I am interested in intersections: the spaces where serendipity or suffering meet, where passions collide and limbic resonance manifests. When I encountered the work of Dora De Larios, my response was vibrational. Her ceramics struck all my chords. They were made exquisitely over a career dedicated to exploring both the cultural history and the innovations of the material, as part of a thriving practice in spite of art world trends, by a woman of color unapologetically defining her aesthetic space. De Larios worked over decades without interest from or in the canonical arts scene because she had a vision and an impulse to create that superseded the need for celebrity or renown so prominent in today’s cultural milieu.
I never had an opportunity to meet her. Dora De Larios lost her fight against cancer on January 28, at the age of 84. I was devastated. After losing my mother a year ago, I have leaned heavily on my arts family to fill the void. I had an inkling Dora’s voice might feel like my mother’s whisper in my ear. I couldn’t wait to watch and listen as she spoke about her intentions, her loves and her practice, as I was sure it would feel like a homecoming.
As I grow older, I have anchored my curatorial paradigm around creativity and freedom. I recognize the necessity of both community and compassion, and my responsibility to reciprocally support the artists and works that sustain me. I had been hoping for the possibility of expanding my community to include Dora. From afar, she seemed so beautiful and beautifully complex, occupying a liminal space between figure and abstraction in her practice and in my imagination.
When I heard the news about Dora, I regretted having been too busy to meet her during the preparation of her exhibition. I had relied too heavily on my musings of a grand encounter where we would recognize each other as kindred spirits. Her work carries on the traditions of Doyle Lane, Ken Price and other ceramics innovators at USC. And her forthright integration of her Mexican identity into her fine art practice without regard to normalizing convention, and the freedom with which she pursued her aesthetics, producing a body of work that was narrative and compositionally precise, all aligned with my curatorial tenets.
Although I never met her, like many Angelenos, I am rejoicing in a love affair with her objects on exhibition at Main Museum through May 13th, Mother’s Day. Allison Agsten, executive director of the Main Museum, allowed me to sit with De Lario’s works during installation, understanding my need to find the words to convey both my delight in Dora’s life and despair about her death. But as I sat among the rich hues, smooth glazes, fantastical creatures and powerful goddesses in the new mezzanine gallery on 4th Street in Downtown LA, I realized that Dora lives. She built a legacy by maintaining a studio on Irving Place in Culver City, just down the street from where my sons went to elementary school, as well as an exhibition history with Craft & Folk Art Museum and the Main Museum, both under the direction and strong leadership of women I respect and admire. Most importantly, she loved making tactile narratives full of depth that conjured space and time, an invitation for respite and contemplation for denizens of this bustling city.
The ceramics, drawings and paintings of Dora De Larios are lasting gifts she generously created so that we can all know her. Agsten, who worked closely with her for the Other Worlds exhibition said, “I don’t remember who or what I fell in love with first, Dora or her work. I met her when she was 83 and she had a better sense of humor than most of my peers, she told the most riveting stories I’d ever heard, and she had a boundless energy for making art. The energy… I could feel it imbued in her work. The clay seemed to be an extension of this woman.
“Now, as l look at the work in gallery, that energy vibrates and reminds me that she is still with us in some ways. I feel enveloped [in] Dora’s love for beauty, her indomitable will, her joyous spirit. I am glad we are left with Dora’s sumptuous blues and her majestic goddesses. I see her wink in the playful faces of the creatures she created. But as much as I want them to be, the creatures are not Dora. Even the goddesses are not Dora. Those disks, which she told me represent unity for herself—a full circle if you look at it that way—those are not Dora. I will miss her forever.” Dora De Larios lives with us in memory, imagination and in the community she has created; the space for her enduring work.