Anna Valdez: Modern Matisse
Meet Anna Valdez, the Oakland-based painter best described as Matisse-meets-Frida Kahlo-meets-brainy anthropologist. She's a rising phoenix of sorts, defying the odds of leading a coveted career in painting. Valdez manages to maintain authenticity and coherence between her interests, her art, and the space she works in. Her studio is a fantastical greenhouse, filled with artifacts, books, and small quirky objects that you can also spy in her paintings. Pots and plants hang from the ceilings, purple vines drape from above, and after spending enough time in this room, you can’t quite tell reality from the art lining the walls. This is sensory overload at its finest. Valdez’s color arrays and botanical collections fill her studio with life, and it’s clear this visual, full of vibrancy and whim, is a mere window into her thoughts.
See more of Anna's work at http://www.annavaldez.com/, @missannavaldez
MO: Tell us about yourself and becoming the artist you are today, what was that like?
AV: I don’t know if I ever thought, “Ok I’m going to be an artist.” I think, like with anything, you fall into something because you love doing it, and it’s the continued effort and enthusiasm that turns it into something.
MO: Did you end up going to art school?
AV: Eventually, yes. I went to undergrad at UC Davis and studied Anthropology. I even went to field school because I thought I would be an archaeologist. I was convinced that was my path!
I always enjoyed painting, but didn’t think it was something I was going to pursue. I had a portfolio available, I kept working on paintings after undergrad, and I applied to grad school. I ended up attending Boston University to study painting. I didn’t have a strong fine arts foundation at the time, and I wanted a program that was more traditional and centered around painting – I liked the pursuit of something that provided a more romantic approach to learning. I think what I took the most from my grad program was a strong studio practice. I suppose I ultimately pursued painting based on a gut feeling, originally thinking life should be a certain way but following through on that gut feeling anyways.
MO: Which I think is very cool, because so many people suppress that feeling.
AV: I guess that’s true. Still, there are so many days where I’m like, “I can’t do this anymore!” When there are months that go by without any form of validation (through exhibitions or sales), it’s easy to feel that way.
MO: So what keeps you going in those moments?
AV: I get anxiety if I don’t paint for a few days. I feel like I should be doing something or I’m forgetting something. I realize, “Oh yeah I haven’t worked!” It’s almost a neurotic thing at this point. I can’t escape painting; it’s a language for me now. Finding connection with people is incredibly important to me in all aspects of my life. Everything is about relationships, and I find a lot of power in communicating through painting. My thought process isn’t focused around making paintings for other people to buy. I’m making connections with people because I’m making these paintings. We’re having this conversation right now because of my work.
MO: Exactly, being able to connect with people and to hear the story of others is very eye opening.
AV: You realize you’re not unique. Other people have similar thoughts as you, and through this connection, you tap into humanity and universal experiences.
MO: How do those connections contribute to your artistic style, or how did you find your artistic voice?
AV: Originally I didn’t think I found it in grad school but later realized it takes time to develop a language and reality in painting. I probably developed a voice and a language in school but I didn’t feel like I could articulate what I was thinking yet. A year or two after grad school, I found I was still making similar paintings and I realized, “Oh ok, this is me!”
MO: Is it difficult to stay on track and to continue to make things that feel authentic?
AV: I don’t know if I ever think, “I don’t like this.” The thought process is more like, “Is this compositionally interesting?” It’s all about technicalities and learning how to see things. Painting is fucking hard... I don’t want to create the same painting over and over again, and coming up with a new paining isn’t easy. Sometimes it can feel like a painting is playing hard to get, so I have keep pushing it to get what I want out of it.
MO: Do you ever get caught up in thinking about what your audience wants, versus what you want to paint?
AV: I don’t think about that at all. Creating work for other people is more of a designer’s mindset than an artist’s mindset. For me, painting is more about the pursuit of knowledge and discovery. You find shit out about yourself in the paintings, you investigate throughout the process. Each painting is a research project – it’s so vast, intense and heavy. That’s probably why I have a lot of references in my paintings; through them I’m investigating various ways to resolve a painting.
MO: Is that part of what keeps you interested in painting, searching for and finding answers through your work?
AV: Absolutely. I get excited about paintings I love. Finishing a piece and being happy with it fuels a certain kind of energy. Whenever I’ve taught or worked around other artists, I can last about 30 minutes talking before I get anxious and need to get back to painting.
MO: It’s very telling…when you find yourself needing to get back to something. Does that energy also come from being surrounded by other artists?
AV: Yes. Some artists need community, and some just need isolation and to be in their own head. I definitely need community in order to thrive.
MO: You’ve spoken about discovery and intellectual pursuits through your work. You’ve studied anthropology and your studio is filled with books. I feel like a lot of young individuals don’t know what they want to learn about, or aren’t as focused on learning. Have you always been driven by discovery?
AV: I would say curiosity comes natural to me. As a kid I would have National Geographic and Discover science magazines in my room and would cover my walls with maps (in addition to musicians). I have always been an insomniac, so I would stay up at night, dreaming about traveling and getting out and seeing the world.
Growing up, we were always finding ways to entertain ourselves. My mom is a crafter. We were always making things. My dad grew up on a farm and worked as an arborist for the city of Sacramento. He would tell me about plants and I was always interested in learning more. …You kind of wake up one day and realize you’re your parents’ child.
MO: What was high school like for you? Were you in an environment that fostered creativity?
AV: High school life was always so boring to me. Like…I did not care. But where I went to school, there were no “mean kids” or classic high school labels. We didn’t have roles assigned. Actually, I don’t think I had that in any aspect of my life really. It never mattered how cool you were. Sacramento is a very diverse city. We had everybody, a lot of refugees from Southeast Asia, kids from a variety of diverse backgrounds. So I think the maturity level of my classmates was relatively high because so many of them were ambassadors for their families. I think that environment contributed to my interests in anthropology too. I didn’t speak another language or come from a unique cultural background, but I just wanted to burst out of that bubble. It was like, "Give me more! I need to know more!"
MO: See, where I went to school, we definitely had labels. I always felt like I was many things and had many interests, but was only allowed to play one role.
AV: Oh yeah. When the movie Mean Girls came out, I didn’t believe kids could behave like that.
MO: I definitely experienced something like that…and once you get outside of it, you realize how small that environment was! How much do you think environment impacted your experience?
AV: Environment informs your behavior, but you also have things that are natural to you genetically. So yes, I am naturally curious, but my environment fostered that as well. I recently went to an artist’s residency in Oklahoma, and found it interesting to witness how art wasn’t very important to this midwestern rural town. They didn’t question things the way I typically do or how my bay area community does. Also, I was there during the 2016 presidential election, which was difficult for me as it is an extremely conservative red state. I hadn’t encountered a lot of people with these perspectives and I found it fascinating and disturbing.
MO: There are so many kids in high school now whose worlds revolve around playing roles, branding themselves, and social media presence. What advice would you give to that generation?
AV: …Fuck it. Maybe that sounds contradictory because I’ve gained an Instagram following through art. But I don’t really care about what I post, I just like posting pretty pictures and sharing my stuff with my friends. I had to make a separate account strictly for that…I like keeping my personal things semi private. And if you experience something fun and exciting, its kind of cool to post about it…but mostly to people that get it. Personally I don’t particularly care about stranger’s global adventures and lifestyle pictures….maybe I like the food pictures though.
As far as curating your life to look a certain way on social media, what’s the point of that? I think now more than ever people just need to be real. And if your reality is vacancy…that’s fine, but that’s just not really what I’m looking for in my human interaction.
MO: I love that, because vacancy is far too boring! What advice would you give young creatives who are just starting their careers?
AV: If I’m being honest…sustaining a career in art is about luck. The only reason I can still paint is because I worked freelance jobs and had support from my family when needed. I think it’s important to be clear that financial support from your family or a partner is not something everyone has access to. And if you look at the history of famous artists, they were probably able to devote x-amount of time to their work because they had financial support. So, for most creatives it’s important to find balance and stay on a sustainable budget. For me typically if I make a few big sales, I will space out the spending and save when possible…It’s all very precarious.
And, if you see potential in yourself, try cultivating that a bit…give yourself time. I knew I wanted to give myself five years of intense focus in painting. And if it’s not financially sustainable, then I’ll do what I need to find work to support my art. But at some point, you do have to risk it. Saying, “Follow your dreams! Do what makes you feel fulfilled!” is such a privileged mindset…that’s not a reality for most people. I don’t even know if it’s my reality…but I’m not turning away from it. Not yet.