Over the past few days a number of newspaper articles have reported on how the Vietnam Veterans Memorial plaque at Petaluma’s Walnut Park was stolen. This is sad news indeed. Absent from the coverage is that the plaque was of artistic significance having been created by Rosa Estebanez (1927-1991), an immensely gifted artist who called Petaluma home for 31 of her 64 years.
Estebanez’s life has been described as a remarkable story of courage, tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit. Born in Cuba, Estebanez graduated from the National School of Art in Havana with a master’s degree in art and became the official sculptor for Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. In 1960, Estebanez left Cuba following the communist overthrow of Batista’s government.
Estebanez arrived in the United States unable to speak English with her 10 year-old-son, Jorge, and a $5 bill in her purse. She chose to settle in Petaluma because she had a brother living there.
At first Estebanez worked as a chicken plucker at a local poultry plant before she was able to resume her art career. For a time she was employed part-time as a “re-toucher” at Decker’s Photo Studio. Estebanez also held a position with Kresky’s Sign, communicating with her supervisor through drawings and sign language. Estebanez taught classes privately and at night at Petaluma High School; led tours abroad, and created a prolific body of work, including murals, bas reliefs, sculpture, public statues, and paintings. In 1978 she joined the National Art Board of the American League of Pen Women. Estebanez also hosted a 7-part television series entitled “How to Sculpt with Rosa” on KQED’s Open Studio.
Most Petalumans know Estebanez’s work from the wristwrestling statute at the intersection of East Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard North, the Helen Putnam Memorial at Putnam Plaza, and the Fred J.Wiseman Monument at Kenilworth Park. Estebanez also created a bust of General Vallejo and painted a portrait of Benecia Vallejo for the Old Adobe State Historic Park. Among Estebanez’s larger works is the mammoth state seal on the State of California building on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco and a large three dimensional plaque for the gates of the former St. Anthony’s Farm on Valley Ford Road. Additional examples of Estabanez’s work can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum online catalog.
According to James Bleifus, creator of the California Vietnam Memorial Project, there are over 90 memorials throughout the state, many designed by prominent regional artists such as Rosa Estebanez, a number of which have been defaced or neglected. This puts the Walnut Park Vietnam Veterans Memorial in a broader context.