Choosing another path

A former Olympic athlete finds continued success in his second career

Before becoming known as an artist, Esteban Valle’s legs brought him international acclaim.

A former race-walker, he represented his native country, Nicaragua, in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. But if you ask Valle to name the one thing he is most proud of, he will point to the wall inside his gallery’s office. The wall chronicles the Valle Art Gallery’s sales over the last 20 years. Thick, permanent black ink letters spell “sold” next to the name of each work purchased. And there is a lot of black ink.

“I’m always proud of the fact that in Vincent Van Gogh’s lifetime, he only sold one painting—I’ve sold more than 2,000,” he said.

Valle, who has lived in Reno for 35 years, has prospered in a small market where other artists often starve. But his decision to become an artist came as his athletic career was winding down. In 1975, Valle retired from competitive racing after a disappointing finish in the Pan-American Games.

“I had lost that killer instinct,” he said. “I just didn’t have the willpower to push myself to the limits of endurance anymore, to push myself that way.”

Instead, Valle began channeling his energy into painting—pushing his artistic limits.

He received formal training as a painter while a student at City College in San Francisco, the University of San Francisco and the University of Nevada, Reno. But he said his real development as a painter came from studying the watercolors of Andrew Wyeth.

“By studying Wyeth’s work, imitating and copying his style, I came up with a style of my own,” Valle said.

Valle’s style separates his paintings from traditional watercolor artists, who generally concentrate on natural themes. He said that he tries to create drama through the abstract style of his backgrounds. By painting the backgrounds with a looser style, he said, viewers are invited to enter the work and are asked to interpret some of the images within the piece. His animals, whether birds, horses or bighorn sheep, are painted in a photo-realist style. Even a shadow that falls between the thick brown coat and the rippling leg muscle of a horse is painted to entice his viewer.

The pieces in Valle’s gallery are collections of series. Currently, Valle is working on a collection of sepia-tone paintings, of which two hang in the gallery. The remarkable aspect about the finish in this series is the neutrality of color in the work. A small splash of blue is the only color present in his piece “Blue Jay and Pine.” The tree trunk in the painting twists up to the sky with thick, harsh black lines. The bright blue bird, painted in sharp detail, is striking in its isolated color. The effect quickly draws the audience to the piece.

Inspiration for some of his series has come from trips in this country and abroad. He’s traveled to such exotic locales as Greece and Fuji, as well as to states known for their natural beauty, such as Hawaii and New Mexico.

“When I visited Sante Fe [N.M.], I was really taken by the land and the light in the area,” he said. “I painted an entire series from this trip.”

Valle said he is looking forward to traveling overseas once again, but he probably won’t be booking any trips just yet. As with his racing career, Valle has had to refocus his energies once again. He’s been spending more time with his 5-year-old son than with his art. But next summer, Valle said, he plans to devote himself once again to painting full-time.