Published in DCist on September 28, 2017
Luis Peralta Del Valle, detail from Selfie Inside Out: So Ugly. Courtesy of the artist.
“I’m an artist always feeling like an explorer, not necessarily creating but instead discovering.” So says D.C.-based artist Luis Peralta Del Valle, who will give a talk on Saturday at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. The artist will speak of a journey from home to a strange place.
“We left Nicaragua because of the Contra/Sandinista war, the civil war,” he says. “When we came here, unfortunately, we ended up in Columbia Heights before the development. We had crack addicts sleeping in our building’s stairwell. When I was walking to school, I stepped over them just to get out of the building.”
That kind of environment led him to graffiti and then to murals. Fortunately, in the middle of these difficult circumstances, an art teacher at Bell Multicultural High School encouraged his talent.
“She started watering me like a plant,” says Del Valle.
Thanks to that encouragement, Del Valle started winning art awards and learning about the Old Masters. He found further encouragement from Judy Byron, who founded an artist mentorship program with the Corcoran Museum of Art. The experience shaped his future.
At 16, Del Valle received his first commission from the fitness franchise Body by Jake, which was looking for a community-based artist to produce a mural. He had less than two weeks to complete the project, so he contracted with some of his friends to complete the work. “Hiring them to do this painting got me to think about art as a company—not just being an artist and making a living for myself, but also providing opportunities for other artists,” says Del Valle.
He created a huge opportunity for himself. Without any professional experience or a Catholic background, Del Valle walked into the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (now The Saint John Paul II National Shrine) in Brookland and proposed the organization hire him as a curator. “I don’t put limits on myself,” he says.
A curator wasn’t needed at the time, but he was hired to work part-time as an assistant, and in the process Del Valle learned something special about his own artwork. “That’s when I realized that a lot of my early works were religious,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in religion at all as a teenager, but it just came out of me naturally.”
Del Valle moved into a full-time position as the visitor services manager, and when the curatorial team left he was put in charge of an upcoming exhibition. His plan had worked. “Here I was, this young guy from the streets doing exhibits on the Holy Land, using Vatican items,” he says of the position he worked until 2011.
In his own artwork, Del Valle tells stories in vibrant colors, painting family, friends, and everyday people, historical icons, musicians, leaders, and legends. He leads community workshops and teaches young artists how to mix their graffiti skills with fine art painting techniques that can garner income. Occasionally, he still employs artist friends to assist with his commissions. Recovering from a serious car accident about a year and a half ago, such assistance was invaluable because he could not work on large-scale murals.
While incredibly painful, the recovery process led him to a new artistic direction. Del Valle often uses paper plates for his palettes, and instead of throwing away the remnants of dried paint, he had saved stacks of such plates without knowing what to do with them.
“I couldn’t paint because my joints were hurting. I decided to start peeling off the paint on the paper plates and applying it to some paintings that I had. The first one was ‘Selfie Inside Out,’ which is a self-portrait. It gave my work a whole new dimension,” he says. Now, he is back to murals and is currently working on a new commission.
Giving back to the community has remained important to the artist. “It’s important because God gives us opportunities to overcome a lot of struggles that other people are having a very difficult time overcoming. Sometimes, people have to be an example that if I can do it, then someone else can do it.”
And he wants to encourage others to use their art as personal expression and political statement. “Sometimes, through our artistic excellence we can show people who we really are. We can show them that not everybody that is a Latino immigrant is committing crimes. We are an asset to the United States and bring a positive light to it.”
Luis Peralta Del Valle speaks on Saturday, September 30 from 2-4 p.m. at the Anacostia Community Museum, 1901 Fort Place SE. Free.