By Frank Portillo
Photographer and alumna Laura Aguilar died at 58 in a Long Beach nursing home last Tuesday.
Pilar Tompkins Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum, said that she was an incredible and important artist who had a brave soul.
“She has really forged a path that is, in my mind, so critical for many of the conversations that are taking place today. Especially within the intersections of all the things that her identity represents… as someone who is queer, an artist of color and a large bodied woman, she represents so many different kinds of communities by virtue of who she was as a person,” Rivas said.
During her career, she took nude self-portraits in landscape backgrounds.
“She was able to put her struggles and her own search for self acceptance in her work by putting her own body on display in the works that she made. By virtue of that, she made tremendously powerful and exquisitely beautiful images,” Rivas said.
Rivas said that Aguilar left a lasting legacy and gift to everyone through her artistic practice.
In 1979, as a student at East Los Angeles College, Aguilar was a part of the Campus News staff as a photographer.
Rivas said that Aguilar took photography and Chicano Studies courses during her time at ELAC.
“Her time here really helped to galvanize her political consciousness as a Chicana artist,” Rivas said.
Former Editor-in-Chief of Campus News, Jim Thomas, said that she was very shy, but a skilled photographer. He said that he would give her assignments to shoot at events on campus, but that she was too shy to take anyone’s photo. She was even too shy to take a photo opportunity of the Easter Bunny while he was on campus.
In order to get Aguilar to complete photo assignments, Thomas would tag along with her. Thomas said that the two bonded during the experience, as they would joke around to ease her tensions and said she had a great sense of humor.
“I recognized her talent for creating informative and interesting photos for Campus News. I saw no sign of her passively bold expression then. She, like the rest of us on Campus News staff, was just figuring out how to express herself,” Thomas said, “I regret not staying in touch with her. Seeing her amazingly brave photos now, I would have loved to sit with her and talk about them.”
Her photography was the subject of the last exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum titled “Show and Tell,” which ran through February. Her exhibition was a smaller part of a larger “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” initiative from the Getty Foundation.
The exhibition featured photographs of the lesbian community.
Rivas said that the show was in the works for four years and was a result of a partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles Chicano Studies Research Center. She said that the majority of Aguilar’s photographs have been kept at the center for 10 years.
“It’s a tremendous loss for our community, East Los Angeles and the art community in Los Angeles and really the world. Through the exhibition that she had here, I think that people were just beginning to discover her practice, mostly by way of the images that were shared through a lot of press attention that she received,” Rivas said.
Rivas also said that it was a bitter-sweet moment knowing that her recognition was something that came toward the end of her life and in her passing.
The VPAM released a statement about Aguilar’s passing which can be viewed on its blog website.