The Generous Creative Machine
“I was clearly the worst person in my art class,” Marius Valdes said followed by a humble laugh. Strolling in late to class and feeling intimidated by other design students, Valdes didn’t start out as the leader of the undergraduate artistic pack. He recalled being very unsure how to begin one of his first art assignments, a self-portrait. “I can remember vividly sitting in my bathroom, staring in the mirror, smoking cigarettes and oil painting… just sitting there for hours doing it and it looked awful,” he said. The following day, the students displayed their portraits for critique and Valdes’ spirit dampened as he compared his work.
The art professor glanced over the portraits and commented that Valdes’ looked like Frankenstein as the class snickered. However, the comment that followed changed Valdes’ perspective completely. “This is the only painting that has character to it. This is the only one that looks like you weren’t just trying to copy something. There’s creativity to this,” Valdes recalled his professor saying. In front of the class, he asked Valdes if he could have the painting, and Valdes was recently told that the painting still hangs in the professor’s home.
Today Marius Valdes is an illustrator, designer, and associate professor in studio art at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. According to his website, mariusvaldes.com, he received his bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Georgia in 1998 and a master’s in visual communication from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005. Since then, he’s won international industry recognition for his work which has been featured in several books. “I’ve seen his art in the Music Farm and in the Nickelodeon Theatre downtown. I was at a friend’s house last week and she has a painting of his up in her living room. He’s literally everywhere,” said University of South Carolina graphic design student, Emily Purcell.
The path to his successful creative career was neither straight nor narrow. Valdes devoted his time to basketball during high school before moving on to study psychology at the College of Charleston. He took his first art class as a sophomore to fill a gap in his schedule, but was quickly taken by surprise. “I felt like those were my people. The classes were two and a half hours long, but I didn’t mind going. And that’s when you know,” Valdes said. After class was over, he made more and more time for his art before informing his dad of his switch to become an art major.
Valdes braced himself for a critical response, but was pleasantly surprised by his dad’s open-minded and understanding feedback. “He told me that if I liked what I did then I’ll never really have to work,” Valdes said, “He also told me there were other things that could make me more successful because I wasn’t that great of an artist.” Valdes’ dad connected him with a man in advertising who then prompted him to join the advertising club. Shortly after joining, Valdes won a club poster design contest resulting in a coveted internship with local graphic designer, Gil Shuler. This proved to be invaluable for his design career.
“I went and worked for him and on the first day, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Valdes said. He was ecstatic that the designers were tracing and working on the computer instead of solely drawing everything, and he told Shuler that he wanted to become a graphic designer. Shuler urged Valdes to attend a design school which lead him to the design program at the University of Georgia.
Even after graduation, Valdes’ artistic style wasn’t concrete. He started making finger paintings on cardboard until his art was noticed by a friend who worked at the Music Farm, a popular music venue. He was hired to make a painting for every show of the month as part of a ten year anniversary celebration. The Music Farm liked his work so much that he continued on to do it for a full year. “I did around 300 paintings and that was how I really honed in on my style,” Valdes said. He said he looks back now at his earlier work, and feels like it was better because it was rawer and looser. “Your style will emerge from that repetition. If you can put yourself in a show or give yourself some sort of deadline, whatever you produce in that time you have, that’s your style,” Valdes said.
Sara Schneckloth, co-worker and assistant professor in studio art at the University of South Carolina, strongly agrees with his idea. Relating her and Valdes’ common love of basketball to art, she enthusiastically explained the free-throw model. “Making drawings is like perfecting your game, like doing free-throws. You say, I’m gonna do a thousand of these in the hope that I can nail one when I need to. Valdes is the free-throw shooter,” said Schneckloth. She described him as a generous creative machine making art in a caring and openhearted way.
Schneckloth also had a winding road to artistic success. After graduating from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she took community college art classes in San Francisco and taught art classes in Cape Town, South Africa before pursuing a master’s in fine arts 11 years later. “It’s about experimentation with a sense of purpose,” she said, “Ideas don’t happen instantly and you have to nurture them and experiment in different ways before something catches and takes fire.”
Valdes’ teaching style reflects his journeyed background and he allows students the creative flexibility needed to find his or her own artistic style. “With his class it’s a lot about growing in your personal space and not necessarily about obsessing over hitting certain standards technically,” said graphic design student, Bianca Correa. Valdes offers his students necessary constructive feedback and gives regular updates on current industry standards, teaching professionalism and visual accuracy. Yet he also lets students take the wheel, most importantly during the conceptual process of a project. “I don’t get as caught up in the details as I used to, but in a good way,” Correa said.
Having shown his work in six solo exhibitions and 13 group exhibitions, Valdes understands what it’s like to have artwork criticized and he implements this into his classroom environment. He said that he would always remember what a professor once told him, that every time someone makes art, it’s a very brave act. “When you guys bring stuff in I never take it lightly because it’s hard, and I always tell people it’s hard,” Valdes said, “If it was easy, everyone would be a design major.”
Valdes’ best piece of advice for aspiring design students would be to simply get started. “Don’t be too picky and don’t hold out for your dream job. In today’s market you have to make things happen for yourself. Just keep promoting yourself and keep putting yourself out there,” he said. He also encourages students to gain as much experience as possible and to consider taking an internship after graduating to replace student work with real work. “Also, you kind of have to like what you do in order to be good at it,” he said as he pointed to a stack of design magazines on his desk, “I can’t wait for school to get out so I can spend a day going through these.” Valdes said that no matter what he does, he’ll always keep an eye on the design world.