Studio Visit: Anna Valdez
September 07 2014
The studio of Oakland-based artist Anna Valdez feels familiar even on first visit. Light spills through the transom windows of the old warehouse, illuminating stacks of stretched canvas and a shelf full of hot sauce and postcards. A large canvas stretched across the far wall reflects the table near the door, artfully draped in textiles, plants, books, and vessels. The objects appear in various stages of conclusion, a tartan sheet supernaturally suspended on a yet to be rendered chair. Valdez explains that her inclination toward oil paints, an impractical choice considering the vibrancy and clarity of her images, requires her to be patient with her work. She grabs us a couple cups of coffee and we sit together at a paint splattered table to discuss art, travel and the importance of going slow.
Is the inherently slow nature of painting with oils something that attracted you to the process?
I think these are just things are just my nature, I always thought of them as critique, when people would say things like “You really know how to enjoy yourself” or “You’re a slow mover”, but that’s just me, all of my interests seem to be this way. I’m interested in the process of fermentation, of gardening. I cook all of my meals if possible. It’s those moments when I’m doing something quiet that I enjoy. When I’m painting, I’m forced to sit down, look, observe. I think that’s what makes it a successful painting, this filtering through, but it’s a process that takes time.
It sounds really meditative the way you explain it – like anyone could just do it.
I was here earlier and the mailman came and he was asking “What do you guys do in there?” and I told him “It’s an artist’s studio”, really thinking “What are you asking?” He was just standing there trying to have this long conversation with me. He kept saying “I don’t know how to paint, I can’t do that! I have so much respect for you because you just paint!” and I said, not really understanding, “Well, anybody can paint”. He just repeated, “Yeah but, I don’t know how you do it!” He continued, “I can make beautiful objects out of metal, and my wife started selling them at our garage sales without telling me.” and I was like “Well there you go”! He went on for ten minutes this guy, and eventually I had to get back to work. But I like the conversations with the mailman. It’s just funny, sometimes you just get so absorbed into an art community that it feels so normal, what we do. Then someone forces you to step outside of it and you realize it can be this very big, mysterious action.
Did you grow up in an artistic home?
I’m the only person in my family that is doing this, my family is musically artistic but not visually artistic. My mom’s a crafter, so she understands, most of the quilts in my paintings are hers. Sometimes we’ll quilt together and it’s a nice family activity. So, they’re more makers. I don’t remember having toys growing up, but I remember making stuff with both of them. Like with my dad every weekend, it would be family gardening time. My mom would give us crafts and activities to do. I always used think I was so different, but I’m totally the product of them.
Coming from a family like yours, did you feel comfortable pursuing art full time? Or did it feel a bit like you were going out on a limb?
I’ve gotten a similar comment from people many times, “Oh isn’t that, like, selfish?” There is a lot of guilt, artist’s guilt, when you’re focusing on something like this full time. If you’re doing this full time, you either come from means or you’re working two jobs to support yourself, like labor jobs or service industry jobs, and then struggling to find time to work on your craft.
Most of the major hitters in the history of art worked with politicians, the monarchy, the church. They did commissions, so it’s a bit odd that doing a commission is seemingly beneath a lot of artists today. When you go to museums most of those paintings were made on commission, they were propaganda tools, they are forms of communication from the hegemonic state, you know? It had to be funded, but it was still valued. It was respected, but it had that use – art is a great tool for communication. Now thats not really the the case, society doesn’t appreciate or acknowledge that artists that are like a legitimate part of the system – they treat them like outsiders, like leeches. I think a lot of how people, at least where I grew up, tend to perceive it like that.
You didn’t originally set out to be a painter – you studied anthropology and ethnography, does that carry over to your work today?
I think people are products of their environments. What you tend to surround yourself with can become who you are, but it’s also the people you’re interacting with and the things that you’re experiencing. It’s all sort of a back and forth, not a one way street. So I definitely believe that my still lifes function as self-portraits. In archeology you reconstruct history from the little pieces of garbage from peoples lives. You’re making a story about who they were, based off of their objects, their remnants, the things they made and the things they left behind. That knowledge stays with me in everything I do. It makes sense to me – the objects that I surround myself with and the things that I’m interested in are the story that gets left behind to represent me. To put a face to something can isolate it, it becomes so specific. It’s a language, of symbols and motifs where people can form their own connections.
I’ve been thinking of this conversation between Steve Martin and Eric Fischl I was listening to the other day. They were on the subject of how people represent themselves, as actors and comedians, artists and painters. They said of Ed Hopper ‘He was a great artist, but not necessarily a great painter’. How do you choose to represent the work you do?
I feel like I’m on the same side of that coin. I don’t think my technical skills are great – I’ve only been painting for a short time. I wasn’t trained in the classical ways of rendering, or how to use perspective or whatever. But I feel like I’m never out of ideas. The work just kind of comes out no matter what. I’ll be having conversations with people or there’s something funny that happens, and I want to make a painting of it – to record it. I don’t want to say glorify it, that’s not the right word, but to sort of mark the occasion. My favorite paintings have come out of not knowing what to paint and being on the phone with somebody and they say something funny and I’m like “Oh yeah, I’m not a romantic person”, ‘Yo no soy romantica’, that’s one of my favorite paintings I’ve made. It’s kind of shitily done, but it was literally done while I was on the phone with someone. I look at the painting and laugh and I like that other people can look at the painting and connect with it as well.
I never aim for my work to be realistically rendered at all. I mean, I can respect people whose work has those qualities, it’s not easy. It’s almost a born talent, I think some people can learn it, but most people have it in them – or they don’t . It’s really amazing what they do, but I’m not so interested in the work that is being produced. Unless it’s really conceptually interesting, like it is really funny or like they’re saying something really strong, you know? There’s something very exhilarating about it. I honestly don’t feel like I’m painting sometimes, it just feels like I’m going into a trance. The act of painting becomes this spiritual act, in a very similar way to meditation or worship. I’ve got to be careful with my words, I’m not actually worshiping the paintings. I’m just saying, I find it fulfills that part of my humanity, so I’ve got that. Check.
A train thunders by and Anna gets up to grab one of the jugs of water that sit beside her books and trinkets on the shelf near the door. She starts pointing out items collected during her travels in Spain and China, both formative experiences for her.
I feel like I’m taking a break, I don’t have the travel bug right now, which is very unlike me. I remember being a kid and you know like how people have rock posters on their walls? I had maps. I told myself I need to marry a foreigner so I could have access to another part of the world. I would run into my moms sewing room and tell her this and she’d be like “ok dear”… I forgot about it for a long time, but after it actually happened, I felt like “Whoa, making realities here”.
Like that book ‘The Secret’ with all it’s positive visualizations?
Oh yeah – I’m beginning to firmly believe those things. Where you set everything up in your life and let it just start going. I knew what I wanted very early, because I had romanticized it all at such a young age. I never went out to play or anything, I was always just in my head.
As you’re explaining these things to me, I can see a very clear through line. It’s all storytelling.
When I started with archeology I did a field study. I put all of the money I saved over a few years of work to go on this trip, at this point I had never left the country. I went to Ireland, it felt like a good place because they speak English, so it was safe-ish. I believe in not going to the extremes right away – to have a good experience you have to step into it, which has served me well. I guess I’m a cautious person, and very curious as well, which is a strange mix. I was climbing a mountain every single day – doing an architectural analysis on this deserted village at the top. In the evenings we would climb down the mountain, have a shower, eat our dinner, and go to pubs. I was 20, so It was perfect.
I always wonder if I love drinking because of it’s association with that period in my life, it’s like I was living in a book, called The Island of Man or something. I was in County Mayo, which is mostly families speaking Gaelic. It’s an island off an island, there’s a pretty popular field school, but really nobody goes there. But my association with drinking is sitting in a dark room with these shepherd men telling stories of their childhoods and occupations, breaking out – I kid you not – into Oh, Danny Boy and it just got a fucking fire going. It was the picture I fantasized about, I don’t know how to fully explain it, but I’m getting all worked up just thinking about it. It was fantastic! I just love that association. Also, that was one of the selling points of this studio for me, there’s a brewery attached.
You can find Anna’s work online at annavaldez.com and on exhibit at Gallery Bergelli through October 16th.