As We Live It Featured Artist: Re’ne Avalos

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For most of her life, art wasn’t particularly important to Re'ne Avalos. She drew to pass the time in jail, or to work off the unbearable energy of meth or crack highs. At the juvenile halls where she spent most of her teen years, drawing made her popular with other girls, who clamored to have her tattoo them with India ink stolen from supply cupboards. Only when, at 40, she entered a court-mandated art program and staff members began vying to buy her works did Avalos begin to consider herself an artist. And even then, it was only because other people insisted that she was; it never felt like she’d earned the title. “To me, an artist is someone who has gone to school for it,” says Avalos, who grew up in Martinez and spent most of her adult life in the Tenderloin. But successfully tackling her drug addictions, coupled with the interest and appreciation she received at her city-funded mental health programs, changed everything. “Art is my life now,” she says. “Most of what I did in the past was because of hiding from myself – that’s what the heroin was about.” She credits participating in an organized program with helping her look at what she was hiding – and why. “I learned it was OK to show that side of me – the part that was scared.” Once the genie was out of the bottle, art came pouring out, much of it done in a cacophonous Sixth Street hotel room Avalos describes as “smaller than most of the jail cells I’ve been in.” She earned unexpected celebrity after airings of Unheard Voices, a film by Phillip Cha in which she’s featured (Unheard Voices is included in this exhibition). Many viewers have tracked her down to buy her artwork; some, like Tenderloin resident Anthony Johnson, have built collections of “Re'ne’s”. “Her art just shot out at me while I was watching the video,” he says. “I see René becoming a known artist of San Francisco – that’s how good I think her art is.”

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