Ed Aulerich-Sugai (1950–1994) was an Asian American artist, writer, gardener, and AIDS activist. Primarily a representational painter, he drew inspiration from traditional Japanese mythology and iconography, which he transformed through a contemporary lens. His work also draws upon the anatomy of humans and animals to explore the power and fragility of life. Aulerich-Sugai died of AIDS in 1994. A quarter-century later, his work stands as a unique document of his seven-year experience of living with the disease. The oeuvre includes journals, paintings, and works on paper spanning the artist’s career, from the 1970s through the last months of his life.
Aulerich-Sugai was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Japanese-American mother and Caucasian father. His parents met when his father was stationed in Hawaii. When Aulerich-Sugai was a child, the family, including his three sisters, moved to Tacoma, Washington. He experienced social isolation in the mostly white, working-class city of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1970, after graduating from Tacoma Community College, Aulerich-Sugai moved to San Francisco and enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which was a center of experimental art practices and home to a queer bohemian community. The faculty at the time included George Kuchar, Sam Tchakalian, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and Norman Stiegelmeyer. Aulerich-Sugai received his BFA in painting from SFAI in 1974.
In addition to maintaining a studio and exhibiting, Aulerich-Sugai was an award-winning gardener, working at the the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, and he used techniques of botanical illustration in some of his artwork. His work was exhibited at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, New Langton Arts, Asian Art Museum, and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, among other Bay Area institutions.
In 1987, Aulerich-Sugai was diagnosed with HIV. The next seven years would become the most generative of his career. “The painting became a way for me to examine my illness, deal with my anger and fear and a way to focus on healing and fighting the disease,” Aulerich-Sugai wrote. He was one of the first beneficiaries of Visual AIDS, a support organization for artists with HIV infection. He often spoke and wrote about his experience of living with AIDS.
During this period, Aulerich-Sugai created several series of paintings, variously focused on the disease. They range from abstract enlargements of cells in mitosis and biomorphic forms, influenced by the graphics of Japanese woodblock prints, to fantasies of Japanese warrior gear that function as “visual mantras,” to illustrations and text for a disquieting autobiographical children’s book about a boy who succumbs to cancer.
Aulerich-Sugai is inurned in the San Francisco Columbarium, in a tomb he designed and constructed.
Portrait photography of Aulerich-Sugai and Ostrow throughout this site and above is by Alain McLaughlin.
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