Creative Growth artist Juan Aguilera celebrates nature, Mexican heritage through designs

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The following quotes from Juan Aguilera were translated from Spanish to English by Veronica Rojas.

Since 1998, Juan Aguilera has been making art at Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center, a nonprofit organization that serves artists with disabilities. The organization was founded in 1974 and supports more than 150 artists by providing artistic materials and guidance from professional artists, hosting gallery exhibitions and more. Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced the temporary closure of the center’s studio, that hasn’t stopped Aguilera from creating.

“I’m enjoying making my own artwork at home,” Aguilera said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “The hardest part has been not having accessibility to all the materials at Creative Growth, like the brilliant colors, the acrylic colors, the varnish, all the lost-and-found objects we had at Creative Growth. That’s been the hardest part material-wise, but I’m trying to improvise as much as possible at home and use the materials I have.”

Gathering inspiration from art in books and magazines, Aguilera has been drawing as long as he can remember. He began to expand his artistic skill set more than 20 years ago when his social worker first introduced him to Creative Growth. In addition to improving his drawing skills, he also learned how to paint, make collages, sculpt with clay and work with wood at the studio.

“I do feel like I have grown over the years at Creative Growth as an artist,” Aguilera said. “The community, the teachers have taught me a lot of things. A lot of what I do now is thanks to my teachers.”

At the studio, he continues to search for inspiration in magazines and photos saved in his phone. Filled with brilliantly bright hues and floral imagery, much of his artwork is influenced by his strong admiration for nature.

“Flowers are beautiful, and they should be everywhere — flowers being in the ocean, and flowers being on Jupiter,” Aguilera said. Along with tending to his lovely garden at home, he also cares for his pet parakeet, Lorito, who appears in many of Aguilera’s artistic works.

“I think they’re very lovable and intelligent animals,” Aguilera said. “My parakeet has helped me with my loneliness when I’m sad, when I’m stressed. And they’re important for plants and flowers.”

Aguilera immigrated to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, when he was 8 years old. While he’s lived in Oakland for 48 years now, his vivid art reflects a deep appreciation for his hometown’s scenery.

“I’m very inspired by the flowers in Mexico,” Aguilera said, gesturing at one of his floral artworks. “When I painted this, my vision was that this could be the creation in a woman’s blouse or in a woman’s dress.”

Aguilera’s artistic designs intersect with his interest in fashion, and he often imagines his work into clothing — women’s underwear, specifically. “The reason I love underwear so much is because of all the embroidery,” he said. “I have a real appreciation for the craft, for the sewing, but I don’t like doing it myself, so I’d rather draw it or paint it.”

He hopes that one day his designs will be printed onto women’s underwear: “My dream is to have a huge factory where they would have a special machine where they could do embroidery on the underwear,” he shared. “I would have the embroidery done in purples, pinks, reds and oranges.”

It’s evident that Aguilera is no stranger to fashion. In 2017, his work was displayed during New York Fashion Week at the Ace Hotel. “I felt good in my mind to be part of the fashion show,” Aguilera said. Later in April 2019, he modeled in Creative Growth’s annual “Beyond Trend” fashion show, in which he flaunted a bold black jacket embellished with his own intricate, floral designs pressed on with oil-based ink.

This year, Creative Growth’s fashion show was postponed due to the pandemic, and other studio services accordingly shifted online. “I miss going to all these places. Why is the coronavirus still around?” Aguilera said, adding that “sometimes I will draw when I feel bad.”

Aguilera finds art therapeutic, and from home, he’s still finding ways to stay involved with activities that bring him joy. Most recently, he taught an art class on Zoom to fellow Creative Growth artists. “For my Zoom class, I decided to teach artists how to make dahlias,” he said. “My favorite part was when I taught how to draw them with a marker, and then how to paint in with watercolors. … It’s an art to make it look simple.”

Simplicity is the last thing that defines Aguilera’s artwork, but its effortlessness clearly translates across screens. Although Aguilera is staying home and Creative Growth’s artist studio is closed, it’s comforting that community growth can continue online during this difficult time.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].