Val Laigo, A People’s Artist

Celebrating Filipino American artist Val Laigo

by Eddie Wong

I’ve been a supporter of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution ever since I found a few unpublished poems by the little-known Chinese American revolutionary writer/actor/playwright H.T. Tsiang buried in the archives in the papers of his friend artist Rockwell Kent.  You can read H.T. Tsiang’s “toilet paper” poems and other works in the following article I wrote for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s website: https://www.immigrant-voices.aiisf.org/stories-by-author/h-t-tsiang-a-free-spirit-imprisoned-on-ellis-island/

As a supporter, I receive their e-newsletter and that is how I came upon the story posted by Jordan McDonald, the Winter 2018-2019 reference intern, on Valeriano Emerenciano Montante Laigo, an artist who was born in Naguilian, La Union, Philippines in 1930. Val Laigo  came to Seattle when he was six months old. Except for a few years of graduate study at Mexico City College, he spent his entire life in the United States.

Val Laigo next to his mosaic in Dr. José Rizal Park, Seattle, Washington, between 1988 and 1989. Unidentified photographer. Val Laigo papers, 1954-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Like many Filipinos, he worked in the service industries and also in the Alaskan fish canneries.  The discrimination he faced as a Filipino and worker deeply informed his worldview and his artwork.

After graduating Seattle University in 1954 and the University of Washington in 1964 with a Masters of Fine Arts, he worked as an artist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, art director for Boeing Research Laboratories and professor of art at Seattle University in 1965.

McDonald’s article puts the spotlight on East is West, a three-panel mosaic sitting on a hilltop in Dr. José Rizal Park in the Beacon Hill area of Seattle.  The three panels of stained glass convey the myriad contradictions rooted in the colonization of the Philippines.  McDonald writes:

In The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance, art scholar Sarita Echavez See asserts that “the artist successfully frames the failure of the imperial forms.” Val Laigo’s East is West is a dynamic example of this kind of radical reframing. Laigo’s work locates the complex identity and influences of a people who the US government had determined to be “foreign in a domestic sense” and collapsed the distance forged by imperialism. As an homage to the legacy of Dr. José Rizal, an activist whose primary weapon against injustice ere words, it is apt that East is West would take up the charge of contending with the painful and powerful truths of Filipino American history.  This time using the language of art.”

 

Schematic drawing for East is West mural in Dr. José Rizal Park, Seattle, Washington circa 1988. Val Laigo papers, 1954-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

You can read Jordan McDonald’s article, “Val Laigo, José Rizal Park, and the Mosaic of Filipino America” here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/blog/2019/03/val-laigo-jose-rizal-park-and-the-mosaic-of-filipino-america

The blog The Dress at 50 further describes Val Laigo’s East is West: The west-facing side of the mural is of an abstract design. The east-facing side of the mural refers to mythological and cultural symbology and is comprised of three sections. In the first section, the colors of the Spanish flag (red and yellow) are favored, along with European/Christian imagery: the ichthys, the head of a bull, the cross. The second section, in red, white, and blue includes Jewish, American and Chinese stars; milkfish, a Philippine food source; and rooster imagery, which is symbolic of Malayan cultures. The third section uses the colors of the flag of the Philippines (red, yellow, blue, and white), and depicts various mythological creatures, including the salmon as a symbol of Northwest Natives.

 The mosaic also has cut-outs which allow the viewer to see parts of Seattle and to place themselves within the artwork.

Photo of East is West from The Dress at 50.

Dr. José Rizal Park is located at 1008 12th Ave. S in Seattle, not far from the International District/Chinatown.

Val Laigo passed away on December 11, 1992.  In addition to achieving recognition as a painter and muralist with exhibitions throughout the U.S. and Mexico, he was a community activist, with Filipino Youth Activities of Seattle and the Art Mobile Project for Educational Services.  Val Laigo also participated with fellow Asian American artists and Filipino Americans in literary efforts such the magazine Orientale in 1950 and later with the magazine Bamboo. He also served on the King County Art Commission from 1972 to 1978.

Bamboo, 1953. Val Laigo paper, 1954-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Val Laigo’s artwork and activism  reflects his vibrancy, intelligence and passion.  His work will continue to inspire and move people now and forever.

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