Like many San Francisco residents, I first encountered Veronica De Jesus’s epic series of memorial drawings while walking past Dog Eared Books in the Mission District in the late aughts. De Jesus worked at the store, and the drawings appeared in the windows and behind the register. Since 2004, she has made hundreds of them. While she exhibited a selection at San Francisco’s 2nd Floor Projects in 2013, the Berkeley Art Museum show is the first comprehensive presentation.
The works, rendered in pencil or ink and occasionally incorporating collage elements, share certain characteristics. All were made shortly after their respective subjects died and include their names, years of birth and death, and portraits. Many incorporate quotes from the departed, De Jesus’s own commentary on their lives, and brief descriptions of their work. During the years De Jesus exhibited the drawings in the bookstore windows, the consistent style helped make the drawings a familiar sight. You’d sort of steel yourself for potentially bad news as you neared the store, then flinch with sudden mourning on seeing a familiar face and De Jesus’s epitaph.
When viewing so many of them together at the museum, however, one is struck most by their range. The black-and-white Julia Child (2004) features a spare portrait of the chef as a young woman tasting something from a spoon and a quote in which Child extols the benefits of eating a diverse diet in small helpings. Such minimal, monochromatic drawings contrast with those like Randy Mariopoffo (2011), a brilliantly garish portrait of professional wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage. In De Jesus’s drawing, the Macho Man appears hard at work on a memorial drawing of his own: a sad, tender portrait of his companion and partner, Miss Elizabeth, in De Jesus’s trademark style.
De Jesus and curator Apsara DiQuinzio organized the drawings on view according to the subjects’ fields of specialty, creating groupings of, for instance, writers, artists, and musicians. Within these broad categories, the subjects are eclectic. Surely, all viewers will know who Prince is, but fewer will recognize Prince Tendai Mupfurutsa, one of Zimbabwe’s most famous singers. And De Jesus’s drawings do not commemorate only celebrities. They also honor victims of police terror, political leaders whose influence was huge but local, and at least one physician (Jacquelin Perry, a California-based surgeon known as the Grand Dame of Orthopedics).
By juxtaposing famous figures with community heroes, De Jesus’s series challenges the ordinary criteria for determining whom should be publicly mourned and how. While the diversity of her subjects precludes any direct political interpretation, I noticed with satisfaction the conspicuous absence of the merely rich and powerful, the kind of people who aspire to immortalization on the walls of art institutions through donations and naming rights. De Jesus’s memorial drawings offer a unique pantheon of the dead and a personal vision of what makes a life meaningful and worth remembering.