Frank LaPena was a member of the Nomtipom Wintu people of Northern California, a source of deep inspiration for his artwork. He incorporated the traditions, images, and philosophies of his Indigenous culture into his art and teaching. LaPena first exhibited in 1960 and worked in painting, printmaking, sculpture, poetry, dance, and mixed media. He spent many years as a professor of art and ethnic studies at California State University in Sacramento, where he was also the director of the Native American studies department for from 1975-2002. His 60-year career as a professional artist gave him a central role among contemporary Native American artists in California.
As a child, he was sent to federal boarding schools, first to the Stewart Indian School in Nevada, and later the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. In 1965 he earned a BA at Cal State Chico, followed by a teaching certificate a few years later from San Francisco State University. He obtained a MA in Anthropology in 1978 from California State University in Sacramento.
LaPena was born in San Franscisco in 1937 and passed away on May 2, 2019 at the age of 81.