Alumnus Joel Aguilar Leaves Lasting Mark at Stan State with ‘Daydreaming’
May 15, 2024
Joel Aguilar

The bright blues, yellows and oranges draw in the viewer, along with the faces, profiles of what artist Joel Aguilar sees as representative of Stanislaus State’s diverse students. Their gazes are on images of the Central Valley, its row fields and hills. A worker digs in the dirt near a flock of butterflies, and fireflies dot the sky. 

The images make up Aguilar’s mural “Daydreaming,” created on the wall in the patio of the Innovative Center. Because of rain, it was unveiled virtually, a red ribbon stretched below a screen projecting the work in a classroom in Bizzini Hall during the 23rd Annual Capstone Conference on May 4. 

Some six years in the making, the final product is the result of graduate student Jaqueline Villegas securing a Heartland Grant from the Stanislaus Arts Council to fund it, the mural is not just a daydream. It’s a dream come true. 

“One of the things I wanted to do was give back to my alma mater,” Aguilar said. “It’s always been a dream.” 

He is a product of parents who left their native Mexico so their children could get an education and have a chance at a better life. “Daydreaming” is a thank-you to them. 

“I really wanted to create something that speaks to first-generation students,” Aguilar said. “I’m first-generation myself. Coming from a family that sacrificed it all to come here and provide opportunity, and then me telling them I want to be an artist. You really have to prove yourself, showcase yourself, give it your all, hustle to be an artist. One thing I remember is seeing what my parents and past generations have done. I did work in the fields for two weeks and tapped out.” 

“I really wanted to create something that speaks to first-generation students,” Aguilar said. “I’m first-generation myself. Coming from a family that sacrificed it all to come here and provide opportunity, and then me telling them I want to be an artist.”

- Joel Aguilar, Alumnus and Artist

Aguilar fled the fields and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Stan State in 2015. He works full-time as an art technician for the arts programs at Merced College and paints murals in his spare time, mostly on weekends. He estimates he has completed about 100. 

“Daydreaming” began on Jan. 9, another rainy day, and was the culmination of its own dream. 

As Villegas recalls, the Honors Endeavor Club was set to enliven the courtyard of the Honors Program offices with a mural in 2020, but COVID shut down the campus and those plans. 

“This was always the spot, because I was part of the Honors Program,” Villegas said. “They supported my learning experiences the most throughout my undergrad at Stan State, and I really felt I needed to give back to this community.”  

She was one of about a dozen honors students involved in the mural project. Villegas cites art student Jazmine Diaz, who has since graduated, as a driver of the project and someone who wanted Aguilar to paint the mural from the early planning stages. 

Villegas, by then pursuing a Master of Science in Psychology with a marriage and family therapy concentration, successfully wrote a grant application to the Stanislaus Arts Council, and she again called on Aguilar. 

“It felt good coming back from hiatus and trying to do something positive on campus, fighting for work in Stanislaus County and Turlock,” Aguilar said. “It’s just a proud moment for me.” 

Maybe it’s because it comes from the heart, a gift to the University that nursed his creative instincts. 

His artistic skill was first noticed and nurtured by a middle school art teacher, and by the time he was in high school, he was winning ribbons for his work shown at Merced Art Hops. 

His parents didn’t understand his desire to pursue art at Stan State. They immigrated so he could become a success, but as an artist? His mom once told a television reporter that it was difficult to embrace his chosen field. 

“She said, as a mother, she did not support me doing art because she had no idea how to help me be successful in the art world, a world she doesn’t know,” Aguilar said. “But they went along with the gamble, and they let me be an artist.”  

At age 17, Aguilar was accepted into a summer program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Southern California, and when he received a CalArts scholarship, he used it to attend Stan State. 

He found what he needed at the campus near his Livingston home, calling the faculty “amazing.” His advisor, Professor of Art History Roxanne Robbin, changed his life. 

He told her he planned to take out a $10,000 loan to move into on-campus student housing to gain some independence. 

“She was like, ‘How about you go to Florence instead?’” Aguilar remembered. “I didn’t know I could go there. It was crazy. That was my dream. And then she told me there was a program at Stan State that could get me there. She helped me apply, and that happened because of her. I spent two semesters studying art in Italy.” 

He studied at both the California State University International Program in Florence and the Accademia, which houses Michaelangelo’s David sculpture. 

“It was just amazing,” he said. “Living and breathing art, especially in such an historic place.” 

He returned home a different person with a newfound confidence as an artist. 

“I think Italy really shaped me into who I am today,” Aguilar said. “It was an amazing experience where I was in a foreign country and given some tasks, and I conquered them. I just felt unstoppable. When I came back here, I brought that energy with me, and I thought, ‘Why am I not seizing every opportunity? Why am I being quiet?’ Being over there really gave me the confidence to tell people I’m an artist, and I’m a hell of a good one.” 

He has built a reputation as a local muralist and has now left a visible mark on Stan State. 

“It’s just a proud moment to look on my artistic map and imprint on California,” he said after the unveiling of “Daydreaming.” “It feels good.”