Hispanic Heritage Month: Transforming obsolete objects into art

A collection of crushed plastic bottles lay in a pile. Each discarded SEI-brand container resembles a 19th century soldier’s canteen. Back then, each canteen held water — a refreshing and prized commodity for any soldier engrossed in grueling combat. At first glance today, each bottle is merely a piece of empty, mangled plastic. In the eyes of Juana Valdes, however, each bottle is an essential component of a work of art.

Valdes is a visual artist who often collects obsolete items and transforms them into artwork representative of her life experience. She said her goal is to provoke viewers’ thoughts and memories about the forgotten objects’ original purpose and personal significance.

Born in Cuba, Valdes grew up in Miami before moving to New York to pursue her passion. She studied sculpture at the Parsons School of Design, earning her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1991. She completed a master of fine arts degree at the School of Visual Arts two years later. After a variety of residencies in New York and abroad, she returned to Miami in 2009.

Valdes spoke about her work on Sept. 28 during “Olé!,” part of NSU’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The event included a showcase of art created by Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences’ students and presentations from a trio of Latin literary and visual artists, including Valdes.

With her 2009 piece “SE H20,” Valdes said she aimed to increase awareness about water and its looming scarcity in the modern world.

“Water is on its way to (again) becoming one of our most valuable commodities,” she said. “What does that mean for bottled water consumers?”

Valdes provides a subtle prediction within the artwork itself. She removed the “I” from each bottle so that the label inscription reads “SE.”

“In Spanish, when you say the word ‘se’ it means you’re thirsty,” Valdes said.

Although not always the focus of consumption, water remains a recurring theme in Valdes’ work. “The Journey Within,” which she completed between 2002 and 2003 during a residency in the Netherlands, features a series of 78 cast-porcelain boats. Valdes crafted the small boats to invoke a state of childlike innocence and serenity.

“The boats reminded me of my childhood and playing with boats that were made out of paper,” she said. “I recalled how we used to jump in puddles and the great deal of fun we had putting the boats in the water.”

Valdes’ “Journey” also resonated with viewers at the “Olé!” event. “The piece was very moving for me,” said Andrea Shaw, Ph.D., assistant director of the Division of Humanities in the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, and organizer of the event.

Shaw, who like Valdes is an immigrant of Caribbean descent, said the boats “signal the varied migration patterns of Caribbean people.”

Identity is also a key component of Valdes’ work. In many ways, her art is a visual representation of her quest for true identity.

“I’m Cuban. I’m African. I’m Chinese, so I have all those identities within me,” she said. “They tend to shift as I move through society. Sometimes they come out in my work, but sometimes they don’t.”

Guest writer: Brandon Bielich

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