, sculptor, and illustrator immigrated to San Francisco in 1923.
As a young man, Sotomayor got a job as a dishwasher at the historic Palace Hotel to make ends meet while attending the Hopkins Institute of Art. The story goes that on his fifth day at work, Sotomayor ditched the dishes, and instead left the kitchen. He took a seat in the lounge and sketched whatever came to his imagination. His doodling caught the attention of his boss, who helped launch him into San Francisco’s high society art scene.
Two more murals are still proudly on display in the hotel’s Pied Piper lounge, portraying notable and eccentric characters including literary luminaries Mark Twain and Bret Harte, as well as the self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States Joshua Norton.
“His skills as an artist were soon found out by the owner Janet Johnston… And she said, ‘You’re so good at drawing things. Could you do something for the palace?’ And that’s what he did! He painted another painting that we have in our promenade for her to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the original hotel,” said Palace Hotel General Manager Clifton Clark.
Sotomayor went on to gain notoriety and was invited to serve as San Francisco Arts Commissioner in the 1940s and 50s.
“It’s just a tribute to if you work hard and you have the right attitude great things can happen,” Clark said.
For many years, another sizeable piece, which he is said to have described as the most challenging project of his career, was housed on Treasure Island. It is a Terracotta sculpture 50 feet wide titled ‘The Fountain of the Pacific’ created for the Golden Gate International Exhibition World’s Fair in 1939.
But the fountain symbolizing unity across the Pacific Ocean was broken up into smaller parts and has been tucked away out of sight for decades. Treasure Island Museum Vice President Anne Schnoebelen has been captivated by its grandeur and symbolism since she first laid eyes on it in 1991.
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She explains that Sotomayor made the fountain with the impression it would be on permanent display. Instead, its dissected parts lie in an abandoned hanger away from public view. So she continues on her mission to restore the fountain to its full glory.
“It seems like everything here is in a permanent state of disarray,” she said. “When you see the island, the island is all torn up and covered with piles of dirt and we know that eventually it’s going to be a beautiful redevelopment and I can certainly see why this fountain should be a part of that redevelopment.”
Sotomayor came a long way from Chulumani, Bolivia. At the height of his career, his work was exhibited worldwide. He died of cancer at 82 years old in 1985. Sotomayor had no children but left leaves behind artwork that will hopefully be enjoyed for generations to come.