At 18, the South Valley artist began formal study of the traditional Spanish colonial art with her mentor and fellow artist, Marie Luna, about a year ago. She took the Archbishop’s Award at last year’s youth market and will be showing her work in the main adult market for the first time this weekend.
Last year, she sold out before 10 a.m.
Valdez’s work will be displayed at the 66th Annual Traditional Spanish Market on the Santa Fe Plaza. About 250 Spanish colonial artists from New Mexico and southern Colorado flock to Santa Fe, bringing carvings, tinwork, colcha embroidery, hide painting, retablos, straw appliqué, furniture, weaving, jewelry, pottery and ironwork for sale. Visitors can graze through the local flavors of a food court while musicians perform on the market stage. The event draws about 95,000 visitors to the Plaza annually, according to the city of Santa Fe.
Valdez spends her passion carving ponderosa pine into boards bearing her sketches and watercolors at a tiny table tucked within the family gym. She mixes her own gesso (a primer) from animal hide glue, marble dust and plaster of Paris, then lightly sketches the shapes and forms of her figures before picking up her paintbrush.
A consummate overachiever, Valdez graduated 11th in her class at St. Pius High School and was accepted by both Wellesley College and George Washington University. In the fall, she’ll be attending St. Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where she will double-major in electrical engineering and biology. She hopes to work for Sandia National Laboratories and create art in her spare time.
Valdez was born two months premature with her twin brother, Odysseus.
“When I was younger, I was the less-smart twin,” she said. “I struggled in math, especially. I just worked really hard. I read more, and I did my homework ahead of time. My goal was to get in the top 10.”
Her mother, Dina, gave her charcoal and watercolors when she was a toddler.
“My mom always made us do art,” Valdez said. “She thought it was important for the right side of the brain.”
Although she was grounded in Catholicism, she knew nothing about Spanish colonial art. A turning point came when Dina showed her daughter’s paintings to Luna, a longtime patient in the dental office where she worked.
“She said, ‘You’re going to be retablo artist,’ ” Valdez said. “I didn’t even know what that was.”
Retablos are devotional paintings using iconography found in traditional Catholic Church art. Luna became Valdez’s mentor. She studied with the Spanish Market artist weekly and felt the stirrings of an ancient cultural muse.
“I’ve always felt a little bit disconnected,” Valdez said. “My grandparents spoke Spanish, but they were punished for it in school, so my mom never really learned it. My generation is called the lost generation of Hispanics. I hope to learn it someday.
“Just doing art in general is something I kind of need. I feel stressed when I’m not doing it on the side to keep myself centered. It’s therapy, I guess. I feel at home.”
Valdez researches her saints before putting brush to canvas on her lunette-topped carvings. Her award-winning 2016 Virgin Mary retablo was something of a hybrid. The Virgin of Guadalupe surfaces across the stars glittering throughout her robe. The flower she holds is a nod to Our Lady of Roses.
“I just wanted it to be unique,” the artist said. “A lot of people do Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought it would be cool to combine different versions of her.”
Amid the clean lines and smooth paints peek details bringing her figures to life. Individual eyelashes spring from a lid line. While many painters produce humbled, downcast eyes, Valdez adds life in the irises.
St. Francis is a favorite.
“I always really loved St. Francis,” Valdez said. “He’s very human. He just seems such a kind figure. I like that he’s the patron saint of animals.”
Once her dad jokingly suggested she create a patron saint of beer.
“So I looked it up, and there’s a patron saint of brewers – Arnold,” she said, laughing.