The Culture

Vincent Valdez, the People’s Champion

The first two installments of Vincent Valdez’s The Beginning Is Near trilogy—on view now in Austin and Houston, respectively—paint a picture of a fight for America’s soul.

Vincent Valdez
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue with the headline “The People’s Champion.”

In recent months, Vincent Valdez has become Texas’s most-discussed painter. And it isn’t just his brushstrokes and eye for expressive detail that are making headlines in the New York Times, the Guardian, and a slew of revered art-world publications. For the past three years, Valdez has been immersed in a bold, high-profile attempt to confront social realities. The timing of Valdez’s project, coinciding as it does with dramatic changes in our country’s politics and public discourse, could not be more charged.

Much of the recent attention has been prompted by his epic 2016 painting The City I, a depiction of fourteen hooded Ku Klux Klan figures convening on a scrubby hillside overlooking a modern metropolis. The scene, which unfolds over five panels, spanning thirty feet in total, is set in black and white, but markers of the present day abound, including a late-model Chevy truck, a cellphone eerily glowing in someone’s palm, and a baby sporting tiny Nikes and holding a Pikachu doll. When it debuted at Houston’s David Shelton Gallery, in late 2016, the piece’s uncanny timing—just before a hard-fought presidential election that exposed deep racial fault lines—immediately attracted attention. (Valdez says the work was his “observation of something that’s always been present in America.”) The University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art acquired the paintingalong with its companion, The City II (collectively, the works are known as The City)—for its permanent collection. After a controversial delay, the two pieces were exhibited for the first time this summer.

Despite the buzz surrounding the work, these days, Valdez’s thoughts are increasingly on his next project, a series of paintings inspired by the memorial service for one of his heroes, the great heavyweight boxer and civil rights activist Muhammad Ali. “My biggest challenge was to try to surpass The City,” Valdez says. “I feel like these do, in so many ways. But it’s hard to compete with thirty feet of painting.”

To convey the import of the new series, Valdez harks back to the afternoon of June 10, 2016, a day he remembers as hot, “both literally and metaphorically.” He was in his studio in San Antonio, where he lived before moving to Houston, putting the finishing touches on The City I, while, on a broadcast seen all around the world, Ali was being memorialized in Louisville. Little work remained to be done on The City I—some detail for the mud around the tire tracks, a bit of layering to the bright avenue lights in the background—but Valdez could not concentrate on his work. He found himself neglecting the canvas and increasingly turning his attention to what was happening on his laptop screen.

Valdez was surprised by the depth of emotion he felt watching the service, which featured a diverse range of eulogists and speakers, from a monk, a rabbi, and an imam to famous figures like Bill Clinton and Malcolm X’s daughter Attallah Shabazz. “It was really emotionally powerful, but I also realized that some of the power of that moment was, for me, being completely aware of what was looming on the horizon,” Valdez says. “Everything seemed to be erupting that summer. It was this epic moment, and the nation was about to shift drastically.”

After months of living with the hooded figures of The City I, Valdez perceived a different sort of gathering at Ali’s memorial: a meeting of those most affected by America’s inequities grieving the loss of a fighter and seeking a path forward to continue the struggle. Valdez began taking screenshots of the proceedings, trying in particular to capture the speakers in moments of reflection or when pausing to gather their emotions. He knew he’d stumbled onto something significant, as he had with the first sketches that would become The City I, a year earlier. It’s taken him two years, however, to figure out just what those feelings meant and how to express them in paint.

The City, on display at the Blanton.

Photograph by Brian Goldman

Valdez, who is forty, almost met Ali once, in San Antonio in 2004. Valdez had then just finished Stations, a well-received narrative series of boxing drawings that conflated a prizefight, the stations of the cross, and the brutality of life for poor men of color. Stations was Valdez’s big break; it landed him a solo show at the McNay Art Museum, in his hometown, and a traveling exhibition that went to three universities in Texas and Indiana. When he heard Ali was passing through town, Valdez says he sneaked into the Marriott hotel, hoping he could hand Ali a copy of the exhibition catalog, on which he’d written: “Thank you for helping me to see: Even when the bout is fixed, the fight must carry on.” But Valdez was stopped at the door by a bodyguard, and he never got to shake the hand of the People’s Champ.

Valdez’s connection to Ali goes much deeper than boxing. His father, Arthur Valdez, was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1970, seven years before Vincent was born. The younger Valdez has early memories of talking with his father about racial injustice during that conflict. “I was really confused but also intrigued by the stories my father shared with me about how he reported for induction,” Valdez says. “He realized that because he was a young brown man, he would likely be sent to combat. I couldn’t understand, asking, ‘Why did you go? Just don’t go!’ ”

But, as with many young men, refusing to serve was not a realistic option for Arthur, who instead begged his way into the Air Force. This led to a less dangerous but no less destructive post that, by Vincent’s description, involved loading napalm and Agent Orange onto planes, some of which were making secret flights into Cambodia.

Ali, on the other hand, was perhaps the most famous American to refuse a draft notice, telling the world, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Ali was convicted of draft evasion by an all-white Houston jury in 1967, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction.

As a child, Valdez became obsessed with the Vietnam War and, later, Ali’s controversial stand against it. He learned how to artistically depict both emotion and human anatomy by making drawings from a book of war photos by Larry Burrows. Valdez remembers, when he was ten, being invited to participate—along with his elementary school class—in an outdoor art project at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, led by muralist Alex Rubio. Rubio gave the precocious Valdez his own section of wall, where he painted a scene of planes dropping napalm on field-workers. The piece, which Valdez titled Make Food Not War, was quite the contrast to the rest of the students’ work, which mostly consisted of rainbows and stick figures.

In his adult studio-art career, Valdez has continued to depict forgotten episodes of U.S. history like the widespread lynchings of Mexican Americans in Texas and across the U.S. (in his Strangest Fruit series, 2013) or the World War II–era Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles (in Kill the Pachuco Bastard!, 2000). He likes to work with large canvases befitting the outsized resonance he hopes to invest in these buried histories. “Once you place these subjects on an epic scale, there’s no way to deny their presence,” he says. “My intention is to create public remembrance. I view these stories as my conscious observation of the world and, sometimes, my testimony of my experience here. These are visual memorials to the struggle of being human.”

vincent valdez

Valdez at work on Dream Baby Dream.

Photograph by Brian Goldman

Despite feared protests, The City’s debut at the Blanton this July went smoothly. The museum had originally planned to unveil the work in mid-2017 but instead kept the paintings in storage for an additional year. According to the Blanton, delaying the opening gave the museum time for careful community outreach. A spate of public programs, which included a conversation between Valdez and NPR’s Maria Hinojosa, underscored the museum’s commitment to the work. “For me, this is sort of fundamental to what we’re here for,” Blanton curator Veronica Roberts says. “It is challenging, and we are aware that it’s a really tough subject matter, but our world is tough. That’s what we’re dealing with right now. A museum sometimes feels like a sanctuary from that and a respite, and other times it’s reflecting that tumult back to us.”

“It’s not a work that we can make our peace with very easily,” adds Eddie Chambers, a professor of art history at UT who took part in the early outreach efforts. “Nor should we be able to. There are good reasons why the work unsettles us.”

The Blanton’s painstaking preparation prior to the debut of The City, in which leaders of the local arts and civil rights communities took part in serious discussions about the ambitions, risks, and challenges of the work, in some ways mirrors Valdez’s new series opening this month at the David Shelton Gallery. Collectively titled Dream Baby Dream, these twelve new oil paintings are all based off of Valdez’s screenshots of Ali’s funeral. Most feature a lectern with one or more silent, ruminating human figures, each an example of the racial and cultural diversity represented that day. (Ali himself is not pictured anywhere in the series.) Other paintings are still lifes. In one, the lectern is empty; in another, the lectern is gone, replaced by dying flowers under arena lights that resemble a starry sky. All shimmer with grief, anxiety, mute testimony of struggle, and a search for meaning.

It is important to Valdez that none of the portrait subjects are talking. Many wear pained expressions, looking down or to the side. “There are many conversations that aren’t being spoken,” Valdez says. “There are many words not being said. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over all of our heads right now. I think that this is a moment of reckoning, a defining moment for my generation. This country finds itself trapped, entirely trapped, between the myth of who we thought we were and the reality of who we really are.”

Dream Baby Dream is the second part of a trilogy that Valdez began with The City. Eventually, it will culminate with a third series, The New Americans—portraits of people whom Valdez says make up a diverse America. Valdez calls the trilogy The Beginning Is Near. It’s a hopeful trajectory—from the inferno of a Klan meeting through the pained purgatory of the funeral paintings to a sort of paradisiacal vision of a transforming America.

After the in-your-face shock of The City, the quiet, introspective mood of Dream Baby Dream suggests an artist reflecting on the limits and uses of art. “I don’t think that painting or art is going to change the world or that it’s going to topple governments and bring healing to people,” Valdez says. “But I am still convinced that art can provide these few moments of clarity—moments of silence—during times of immense distortion and chaos. That’s what these images do for me.

“What these images are telling me is: It’s okay to be afraid; it’s okay to be skeptical; it’s okay to be unsure of where you stand,” he adds. “What’s important is that you’re present and you’re still standing.”

Tags: Art, Race, Blanton Museum of Art, The Beginning is Near, The City, Vincent Valdez


  • Pleasant Folk

    There has been a two year protest of ‘The City’ that has gone completely unacknowledged by Vincent, the Blanton, and the press. The goal of the mural and its acquisition was fame and fortune via orchestrated controversy. All the heartwarming rhetoric to justify this mural was concocted after the fact to brainwash the art world into submission. There was a public list of demands that went up May 20th and the Blanton matched those demands exactly including telling the world how much the mural cost. All of the community outreach was promoted after May 20th based on the list of demands. There was also a live protest the day of the exhibition opening and the UT(D) student, me-Rae Pleasant, was escorted out of the museum by 10 police officers and given an indefinite criminal trespass warning. The Blanton’s warning was not sent until 8 minutes before the museum opened because they intended to entrap me into an arrest knowing the protest would take place that day. There was also a criminal harassment warning because they viewed my messages as ‘threatening’, yet the NY Times twitter feed is filled with people saying throw the painting in the pits of hell with fire gifs. My messages were sent to highlight the fragility and sensitivity of the staff’s ego and their disregard to my sensitivity towards the mural. I never threatened anyone the day of the protest and did not harm the mural. There is a petition with over 100 signatures and a 20 page essay that was downloaded by the curator herself. I will be giving a public lecture this fall about my interpretation of the mural and my protest journey. The mural itself is hate speech and a completely unnecessary creation. The Blanton claims to want a conversation about race, but they have taken great means to orchestrate positive press, to silence this Black woman, and to snuff out any opposing views to the mural. The image is a disservice to the solidarity between Brown and Black brothers and sisters Vincent claims to care about. I ask that the Blanton acquire my protest sweatshirt and essay into the permanent collection to create a more balanced record of the mural’s history. Petition: List of Demands:

  • Pleasant Folk

    My essay called out the fact that the series ‘The Beginning is Near Part II’ never materialized in the same tone that the museum and Vincent claims the protest never happened. A 30foot Klan mural as the first part of a ‘diverse America’ series is a mockery. They are only doing this as a sorry clean up effort for Vincent’s image and reputation. He is not an artist for the people he is an artist for himself.

  • Pleasant Folk

    Simone Wicha, the director, and Veronica Roberts have both stated the mural’s exhibition was pushed back so that it would not coincide with Trump’s election and the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally. They back tracked these comments in the laziest way possible by saying ‘I was misunderstood’ and that the delay was a year of intensive educational planning when that planning was not brought to light until after the public list of demands was published. The mural’s imagery cannot withstand actual racism or counter actual racism because the image itself is racist. They have no choice but to place it in the sterile art world bubble of the white cube where the only power it has comes from the age old power structure of art world controversy and money.

  • Pleasant Folk

    For those looking to explain the artist’s message or debate about art…spend that same energy converting a racist to the side of humanity or convincing your neighbor to scrap the confederate flag decal off their bumper or challenging a friend who raps along to the N word. That takes courage. It takes zero courage to preach at me or to tiptoe in and out of a haunted house at an art museum. These conversations about diversity in the arts, decolonizing museums, etc are not exclusive..they are overlapping and a Klan mural hanging on a wall of a museum at a university that rejected me from two jobs is directly related to those conversations.

  • Pleasant Folk

    What does screenshots of Ali’s funeral and a Klan mural have to do with each other that they are in the same series ‘The Beginning is Near’? The reaching and stretching is the stuff of Olympic champions.

    • Pleasant Folk

      “It’s a hopeful trajectory—from the inferno of a Klan meeting through the pained purgatory of the funeral paintings to a sort of paradisiacal vision of a transforming America.” He had Parkinson’s disease and died of septic shock, but ok sure from a Klan meeting to sad people at a boxer’s funeral. Vincent is stuck in the 8th grade making edgy death pictures to get more popular with his classmates.

  • Pleasant Folk

    “The Blanton’s painstaking preparation prior to the debut of The City, in which leaders of the local arts and civil rights communities took part in serious discussions about the ambitions, risks, and challenges of the work” They did not contact the NAACP until a week before the opening. I contacted everyone from professors to the Mayor and UT President with no response and those same people are being advertised as collaborators when really it was just damage control. They cherry picked complicit minorities, much like Vincent himself, and disregarded anyone who opposed the mural.

  • Pleasant Folk
  • Pleasant Folk
    • Pleasant Folk

      Veronica downloaded the protest essay and both claim the protest never happened! Lies!

  • Pleasant Folk

    Vincent spoke to me directly in the gallery by name and asked the guards to have me leave. When the guards were getting too close to me (close enough to bump into me) Vincent told the crowd I was making it up. He talks about civil rights and fighting racism, but he watched a Black woman get surrounded by guards and cops to protect his ego and his 30ft Klan mural. I’m sure CCTV footage could prove this.

    • Pleasant Folk

      The guard named Mitch lied to the police and told them I refused to leave despite the fact that I walked out of the museum with him and ten cops down the grand staircase. It was written on my report that I refused to leave or comply with the criminal warning. I asked for cops to escort me to my car so they could not lie on me again when I left campus. I’m sure a public records request of UT Austin body camera footage could prove this.

      • Pleasant Folk

        All aspects of the protest are/were performance art and any critique the Blanton has of my performance I could say about the Klan mural. The Blanton took offense to my live protest or written messages, but failed to see that is how many people view the mural itself.

  • Pleasant Folk

    All of these ‘journalists’ need to do their job and fact check and research. The Blanton did not spend that delay planning a more ethical exhibition. They have gone on the record saying it was to avoid any connection to Trump because this mural AFFIRMS Trump’s racism and because the donors/executive team probably voted for Trump.

  • Pleasant Folk

    Please read these comments from the bottom to the top.

  • Pleasant Folk

    Remember this…Jordan Edwards was shot by a racist white police officer for doing absolutely nothing wrong. A Klan painting is NOT how America should remember his legacy or the racism that killed him. Vincent put me in the same potential danger when he watched with glee as I was surrounded by officers for exercising my civil rights.

  • Pleasant Folk

    Vincent paints nothing but the death and defeat of ethnic people. The Klan mural was painted with more glory than his lynched Latinos or Ali’s funeral parade…and we are supposed to believe he is the ‘people’s champion’. His boxer series is described by him as battered, bloody boxers protecting something that is hopeless…