While completing her master’s in art at San Francisco State in the early 1970’s, Ms. Hershman Leeson was frustrated by her lack of recognition. So she began writing reviews of her own work and publishing them, under pseudonyms in local newspapers. Another early project involved taking a room at the Dante Hotel in San Francisco and spreading out personal items – books, cosmetics, clothes – to create portraits of imaginary inhabitants.

Then she conjured up Roberta Breitmore, her most sustained character study. From 1974 to 1978, while Ms. Hershman Leeson was a wife and mother trying to make it in San Francisco as an artist, Roberta was a divorced woman new to town, trying to make it on her own. The artist brought her to life by wearing a blond wig, applying heavy makeup and adopting a set of rather depressive tendencies.

Other performance artists in the 1970’s were also creating characters to untangle the knots of identity and gender, but Roberta was no one-act wonder. She had her own slumped posture, slow gait, colorful outfit, loopy handwriting, odd jobs and romantic encounters. In time, Roberta acquired a driver’s license, two credit cards and her own apartment.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” the artist said. “But I rented Roberta an apartment across the street from my house. I just didn’t feel her life would be complete without her own space.”

Still, being Roberta was not easy. She went to Weight Watchers and gained weight. She met a man through a personal ad who tried to recruit her into a prostitution ring. Ms. Hershman Leeson also found it hard to sit through psychoanalysis as someone else when “my marriage was ending, and I had so much going on that I could have really used the therapy myself.”