Lerma was among the small group of Chicano artists who emerged out of post-War San Francisco. After studying with Hassel Smith, Edward Corbett and James Budd Dixon at the California School of Fine Art in the early ‘50s, he hung a show at Spatsa gallery in 1959. It was of small abstract landscapes that captured a sense of the land and the light in the Salinas Valley where he had grown up. Soon after his Spatsa show, Lerma co-founded the Russian Hill Gallery with fellow artists Howard Foote and John Dunlop. They hung their own pictures, and showed the work of some of the artists associated with the Spatsa, the Six or even the Ubu, until the gallery closed in 1961.
“We were rebelling against some of the things that were going on in the city,” Lerma explains. “We wanted to be ourselves, to express things that were unique about the West Coast. We weren’t interested in following what was happening back East. We felt that that would’ve been a falsehood. So we did [the Russian Hill Gallery] on our own – we lived there and painted there. It was a very spirited thing without much money, like the Spatsa. We were all outsiders and we knew it, but we still wanted to show everybody what we were doing.”