Dora De Larios: Sculpting a Mexican-American Identity
Most days, you can find Dora De Larios at her happiest in her Venice studio, surrounded by vases, plates, plaques, sculptures and even giant totems, all of her own making, in various states of completion, and made from stoneware and a variety of other materials. De Larios, one of the six artists featured in the Autry’s Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation opening October 14, sees no reason to retire at 77 from doing what she absolutely loves. So I found her in that studio on a recent morning, when we got together to talk about Pacific Standard Time, Art in L.A. 1945-1980, the region-wide Getty initiative of which this exhibition is a part.
“I think what’s happening with this Pacific Standard Time is awesome, it’s just plain awesome,” De Larios said. “I think in time it will be viewed as a pivotal place in history, in art history for the city, that turned things around. More people will be aware of us as a creative force. Some people are, but you’re always talking to the chorus when you’re talking to your friends. I’m talking about ordinary people.”
Indeed, through exhibitions in more than 60 venues over six months, Pacific Standard Time explores what became the Los Angeles art scene in the years after World War II. Within that framework, the Autry’s exhibition examines the work of six Los Angeles artists who became precursors to the Chicano art movement of the 1960s. The group includes social realists like Domingo Ulloa, romanticists like Hernando Villa, and artists who discovered and asserted their Chicano identity, like Roberto Chavez and Eduardo Carrillo. And then there’s De Larios, the lone sculptor in the group, who doesn’t consider herself expressly Chicana.
“No, no. I’m 77 years old, I’m not of that era,” she said. “I just considered myself a Mexican-American. I was an artist. I hated labels, first of all. I always hated being told what to do. Why can’t we just be artists? Why do we have to say, ‘You’re a black artist, you’re a pink artist, you’re a brown artist.’ I mean, we’re all creative people working in this experience that we call life.”
De Larios says her father was sometimes politically involved, and her family certainly kept its connections to its culture through trips to Mexico to visit relatives when she was a girl. But she expresses her Mexican-American identity a bit differently than did the artists who worked in Los Angeles when the Chicano wave crested in the sixties and seventies. Rather than looking to political statements, she draws on her childhood and her personal experiences of family separation and reunion — both her own and that of her neighbors.
“The age of 8 was a very important time in my life,” she said. “I think that it’s very magical in a lot of people’s lives. They find a direction without even knowing it. I saw the Aztec Calendar for the first time at the archaeological museum off the Zocalo. At that time there was no great, grand museum. It’s so vivid in my mind seeing that.”
She compares the experience to being born, because she had to walk through a narrow, damp, dark hallway into a room with only one object and one light over it: the Aztec Calendar.
“I had this visceral connection to the stone,” she said. “I was it and it was me. That was my history, and that was me. That was who I was. I knew at the age of 8 that I would be an artist.”
As children, De Larios and her sister Teresa lived with separate grandparents and moved often, which meant she attended different schools. In middle school, she had an art teacher who believed that art could serve a higher purpose.
“She stopped the class cold one day and she said, ‘If you ever see any injustice done, it’s your responsibility to stop it,’” De Larios said. “It always stuck to me.”
As De Larios finished high school, she won scholarships to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and an art school in Berkeley, but her father prohibited her from going. She ended up at the University of Southern California, where she majored in ceramics and minored in sculpture, graduating in 1957.
“I didn’t feel part of it when I started because when I started, my parents could only afford eight units a semester,” she said. “The unit price at that time was $14. So I felt like a hoax. I got straight As and everything. I didn’t learn anything. I’d learned everything in junior high school because I had had wonderful teachers.”
Soon, however, De Larios fell under the tutelage of Vivika and Otto Heino, renowned ceramics instructors. She said it took her six months to learn how to center a block of clay on the potter’s wheel. But Otto Heino kept working with her and encouraging patience.
“He said, ‘You have to be patient with yourself. You’re going to learn it. You’re going to be wonderful, just be patient with yourself,’” she said. “I never forgot it. His kindness really affected me. Kindness in any form just really gets me.”
All the while, De Larios kept developing her whimsical, figural style in plaques, murals, statues and pottery. She drew on the cultural connections she experienced as a child: the connection to her Mexican and pre-Columbian Indian heritage was there, of course, but there was also what she witnessed in her own Los Angeles barrio during World War II, when the federal government deemed thousands of Japanese-Americans should be turned out of their homes and interned in camps with guards. De Larios at the time lived in a neighborhood that was home to many Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American families, and she had considered them friends.
“The Japanese, the Nisei, when I was little, they helped me by giving me a little potted plant to give to the teacher when I was late for school in that old neighborhood,” she said. “It was just a tiny little thing, because I was always late for school. “
De Larios felt such a strong connection to the Nisei that she studied the Japanese culture and in 1979 was commissioned to do a mural that became a gift from the city of Los Angeles to its sister city of Nagoya, Japan. She was a guest of the Japanese government for a month and was squired in a limousine to see important sights.
“I’d taken pots on the plane to give as gifts to various people, because I knew I’d be meeting a lot of people,” she said. “The night before I went to meet the mayor of Nagoya, who then had me to his house for dinner … I didn’t have wrapping paper. So I ran out and got coloring pens and stuff, and blank paper, and I decorated paper, hand-decorated it, and then wrapped these things.”
The occasion was a very formal, white-glove affair. She was introduced by a friend and was so nervous she almost broke down.
“I was so incredibly grateful to be there, and my art had taken me there,” she said, her voice cracking. “Anyway, he said, ‘Where did you get the paper?’ I said, ‘I made it.’ He said, ‘I’m going to frame it! So that was a kick.”
De Larios gives the impression that her entire life has been a series of “kicks” like that. Her conversation trips all over itself as she remembers events and episodes. But all of it comes down to her love of what she does.
“It’s been a very rich life, is what I’m telling you,” she says, throwing up her hands. “All along the way.”