Photos: Cuban-born artist Rosa Estebañez sculpted Petaluma’s history for the city she loved

Rosa Estebañez’s work can be found all over the Bay Area.|

Sonoma County has been the adoptive home for a number of creative luminaries. One such artist was sculpting extraordinaire Rosa Estebañez, whose work can be seen dotted along well-trodden Petaluma walkways and throughout the Bay Area at churches, wineries and colleges.

Born in Cuba in 1927, Estebañez quickly rose to prominence as a gifted artist after graduating from the National School of Art in Havana in 1951 with a master’s degree in art. She became the official “escultora” (sculptress) for the Cuban government under then-President Fulgencio Batista, according to the Sonoma County Library, in which she would be responsible for the facades of many government buildings as well as public objets d’art.

Estebañez fled Cuba with her 10-year-old son, Jorge, in 1960 following Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the government. She settled in Petaluma, where a brother was located, and briefly worked as a chicken plucker and cleaner at a local poultry plant. Her artistic experience soon led her to positions at Decker’s Photo Studio and Kresky Sign Co. as a photo retoucher and sign maker.

By the mid-‘60s, Estebañez had begun teaching evening sculpture classes in the Adult Education Department at Petaluma High School. She also led educational art tours around the world, including in Rome, China, Spain, Mexico and New England.

Estebañez had amassed a prolific body of work by the ‘70s, exhibiting sculptures in local art shows and creating significant pieces by commission. She worked with a variety of media on her statues and bas reliefs, sculpting detailed works with a careful yet quick precision.

In 1977, Estebañez hosted a seven-part television series titled “How to Sculpt with Rosa” on KQED’s Open Studio, which led to a self-published book of the same name a few years later. In 1978, she opened her own art gallery on Petaluma Boulevard North called La Galeria de Rosa.

In the midst of her success, tragedy befell Estebañez when her son Jorge died in 1979 in a car accident at the age of 29. A graduate of Petaluma High School, Jorge Estebañez had a passion for music and worked as a musician for local groups. Rosa Estebañez set up a scholarship fund with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in Jorge’s honor.

By the 1980s, Estebañez was a highly sought-after artist. Churches commissioned her for religious statues while local governments hired her to create memorial plaques for parks and historical busts for downtown squares. Her detailed sculptures became quite valuable, requiring her to get an agent to help with commissioned work.

“I’m really bad at business,” she said in an April 5, 1989, article in The Press Democrat. “When somebody comes to me with a commission, I want to do the work. The money’s not important.”

Some of her most notable local works include the Fred J. Wiseman monument (created in 1968) at Petaluma’s Wiseman Park; a bust of Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1975) at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park; and the Wrist Wrestling Statue (1988) on East Washington Street.

Estebañez died on Dec. 17, 1991, at the age of 65, leaving behind decades of artwork in the region and a lasting legacy.

Check out the gallery above for photos of Rosa Estebañez and some of her artwork.

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