When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser visited Beijing in 2016, she presented Mayor Guo Jinlong with a work of art as a token of peace and renewed friendship between Beijing and its Sister City of Washington, DC. Titled “Geared Up Panda,” the life-sized statue of a panda, the symbol of China, was painted by DC’s Luis Peralta Del Valle, a well-known muralist and portraitist who lives in Anacostia. Del Valle depicted the statue of the panda as a mechanical figure with its insides partially showing, exposing mechanical gears like the ones found in a watch. This machinery symbolizes the complex relationship between Washington and Beijing.
While Del Valle’s success as a mid-career artist is evidenced by the number of works which now reside in prominent collections on three continents, the artist’s life began rather precariously. As a child, the artist fled violence in his homeland only to find more of it in his adopted city of Washington, DC.
At the age of five, Del Valle’s family made the painful decision to leave their home, friends and extended family, including Del Valle’s beloved grandmother, in Nicaragua. It was 1985 and the contra war raged mercilessly, ensnaring civilians in its bloody conflict. Searching for a better life for their children, his parents temporarily relocated to Honduras but found that conditions there did not offer them much hope. After a three month journey by bus from Central America to Texas, the family then spent five weeks in a refugee camp in Houston. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Washington, DC and settled at 1315 Park Road NW in Columbia Heights.
While Del Valle and his family escaped a civil war in Nicaragua, they arrived in DC just as the crack epidemic and crime wave swept through the city. Del Valle recalls stepping over drug-addicts passed out in his apartment building as a child. As he grew into adolescence, many of his peers succumbed to the temptation of selling drugs for quick cash. Fierce battles for turf ensued and many of his classmates went to jail or lost their lives during the 1990s drug wars.
During this time, Del Valle turned to that which he loved most—drawing. He had created art for as long as he could remember. Around the age of 13, he developed a knack for street art and, over the next three years, he began to explore the medium in DC and its suburbs.
From Graffiti to his First Commission
As he developed his skills as a graffiti artist, Del Valle looked to the old masters to perfect his work. Specifically, he looked at the portraiture of Renaissance painters like Rubens and Michelangelo. As he explains it, “If you master portraiture, everything else will follow.” He also found guidance in Picasso’s realism and, in contrast, Salvador Dali’s surrealist compositions.
He also understood that, by studying the processes established by great painters, “You can transfer these techniques to graffiti and to other works.”
Del Valle’s big break came at age 16 when he received a commission to paint a mural for a local business, offering him a more lawful way for producing large-scale work. This turning point led him to consider the possibility of making art for a living.
Del Valle also credits his High School art teacher Teresa Ghiglino’s belief in his talent for helping him launch his career in art. In the 11th grade, Del Valle was selected to take part in a prestigious corporate art education program at the Corcoran School of Art. There, he would meet artist Judy Byron who became another one of his mentors and a key figure in furthering the development of his practice. After graduating from Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights, he continued taking classes at the Corcoran.
“It is very important for artists to have mentors, says Del Valle. “Mentors taught me the business of art and how to price my work.” Another one of Del Valle’s mentors was the late Michael Platt, an artist who influenced Del Valle and an entire generation of artists.
It’s now Del Valle’s turn to reach out to the next generation of burgeoning artists. He currently teaches at George Washington University’s ArtReach program at THEARC as well as at the Latin American Youth Center. “With younger artists, I try to explain to them how beautiful and difficult it is to be an artist.” But he seeks to dispel the “starving artist” myth and to teach his students that “you can actually make a living as an artist.”
The Artist as Curator
When dropping off his sister at Archbishop Carroll High School every morning, Del Valle couldn’t help but notice many of the beautiful statues that adorned the grounds of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Brookland.
Intrigued, he decided to enter the center and he was awestruck by the art collection within. He asked if there were any job openings in the art department. Initially, he was offered the chance to volunteer but it quickly became a paid one-day per week position, leading to more part-time hours. Eventually, Del Valle worked his way up the ranks to become Manager of Visitor Services which allowed him to co-curate many of the center’s exhibitions alongside Brother Joseph Britt.
During his time at the cultural center, he curated extraordinary collections of artifacts and artworks from all over the world and worked with leading experts in numerous fields. Circling back to Del Valle’s admiration of the Renaissance Masters, during his time at the center, he had access to Michelangelo’s wooden model of Saint Peters Basilica Dome which was installed by a group of Italian curators and preparers at the center for an exhibition.
Another highlight of his time at the cultural center was his production of a group exhibition titled “Love Hope and Art”. The exhibition included work by Del Valle and many of top local artists with whom he had developed a relationship over the years.
“Good Trouble” as Subject Matter
Del Valle is as comfortable painting well known historical figures as he is everyday people from his community. Deeply committed to social justice, his work centers on portraits of people who have fought against oppression and whose actions have made them role models. His subjects include leaders like Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela, people whom John Lewis would say caused “good trouble” in their lifetimes.
His public art can be viewed in historic Anacostia with the recent completion of the “We Are Anacostia” and Chuck Brown murals. Among the many murals he is currently completing, of note, are ones of journalist Ida B. Wells and explorer Matthew Henson, two little known pioneers in Black American history whose biographies are finally coming to light.
Through a fully developed style of figurative painting and visual storytelling, Del Valle offers us a message of hope and peace by looking to the great men and women of the past as examples for what is possible for humanity’s future.
For more information about Luis Peralta Del Valle and his work visit: www.lovehopeart.com
Phil Hutinet is the publisher of East City Art, DC’s alternative art source. For more information visit www.eastcityart.com.