Q+A with artist and illustrator Marius Valdes

This piece is part of our COLAtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

In January, Creative Boom named Columbia-based artist Marius Valdes as one of the 20 most exciting illustrators to follow in the world. A professor at UofSC in the School of Visual Art and Design, you might have seen his work in elementary schools around the Midlands, Transmission Arcade, Richland County Library, or MUSC Children’s Hospital just to name a few.

We asked Marius 12 questions about his art, influences, and what he loves about the Soda City.

There have been a lot of murals pop-up around Columbia over the past 10 years. Do you have a favorite public art piece you see around town? 

The most powerful one I have seen is “Leap” by Ija Charles on display on the side of the building at Richland Library

The one that has the most meaning to me is by Alex Rusnak on Taylor Street. He was a student of mine at USC and he was so passionate about public art and I remember how excited he was to make that mural. It was inspiring.

Christine Crawford (Christine Creates) is another former student who has become a mural-making machine and I’m constantly blown away at her fearlessness to make big art so I’m always excited to see what she is putting up around Columbia.

What are a couple of local events that you always look forward to? 

I love the end of the Spring semester at USC when our MFA students have several weeks of their thesis exhibitions at McMaster Gallery. It’s remarkable to see their growth from when they started to when they finish. When the weather is nice, I love watching a USC Women’s Soccer game at Stone Stadium. There’s something very relaxing about staring at the big green field with airplanes from Owen’s Field flying overhead while powerful student-athletes battle it out. They have really good hot dogs too.

Describe your perfect day in Columbia.

I’d start with an early morning trip to see my favorite gibbon ape swinging around at the Riverbanks Zoo. Then I’d head over to Soda City Market to check out everybody’s dogs and people watch. After that, I’d duck into the Columbia Museum of Art to see some new art. I’d go across the street to see if there are any new cool kid’s books (I like the pictures) at the Richland Library. I’d grab lunch at Motor Supply

On the way home to Forest Acres, I’d stop by Cosmic Ray’s to pick up a Spider-Man comic book and see what Ray is grumbling about this week. After walking my dog, Mary, around Citadel Park in my neighborhood, my wife, Beth, and I would go watch our daughter, Emma, play some soccer at SC United FC’s fields, aka, The Monty. If I had any energy left at this point (I wouldn’t), we’d drop the kid off and go see Pearl Jam at Colonial Life Arena.

What first brought you to Columbia? 

I’m a Professor at USC in the School of Visual Art and Design where I teach graphic design and illustration.

What does the art on your walls look like in your home?

We have three Scotty Peek paintings in the house. My wife and I do not agree on most art, but he’s the one guy that we love in town. I have a couple of Mary Robinson’s. She’s a printmaker and teaches a USC, one of my favorite people in Columbia. We also have some artwork by Easel Cathedral.

Do you have a dream location or dream project where you’d like to see your art displayed or appear? 

I have always wanted to have a series of billboards on the interstate with my art on them so people stuck in traffic might get a little laugh on their way to work.

Favorite local restaurant and favorite dish? 

Pizza at Tazza.

Where did your art style develop and what were some of your first breaks in the industry? 

I was working in Charleston at an ad agency there as an art director and I just started goofing around and painting. I read this book about outsider art and it just really inspired me. I was so tired of doing the real estate brochures and stuff. 

I got a big piece of cardboard, went to Michael’s, and bought some paint, and I just was finger painting, trying to be like an outsider artist. It was fun and I didn’t think anything of it. And a friend of mine who was in the music business asked if he could hang it in his office. It turns out his office was next door to Carter McMillan, who used to own the Music Farm. 

Carter was like, “Hey, man” I need some of that for my office. So I made him some paintings. He said that when people came to see him, they always talked about the artwork on the wall. They were doing a 10 year anniversary month of all these amazing bands and they asked me to do a calendar. So I made a painting for every show that month. And then the bands would autograph them and they would auction them off for charity. That was really popular and people immediately bought them. So they asked if I wanted to do it again next month, and then I did every month for about, 10 months. After around 300 paintings I needed a little rest. 

That really intensive year, really helped me figure out my style. I learned to embrace just sort of the crude naive look of my work after that, and people were drawn to that. 

It looks like your style has developed and grown literally bigger and bigger over the years with the 100 foot mural in MUSC in Charleston. How has your style developed over the years? You’re quite a prolific artist.  

I made so much of it because I actually really enjoy the act of painting. For me, I’ll put on a REM record, for example, and sit there and paint it listen to music is a really, for me is a really good time. I’d rather do that than go to a bar on Friday night. I was making lots and lots of stuff. And the thing is, I make it, but I don’t really always love my own work. 

I kind of like it years later, when I don’t see it for a while. But I don’t like keeping stuff around my house., I think I have one painting of my own in my entire house. So I always sold my artwork very affordably, so that I can put it out into the world. I think that kind of helped me grow and helped me not be afraid to paint.  I’m going to spend a month on you know, like, I spent three hours on something and I move on. With vector art, it’s given me the opportunity to scale up my art.

Opportunities have come up to do things like being the first artist in residence at Richland County Library and with MUSC. I kind of want to do things now that help make a difference.

I’ve noticed how much of your work sparks joy and how a lot of the kids who see it are seeing it at a hard time in their lives, specifically with your work at MUSC Children’s Hospital. Can you speak on that? 

I have said about two MUSC projects that I can honestly not think of a better audience than kids who are scared because they don’t want to be where they are. Even if I could distract them for a couple of seconds, that’s a great thing. That’s something I’m really interested in kind of doing more of so it’s not just to be purely decorative. There’s a  meaning behind it in terms of making people forget about where they are even if it’s for a minute or two.

Tell me a little bit about the bird break children’s book design.

On the second floor, when you go up the escalator, they give the artist in residence a really beautiful space. What’s cool about it is that people can see you working. You open your doors a couple of hours every week, so people come in and talk to you if they want, which was pretty interesting.

I’d become obsessed with drawing birds for a while. I realized working in that space that I like interacting with the public, but at the same time, I started to realize how introverted I was when I make art, like I kind of don’t like doing it in front of people. It’s a more private thing. 

I had this idea in my head for a book. I wrote a paragraph about this little introverted bird and he was just tired of all the noise, he wanted to find a quiet place to hide. I thought it would make a great kids’ book. So I started to do a lot of drawings for it. 

After learning from MUSC, I thought this kid’s book could be something that would actually be useful. So I started to rethink the book. That maybe this could be a way for a parent who has a kid who’s really quiet, to look at that kid differently and realize there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just kind of introverted. If a kid was reading the book, maybe they would read it and realize that I’m like this little bluebird. I’m introverted, too. And then parents and teachers and kids can use the book as sort of a way to open that dialogue in a fun way.

What is some of the key advice you would give to an aspiring artist?

Make work. Just be consistent and make stuff. I think that’s my motto.

The other thing that I’ve really started preaching in the last few years is, and I have to remember this myself, is telling students like, do not look at what everyone else is doing in terms of their journey. Everyone has their own path to doing whatever they do in the creative world. 

I look at my own career, my career had this random happenstance of doing this and that. I hope students realize, no one walks the same exact path and there’s more than one way to kind of get to where you want to go.

What project are you working on now and looking forward to? 

I’m working on a children’s book for MUSC. It was going to use the artwork from the mural in the  book, but we talked recently and they said that children’s books aren’t actually the best thing that the kids need. So, we’re working on creating an interactive sticker book.