The Westside studio and home of San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez is a restored 1928 fire station. Valdez and his fiancé, artist Adriana Corral, saved it from being razed a year ago. The historic building and its modern interior are rich with story and charm, reflecting San Antonio history and the couple’s aesthetic, and infused with the handiwork of their friends and fellow local artists. In his studio are works in process for his upcoming exhibition at Artpace, "The Strangest Fruit," which will open in the Hudson (Show)Room Thursday, May 8.
The opening of Valdez’s exhibition "The Strangest Fruit, along with the opening of "Within the Angles of Incidence" by local artist Cathy Cunningham-Little is tonight from 6-9 p.m. at Artpace, where it’s always free to visit.
The station is an unassuming, two-story gated building marked by its hand painted name, "Fire Station No 15" and a small cement statue of a fireman.
“It's got a great view at night of downtown. You can hear the trains, but we’ve gotten used to it,” he said.
The compound is multi-functional; each space is well utilized according to the couple’s needs, as expected of savvy, urban dwellers with three dogs.
The ground-floor studio is layered between a second-story loft-style apartment and an unfinished basement. Outside there is a large covered outdoor workspace that serves as Adriana’s studio and a fantastic backyard, ripe for gatherings with friends and family.
The couple would also like to eventually build a guest space to host other artists for their own residency.
Entering the studio space quickly reveals an artists' dream—the ground floor is customized for a contemporary artist: White walls, concrete floors, and plenty of room for Valdez’s large-scale canvases – though the artist admits he could already use more space.
Despite its modern appearance historic markers still remain, like the Fire Station #15 window that frames the staircase leading up to the second floor living space (see more photos in gallery above).
The couple’s upstairs apartment is full of subtle treasures—each object and material seems to tell a story of historic San Antonio and local art. The loft-like space is open and filled with light. It's modestly sized but they use the space well. "It will prevent us from buying a lot of furniture."
The building needed a lot of work when Valdez first bought it. He originally wanted to install a fireman's pole to get from the top floor loft down to his studio, but the idea proved too challenging for insurance companies.
Throughout the space there are custom elements added by local craftsman. Valdez talked about how he traded for works of art to accomplish the renovation. Many of the materials they used were repurposed. "Everything was from somewhere in the city, ready to be tossed out," he said.
Their dining table was made from an old pecan tree that fell down at the Tropicana hotel. The dining chairs are from an antique shop on Broadway near the San Antonio Museum of Art. “They were on the top floor with a lot of other stuff the owner thought was just junk.”
They brought home the four rotted chairs and spent a month sanding and varnishing them to bring them back to life.
In the kitchen are glass cases from the San Antonio Independent School District in the 1960s — they even had chemistry formulas written on them, which have since worn off. The kitchen drawers are from a 1920’s San Antonio grocery store.
They also found huge sheets of metal mesh they used as cabinet casing. After researching the material, they discovered it came from the old ButterKrust Bakery. “It was from the conveyer belt where they put all the bread,” he said.
The space feels contemporary despite its historical parts. "But that was the only way we could do it—find the scrap stuff and bring it back to life." said Valdez.
The home is a labor of love, Valdez said with a laugh. "But I don't think I'll ever do this again."
Except for the occasional harmless vagrants, Valdez and Corral enjoy living on the Westside. “It’s been an exciting year, for the most part it's been easy. Though our family thought we were a little crazy at first.”
Valdez’s studio is organized and well stocked. The technical draftsmanship in his works-in-process is pristine. It is clear from visiting Valdez's studio and home that he is a detail-oriented person. Known for his photorealistic painted portraits, he thoughtfully adorns his figures with visual clues, telling a story about the subject through a sports jersey, a tattoo, or a pin for local band Pop Pistol.
Valdez is a native San Antonian who received a full ride to the renowned Rhode Island School of Design, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2000. His drawing skills propelled him forward and after graduating he landed a solo exhibition at the McNay Museum where he was the youngest artist to do so at just 26 years old.
He has since exhibited at galleries and museums both nationally and internationally, including a piece in a 15-person exhibition at the newly relocated FL!GHT gallery at Blue Star Arts Complex. He is also chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the Southwest School of Art, where he will teach full-time in the fall as the school welcomes its inaugural class of BFA students.
Valdez’s latest project opening at Artpace, "The Strangest Fruit," is a series of large paintings inspired by the lost/erased history of lynched Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Texas from the late 1800s well into the 1930s. The title is taken from the poem "Strange Fruit" by Abel Meripool that was made famous by Billie Holiday’s recording in the 1930s. The lyrics present haunting visuals of black Americans, using the metaphor of “strange fruit” to describe victims of lynch mobs, hung from trees.
“I adapted the lyrics and slightly altered the text to describe a Texas landscape, which sprouts ‘brown bodies’ instead of ‘black bodies.’" he said. "The title, 'The Strangest Fruit,' suggests that this sinister portion of American history goes much further than we have been told. The subject of Latino lynchings is almost entirely unknown, unheard, and unspoken of in the United States.”
His skillfully rendered life-size figures appear to pop in contrast to their pristine, white backgrounds – yet when viewed up close, the edges of each form are intentionally blurred. Light seems to envelope the figure. “Erasing the background, the negative space is not just blank, it becomes an object in itself, like some sort of landscape. It has a presence and becomes some sort of symbol. It swallows the figure."
The figures appear to hang from an invisible noose bur are simultaneously levitating, like a ghost ascending into infinite light. "There's something intimate about them—if you erase the noose it becomes almost like a dancer. A slow dance, a hug, a kiss." says Valdez.
Valdez’s subjects are dressed in contemporary clothing, but their poses reference a dark time in our not-so-distant past. The artist came across a book containing historical photos of lynchings of African Americans that occurred in the south in the late 19th century. The history of lynchings in Texas is not as widely known—many of those hanged were Mexican-American farmers who owned land that others coveted. It was relatively easy to accuse them of a crime they didn't commit, hang them, and acquire the property.
Photos of the lynchings were popularized and put on postcards, collected like trading cards.
“They would sell them to the newspapers, they were a very hot item,” Valdez said.
Many of the photos show large crowds that included women and children attending the lynchings. These images are difficult to look at — these scenes are nearly unimaginable for modern times.
The lynchings became such a normal occurrence that they turned into a cultural affair and often crowds would bring along a picnic. "We’re talking like fiesta-style gatherings" said Valdez.
The paintings’ content is heavy but the images appear light and inoffensive. They invite the viewer in with their vivid detail. Valdez is a humble artist who draws you into to his intense and heavy subject matter with his exquisite and refined technical skill. The traditional medium of oil paint perhaps makes the content a bit easier to digest.
"I love that idea of the paintings expressing such a fine line, between living and dying. It’s a symbolic view of how we measure things in America—that we're that close to being on the wrong side of the line, that it can flip so easily."
So far Valdez has only chosen to portray men in this series. It is too difficult for him to imagine any woman in that position, especially one of his friends or family members, who often serve as models in his studio.
Though the paintings confront viewers with a dark time in history, the actual figures depicted in Valdez’s work are some of his trusted friends and family members who volunteer to serve as models. For Valdez this gives the work another contextual layer. They are no longer anonymous figures; they are the people closest to him. And because there is no visible noose, it is not immediately clear the figures are hanging. “I'm so intrigued by these figures. They look like they're rising up.”
Valdez recently returned from an artist residency in Berlin. He visited a museum called the Topography of Terror where he spawned the idea for a series of photographic portraits that will be included alongside his paintings at Artpace.
The Topography of Terror museum was built on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. Valdez encountered images on exhibit at the museum of people who were persecuted and taken by the Gestapo. He shared a book of drawings he made of some of the people in the photographs—the closest thing he has to a sketchbook.
These portraits reminded him of inmate mug shots, passport photos, and institutional images, sparking an idea. Valdez worked with local artist Mark Menjivar to photograph 15 anonymous San Antonio men from all different walks of life (see featured/top image). “They sort of resemble the characters from the paintings” says Valdez.
The men are photographed against a white background and their bodies are slightly blurred, similar to the effect Valdez uses in his drawings and paintings. "By blurring them out, for me, it becomes sort of like whitewashing the figures, like you're trying to wash them away or send them somewhere else. The blur in the drawings has really started affecting my work."
Expanding his exploration of portraiture from drawing and painting into photography, Valdez commented, “For the most part my work is pretty focused on the figure. For me these portraits become universal even though they're so specific. You could look at him 50 years from now and he's going to be just as intriguing."
This is the first time Valdez will show photographs. “I'm excited because I've never done photography or shown it with paintings. I've used photography to document models for the painting but never actually exhibited the images.”
Valdez spends an average of 10 hours a day in the studio when he’s nearing the end of a project, taking the occasional break for a cup of tea. It is apparent from the amount of detail in his work that he spends a lot of time perfecting his skills. He acknowledged that sometimes he works too much, “I’m going to try to start taking Sundays off.”
Leaving Valdez’s studio I noticed a clear canister filled with remains of dried oil paint—the discard pile of paint scraped from palettes at the end of each painting session.
The layered scraps serve as a visual catalogue of Valdez's practice—each layer is defined by its colors, identifying the painting Valdez was working on at the time.
It represents years of work but there is still much space to fill.
*Featured/top image: Vincent Valdez holds one of 15 photographs of anonymous San Antonio men by local artist Mark Menjivar that will be on display alongside Valdez' series "The Strangest Fruit." Photo by Taylor Browning.