The MultiCultural Center Theater was overflowing Thursday afternoon with UCSB students, staff and faculty buzzing with excitement for the appearance of a controversial Chicana artist and UCSB alumna.

Alma Lopez, who graduated from UCSB about 15 years ago, returned to UCSB on Thursday to discuss her life, her work and her future. The artist, who is best known for her controversial work entitled “Our Lady” – a photograph of a young Chicana woman wearing a bikini of roses digitally superimposed onto the traditional scene of the Virgen de Guadalupe – came to UCSB to kick off the MCC’s Sixth Annual Chicana/o Art Exhibition.

“It’s special to return here because I get to come back and thank the people who helped make me what I’ve become today,” Lopez said.

The crowd was filled to capacity with loyal Lopez fans, many of whom stayed after the lecture to have posters autographed.

“She is an inspiration for all women,” undeclared sophomore Tania Saenz said as she grabbed a handful of free postcards bearing one of Lopez’s images for her friends. “Her art depicts strong mujeres, especially women of color who are thought to be passive. It’s inspiring and gives us motivation.”

Speaking English augmented with Spanish words and phrases, Lopez described how her life and her years at UCSB influenced her in life choices.

Lopez was born in Mexico and moved to Los Angeles when she was four years old. She grew up mainly in East L.A. and visited relatives in Mexico often. She said she was influenced by the traditional art of Mexico such as the Virgen de Guadalupe and Aztec art as well as the images of urban L.A. like murals, makeup and low-riders.

“It was the art all around me – that was my museum,” Lopez said.

Lopez was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and said she came to UCSB “by chance.”

“I didn’t know what a university was, really. I thought it was like ‘Animal House,'” she said. “I thought it was like this place with all these drunks, ‘do I want to go to a place like that?’ I had enough trouble with the drunks at home. But I had this drive and I knew I wanted to get out [of East LA].”

A love of fieldtrips is what Lopez said originally brought her to UCSB. Her junior year of high school Lopez signed up for a six-week summer program after which she and other participants were encouraged to apply to UCSB.

“It was the only place I applied. It’s a good thing I got in because I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t,” she said.

She was an active member of El Congreso and La Voz and aside from a short stint as a business economics major, Lopez studied art while at UCSB.

“I was probably the dirtiest kid in the dorms because I was always covered in charcoal and paints,” she said.

After graduation she did her graduate work at UC Irvine and began working for Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARK), a Venice, Ca. group that paints and restores murals. While working for SPARK she and an African-American friend started Homegirl Productions and began painting murals with African-American and Latino themes in L.A. It was at this time that she began toying with digital art.

Her most controversial work, “Lupe y Sirena in Love,” is a scene depicting a topless mermaid in the passionate embrace of a virgin idol.

“When I made that piece I just stood back and said ‘oh, what have I done!,'” she said.

She said she made the work to represent herself and show the Virgen de Guadalupe as a representative of Mexican people that does not exclude the lesbian community.

“It’s really about absolute love and acceptance,” she said. “This image is about two completely different worlds coming together.”

Lopez’s best known work, “Our Lady” drew protests from the Catholic Church and death threats to herself and a museum director after Jose Villegas, a Santa Fe native, saw the exhibit and was offended by what he considers the sexualization of the sacred image. In protest, he and Deacon Anthony Trujillo went on a “holy fast” in which they pledged to eat nothing but bread and drink nothing but juice and water in alternating weeks until the museum board agreed to remove the piece. The museum board refused to close the exhibit early.

Lopez said while the controversy and the threats and insults that followed hurt her emotionally, they also inadvertently helped her career and the feminist cause.

“Like for many artists, it’s about getting people to see your work,” she said.

Lopez is currently working on a new series called “Urban Goddesses” about “brave women who are willing to be themselves.” In the future, she also plans to start working with video to create moving, 3-D images.