November 08, 2017
When artist Yasniel Valdes packed for his first trip to the United States in September, he remembered to bring one crucial element: his work ethic
During his three-month residency at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Valdes, 28, has spent most days in his studio in the Jewelry + Metals Department. For hours upon hours, he bends over chunks of sterling silver and titanium, cutting forms that might be enhanced with colored leather or glass, strung on a wire or soldered to a ring.
“He’s an excellent example for the students to see,” says Matthew Hollern, Jewelry + Metals professor. “If they see him working and working, and making all this work, that’s all that has to happen.”
Hollern was with CIA President Grafton Nunes in January as part of a cohort of cultural leaders from Cleveland who traveled to Cuba with the Cleveland Foundation. The visit was part of the foundation’s ongoing exchange program, Creative Fusion, which puts Clevelanders together with artists from other countries and cultures, both stateside and abroad.
For CIA, the Cuba trip goals included identifying an artist for a fall 2017 residency. Valdes’ name popped up during pre-trip research, and Hollern knew he wanted to meet him. When the Cleveland contingent visited Havana, they toured the Fabrica d’Arte, a cultural center that showcases contemporary arts of all kinds. Valdes shows his work there, but the Clevelanders hit the center during an off-period, when artists weren’t on site.
After a few phone calls — including an erroneous call that led to a meeting with a man who turned out not to be Valdes but a taxi driver — the Americans finally met up with Valdes over dinner and saw his work. Before long, CIA was extending him an invitation to participate in the residency.
In many ways, he was a perfect candidate, given CIA’s jewelry and metals focus. “One of Yasniel’s teachers was someone I’d also looked at,” Hollern says. “But her work is more commercial, whereas Yasniel makes one-of a-kind art jewelry or studio jewelry. He’s making work that will sell. And it will sell for amounts of money that allow you to actually make a living — $200, $500, $800, $1,200.”
Valdes started making jewelry after high school, while he was performing the military service that the Cuban government requires of all citizens. A friend there introduced him to a jewelry artist who ended up mentoring Valdes in his exploration of jewelry and high fashion.
He has supported himself as a jewelry artist since then, drawing inspiration from influences including mid-century modern design, op art and constructivism. He sells his jewelry through galleries to tourists and diplomats.
In Cuba, where supplies are more limited, Valdes has been creative with combining materials. “My idea with the jewelry … [is to use] everything: plastic and silver. I try to contrast silver and other materials – plastic, glass – everything,” he says.
His trip to Cleveland has provided an opportunity to explore. For work he made in anticipation of the current Reinberger Gallery exhibition, The Art of Exchange: Contemporary Cuban Art in Cleveland, Valdes experimented with titanium — a light metal that can change color through the process of anodizing.
Hollern also has been teaching him metal casting as well as computer-aided design, and Valdes has also been able to experiment with 3D printing out jewelry forms in resin and nylon. He bought a laptop that he’ll take with him when goes home in December — a powerful tool for his more basic home workshop.
Valdes notes that, unlike students still in a learning environment, he doesn’t have the luxury of spending weeks on a single design.
For both Valdes and Hollern, the collaboration has been illuminating. They have worked on jewelry together, and they’ve each been exposed to a country and culture they hadn’t experienced before.
“I think it’s a shame that Americans have not had the opportunity to know Cubans,” Hollern says. “It’s a whole culture unto itself right near the United States. It’s an interesting culture, and they are very kind people. They have a rich history. You go and you meet the people, and we think, why are we separated?”
See work by Yasniel Valdes, as well as collaborative pieces he made with Matthew Hollern, in the exhibition The Art of Exchange: Contemporary Cuban Art in Cleveland, on view through December 15, 2017, in Reinberger Gallery.
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