An opportunity to showcase the work of a pioneer artist 

in Community/Featured/Headline

Momentum is building for construction of a new Veterans Memorial Building and Senior Center in Redwood City, which will provide a number of amenities including a new theater, catering kitchen, gardening space and a technology hub. Among the less obvious benefits will be an opportunity to bring some of the work of the founding father of Redwood City’s arts community out where people can see and appreciate it. That’s Ralph Ledesma (1910-1993), a watercolorist who for many years taught this difficult art form to students enrolled in Sequoia Adult School classes, out of which the Sequoia Art Group was formed. Fifty-seven years later, says program chair Catherine Delfs, it’s still around with about 100 members. 

In addition to helping train many would-be artists, Ledesma was a prolific painter whose pictures of local scenes such as the old Frank Tannery are prized possessions of fortunate local collectors. Redwood City owns more than three dozen Ledesmas, many of which hang on the walls in a narrow corridor of the old 49er Building at Red Morton Park, which will be torn down for the Veterans center project. “They’re going with us for sure,” says Bruce Utecht, Community Services Manager. “We are not going to lose them.”   

The city managed to commander this sizeable collection thanks to current Senior Affairs Committee member Barbara Britschgi, who happened to see a bunch at an estate sale in Woodside more than a decade ago. She and a friend sprang into action to get them secured so the city could purchase them.  “I’m hoping they will stay together because there’s enough to be like a small gallery,” she says. Department Director Chris Beth assures that the paintings will be “more permanently displayed,” likely in the main senior lounge.   

Ledesma was a house painter by trade and a prize-winning artist by avocation, as fellow artist Marian Goodman wrote in a 1960 story in the Redwood City Tribune. He had always liked to draw and joined the Palo Alto Art Club. He didn’t think he was “good enough” but was encouraged to paint. During World War II, in his full field pack, Ledesma carried a barracks bag, a rifle and a canvas bag made to fit his paintings, plus a special bag for his paints. Once he returned, he got married and “drifted” into house-painting. Delfs, who took one class from Ledesma, recalls that he would only sell his paintings one day a year, hung from clothespins at a September show at Wellesley Crescent Park. “He was the only like art advocate in our city before art was even thought of as being important,” she says. And deserving some recognition. 

Despite being hit with new fees for public safety and other services for special events, Redwood City’s outdoor living nativity known as Bethlemen AD will go on as usual this year.  “It has been a challenge for us to raise the extra $15,000,” says Creative Director Paula Dresden, “but somehow we are going to make it.” The city helped to bring down the cost that was initially projected, which has helped, but it’s a new expense on top of Bethlehem AD’s $45,000 budget. Donations are still welcome and can be made online through www.bethlehemad.com.  

About 25,000 people are expected to visit during the event, which will be held Dec. 21, 22 and 23 across from Rise City Church on Middlefield Road. Some 300 volunteers, from costumed wise men to Roman soldiers, try to recreate the atmosphere of the Jewish village at the time of Christ’s birth. A baby donkey, just born Nov. 14, will be among the stable animals.  No admission is charged, but there are always volunteers with donation baskets, an especially important last-stop exiting Bethlehem AD.  

 This story was originally published in the December print edition of Climate Magazine.

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