Objects of Her Affection
Anna Valdez layers personal stories into lush, plant-filled paintings
Artist Anna Valdez’s California studio is full of plants. Vines tumble from shelves stacked with art books, and succulent green leaves frame oversized canvases. Her childhood home bloomed with flora, too: her dad grew up on a farm and worked in a nursery.
“Plants remind me of home and they just bring life to a space,” says Valdez (’13). “And they provide form in my paintings. They grow into the space and create lines. They really help me in navigating my compositions.”
Plants are everywhere in Valdez’s recent creations: in 2019’s Self-Portrait in Studio, the artist’s face is hidden by fiddle-leaf figs; 2018’s Landscape in Studio is a painting of a painting of palms, snake plants, and more.
Valdez’s work—primarily oil on canvas, but also monotypes, ceramics, and wallpaper—has been shown at galleries and museums across the United States and Canada. In 2018, Facebook commissioned her to paint a mural in one of its Menlo Park, Calif., buildings.
In its review of her 2019 New York exhibition Natural Curiosity, art and culture magazine Juxtapoz complimented Valdez’s “signature palette of rich reds, bright yellows and sumptuous surfaces,” calling the show “visual poetry at work, at once rooted in art-historical practices while also remaining faithful to the present moment.” Vice has said her “houseplant paintings have seriously chill vibes.”
Valdez has painted sparse deserts, rocky bays, even old beer cans, but for the past couple of years, her botanical studio has been the star of her work. It’s not just crowded with plants. The space is filled with canvases and painting supplies, books, fabric wall hangings (her mom is a quilter), sculptures, pottery, shells, an upturned milk crate.
“The paintings I’m making right now are very much about the studio,” she says. “It’s an environment that I have complete control over and have curated over time. I suppose I end up loving the space that I am creating as it becomes reflective of a personal landscape or as a self-portrait.”
In 2020’s Objects of Affection, the canvas brims with details from Valdez’s studio. A skull, a Venus de Milo statue, and an amphora of the goddess Diana fight for space on the desk; a cow pelvis leans against a stack of books about women artists. There’s a story in the objects—all what she calls symbols in art history.
“I wanted to make a painting that glorified women in art, but without it being a nude of a woman reclining,” she says. “When you see women depicted in art, it’s usually from a male lens, so it’s usually sexualized.”
Objects of Affection is a big painting, more than seven feet tall and six feet wide. Valdez says she spent a lot of time climbing up and down a ladder to add the many details.
“It’s a very physical action to make that painting,” she says. “It’s interesting because big paintings are considered masculine paintings. I like that little bit of duality in the piece.”
Valdez appears in few of her paintings, but says they’re all “self-portraits to some degree.” Before becoming an artist, she studied anthropology and archaeology and sees parallels between recording the past and chronicling her present.
“When I was studying archaeology, we would re-create and reconstruct someone’s life based off the objects that were in that space,” she says. “You would write a story from the things they surrounded themselves with.”
Despite her autobiographical approach to art, Valdez’s paintings are not straightforward retellings of her life. The paintings show not only what she sees in the studio, but what’s on her mind—things she’s noticed and thought about over days and weeks.
“There are so many moments that go into making one painting,” she says. “I try to layer a lot of moments into a piece. You see me as a person in it.”
Occasionally, the view shown from a window may be an artistic lie: a snapshot from a previous day or even of a different place altogether. Sometimes, the artworks shown hanging on her studio walls live only in Valdez’s sketchbook—they have no canvas of their own.
“And there are little surprises that happen,” says Valdez. If she paints a vase into a picture that doesn’t exist beyond the canvas, she’ll try to re-create the vase in real life—then paint it, for real this time, into another work. “I like to play,” she says. “I like to not take myself too seriously.” When galleries show her work, viewers can track the genesis of an object: the painting that gave birth to its fictional creation, the ceramic that made it real, the painting that immortalized it.
“I am fascinated by how one idea can lead into the next,” says Valdez. “Or, more specifically, how one painting creates an idea for the next painting. Incorporating ceramics and other mediums into my still life installations feels like a natural step.”
Most of Valdez’s paintings start with a rough ballpoint pen sketch—she carries a sketchbook everywhere. Once she’s set up her canvas, she’ll do an underpainting in acrylic—“just getting the skeleton of the painting down”—then begins building the final piece with oil paints. The paints are homemade: she buys pigments, mixing them with oils in her studio. It’s a practice she picked up during Associate Professor Richard Raiselis’ CFA classes on painting and color.
“It’s this journey of this relationship to making the whole painting,” says Valdez, who compares it to growing, making, and fermenting her own food. “It gives me a better understanding of why certain colors will work with each other, understanding the chemistry of why one pigment is oilier than another, its absorption rate, its lightfastness, how it will change over time.”
Reviewers often comment on Valdez’s use of color, praising its Californian brightness or making favorable comparisons to Henri Matisse. But her relationship to the vibrant colors in her work is complicated. It’s one reason she doesn’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic to reshape what or how she paints.
“I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my adult life,” she says. “People will look at my paintings and they’ll assume I’m a really happy person. These things are ways of focusing my energy and being able to step into this reality that I’m creating. I don’t want to change that, because I find safety in these spaces I’m creating.”