120 Vito J. Valdez

Born Wyandotte, MI, 1952 / Studies at the College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit, MI

Art, for Vito Valdez, is about expressing something real – an idea, an emotion, an experience, or, even better, all of the above. Valdez’s visceral 1999 paintings Columbine and Kosovo, for example, combine dynamic brush strokes, intense colors, and fragmented references to the perpetrators and victims of violence to convey a sense of deep anger at the senseless massacres that occurred in these places. It is impossible to deconstruct the exact experiences that underlie these paintings, but perhaps they include the time Valdez spent working as a surgery technician while a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, or his childhood growing up in a tough environment where masculinity and violence were often interchangeable.

Outside of the studio, Valdez has created numerous powerful pieces of public art, frequently working in collaboration with the communities where they are located, and often involving other artist friends. The Cornfield (1998,/2008), a mural at Bagley and 16th, close to Valdez’s home in Southwest Detroit, was painted in collaboration with James Puntigam (Essay’d #113), and is organized around a central image of parallel columns of field workers walking alongside rows of corn. The male and female figures are lit by sunlight and moonlight respectively, and both are heading toward a pass in a mountainous horizon. Valdez has indicated that the mountains are based on the hills around his family’s hometown of El Paso on the Texas-Mexico border, and so the mural could be read as a commentary on migrant workers heading towards a brighter future. The mural’s text, though, makes it clear that Valdez considers colonial dispossession, not social mobility, to be the root cause of his people’s migration.

Valdez and Puntigam, along with Diana Alva (Essay’d #105) and Maurice Greenia, Jr. (Essay’d #91) were four prominent members of the group of artists who converged around the Zeitgeist Gallery in Southwest Detroit from 1997 to 2008. Combining elements of surrealism, performance, and collaborative painting, the Zeitgeist was a singularly creative environment during this period. Some of this dynamism can be seen in Drum and Dance, two works that were originally painted by Valdez in 2000/2001 as part of a series of murals in a downtown Detroit parking structure to honor the city’s spirit through its musical roots. The murals were unfortunately painted over around 2013, but Valdez is currently re-creating his panels from the series—which he considers some of his best work—as standalone paintings.

One of Valdez’s most frequently viewed works is Elephant (2010), a large assemblage which he created in conjunction with visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and which is now on permanent display there. It is one of several public works that Valdez has created to honor the different living beings, such as fishes (e.g. Spirit of the Great Lakes (2003)) and insects (e.g. Chrysalis (created with Christine Bossler in 2018)), with whom we co-inhabit the world. On a personal level, Valdez identifies most closely with el lobo (the wolf) and he regularly uses the animal as a surrogate for himself, often in relationship to his late life-partner, the artist Mary Laredo Herbeck. Two particularly poignant examples from 2011 are the cleverly titled Emiliano’s Zapatos,which Valdez created from leather objects and shoes that belonged to him or Herbeck, and Laredo, a mural tribute in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood.

In 2008, Valdez returned to The Cornfield, and added the Virgin de Guadalupe to watch over the columns of migrant workers. In conversation, he confides that his first art experiences came from observing Catholic rituals at St. Anne’s, the historic church where he went to school, and in whose shadow he now lives. When talking about The Cornfield, he emphasizes that it was inspired by his work restoring CitySpirit, an adjacent piece by George Vargas and Martin Moreno from 1979 that is Michigan’s oldest surviving Chicano mural; but he also talks about how his work has inspired younger street artists such as Fel3000ft, and how they all follow in the footsteps of  Los Tres Grandes. He also mentions that in creating works such as Elephant, Chrysalis, and Spirit of the Great Lakes, he involves the public not only in the construction of the object, but also in the performance of shared rituals relating to the animal spirits. When you look at the the entirety of Valdez’s work, what emerges beyond the intensely conveyed emotions and experiences is the sense that we are all inter-connected in some way—that we are all swimming, so to speak, in the same river.

Steve Panton, March 2019

Copyright Essay’d 2019