Artist, Activist & Politician: San Francisco’s Debra Walker

November 2013

When artist Debra Walker moved to San Francisco in 1981, she found an affordable space at Developing Environments, a 36-studio live/work artist co-op
and San Francisco’s first legal artist residence. And she’s been there ever since, surrounded on all sides by painters, sound artists and circus artists.

Walker’s live/work space has allowed her to survive as an artist in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Her apartment is partitioned into studio and living quarters, which allows her access to her work around the clock. “Every time I have like a spare hour I go in there and paint because it’s there, it’s open, it’s left out. Space, for visual artists, is really important.”

Walker’s appreciation for her unique work space has led her into activism. As a member of the Coalition for Jobs, Arts and Housing, Walker aims to secure more affordable spaces for artists. “There’s two minds,” she says. “Some artists feel like they need to remain outside of society. And then there’s others who are more like community artists.”

Walker is a community artist whose activism has led her deep into the politics of land use and urban planning. She is a member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and a City of San Francisco Building Inspection Commissioner. This year she kicked off a campaign to run for district supervisor. “I think I might win this race for supervisor,” she says. “So I’m going to have to figure out how to keep an active art project going in my office at City Hall.”

Her politics are driven by her experience not only as an artist, but also as a lesbian. She is one of only six women to ever be elected president of the powerful Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and sits on advisory boards for the Queer Arts Festival and the Queer Cultural Center. Last year, after California’s Prop. 8 ruling, Walker joined in protest with activist Kip Williams and was arrested for disobeying a peace officer and jaywalking. (Charges were later dismissed.)

“The coming together of queer youth, queer supporters, the faith community and diverse communities was truly inspiring to us all,” she says. “I believe that artists play a key role in how our society moves forward from this collapse.”

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