In the 15 years that span his new exhibit, Ray Valdez became a felon, a free man, a teacher, a husband, a father and finally, an artist.
Valdez, an Aztec/Nahua Indian, stands tall in black cowboy boots and jeans. His sleeveless denim work shirt reveals well-defined arms adorned with tattoos. Long black hair is pulled back into a ponytail. His grin is broad. His hands are large and look capable of crushing something—if they weren’t busy painting with watercolors.
His eyes are bright, warm and just a little unpredictable. Two streaks of yellow paint are at his temples—a representation of the rising sun and a reminder “not to leave the prayer state completely.” Valdez, 50, recently returned from the Sun Dance, a 12-day Native American prayer ceremony in Oregon.
Images of Native spiritual practices, regalia, landscapes, celebrations and pains surround him now as he stands in the Wilbur D. May Museum, where 25 of his paintings hang. It’s the first solo artist show for the museum since its gallery was remodeled roughly five years ago.
There’s the delicate “Hummingbird,” where cranberry-red droplets of his spirit animal flutter around a prayer altar. Bright, acrylic strokes of dancing feathers; soft homages to area lakes done in plein air watercolors; nods to his Mexican heritage; and dark, angry images of prison and an inverted flag.
“Not all paintings need to be pretty,” says the self-taught artist. “Sometimes they just need to be honest.”
After a decade of selling art in Reno, Valdez says, “the timing was right” for a retrospective.
Ten years ago, Valdez was serving the end of an 11-year sentence in the federal penitentiary system on a conspiracy drug charge. He was still in jail when he sold the painting that’s become what’s perhaps his most popular print, his “Self-Portrait,” to Reno’s now defunct Silver State Gallery. It’s an arresting watercolor of half of a sunglassed Valdez with feathers in his hair and a stance that seems ready to walk off the painting. A blue handprint with fingers outstretched is at his side, representing humanity.
He’d also painted a number of murals throughout the prison system. Painting, he says, “was a peaceful thing to do,” but he hadn’t been doing it as a career move. When he walked out of prison, he wasn’t sure what was next. Eleven years in the system had, he admits, institutionalized him. He was well-respected, having been a voice for Native rights among prisoners while earning notoriety as a painter.
“When I got out, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?'” he says.
His art was something people seemed to want and was one thing that he could provide.
In 1999, he opened a frame shop and art studio, now called Valdez Studio. He became involved with teaching arts education to at-risk youth through Arts Alternatives, a Sierra Arts Foundation program. That’s where he met his wife, Liz Harrington, a Sierra Arts program director.
“People were willing to give me a chance,” he says. “That’s the key.”
He’s been teaching art at Coral Academy of Science Charter School for the past seven years, living in Reno with Harrington and their two daughters, ages 1 and 3.
“To see this come from nothing—all from art, really,” he says. “Art’s a big part of me. It allows me to express my culture and heritage, but it also gave me a purpose.”