When one drives or walks through the neighborhoods in the District, colorful murals jump off building walls, making the city a prettier, more art-filled place. Chances are, many of those murals are by 38-year old artist Luis Peralta Del Valle.
This month, the artist, who started tagging walls as a graffiti artist in his teens, was selected for a solo show at the Anacostia Arts Center.
“Out of Chaos,” as the show is titled, is rife with deep meanings, symbols and pays homage to the artist’s roots, incorporating graffiti and other elements that point to street and public art. Particularly noticeable is the “canvas” he chooses — repurposed streets signs layered with recycled paper and U.S. Postal stickers.
“Road signs usually warn us about danger,” he said. “As a graffiti artist, I would usually do art on them — tag them or put stickers on them. When you see a warning sign, it usually tells you not to do something negative — stop, yield, don’t go left. I decided to put iconic and unknown figures on them.”
The realistic, classical portraiture of people who have overcome great setbacks or made great strides are painted on top the road signs in their original diamond shape and bright orange background. Other paintings are traditional canvases, but hide graffiti tags in the backgrounds. Iconic figures such as Katherine Johnson of “Hidden Figures” fame, ballerina Misty Copeland, the late artist Michael Platt and the “Father of Go-Go” Chuck Brown are the subjects of many of the works.
“‘Out of Chaos’ speaks to the human experience that a lot of African Americans and Hispanics go through — and other ethnicities go through — we live in this chaotic world and we have a lot of negative things going on,” said Del Valle, who was born in Nicaragua and spent time in refugee camps before coming to the District in his teens.
“But in these bad situations there have always been people that overcame these chaotic situations in their lives and actually excelled in their careers or whatever they do professionally,” he said.
The centerpiece life-size portrait of Misty Copeland hung on the far wall from the entrance, is majestic in its scale and grandeur, capturing the ballerina with an expression that is both regal and defiant.
“One of the great things that I came across, which I used in the Misty Copeland portrait, ‘Grace’ is a new technique. I always had these disposable plates with dried up paint because that is what I use as a palette. I put my paint on the plate and I use them. A lot of paint just dries up. I never wanted to throw them away, but I never knew what to do with this dried up paint,” Del Valle continued.
“Then one day I said, ‘my hands are really hurting. What can I do to create without using a brush so I don’t have to use my tendons?'” he said. “I got the idea to start scraping the paint off the disposable plates and adding it to my canvases. What that did was add more dimension to my canvases and I was able to add texture and at the same time add dimension to them. It took my art to a whole different level, and that is something I would have never found out if I had not had that tragedy.”
Del Valle found beauty in his tragic events, and sought to bring that element out — triumph over tragedy — in his portraits.
“Misty Copeland also broke some barriers as a ballerina,” Del Valle said. “She also came from poverty and struggles. As ballerinas, people of color were thought they could never reach the highest heights, but she is now principal ballerina. That is a door that she knocked down so that other young girls could follow her lead.”
The use of the street signs reflects a “transfiguration from one symbolic vocabulary to a new one rooted in love, hope and art. Visions of strength, determination, prosperity and beauty are created using refined elements of traditional portraiture and the embedding of positive messages,” according to his artist’s statement.
Other subjects are less known publicly, but no less vital to the message that Del Valle is trying to relay: “figures who have converted their pain, challenges and frustration into purpose.”
According to the artist, “they not only transformed their lives, but influenced the lives of others for generations.”
One with great meaning to Del Valle is Michael Freeman, whose introspective portrait faces “Grace” across the long gallery space. Freeman, like Del Valle, is a Southeast resident.
“Pastor Mike Freeman, Apostle Freeman now, is the lead pastor at Spirit of Faith Christian Center — he’s been very instrumental in my life recovering from depression and anxiety that were caused by a car accident back in 2016,” Del Valle said. “I was in a place where I couldn’t really paint like I used to — for 12-14 hours a day without even missing a heartbeat. But in the car accident, I injured my hands, my neck, my shoulders … pretty much everything that an artist needs. Every time I would paint, my tendons would burn. They gave me OxyContin for painkillers and medicine for muscle spasms. It was the worst thing for me. It made me suicidal and very depressed.”
Not only did Freeman help Del Valle recover from his darkest hours, but also he had experienced similar trauma, having had medical issues that resulted in the pastor being in a coma. He was paralyzed, and those other people who had similar conditions did not survive. However, through prayers and the care of his wife, he recovered.
“I kept trying to paint, doing what I could do, sometimes 30 minutes a day because what else am I supposed to do? I am a full-time artist,” Del Valle said.
“Out of Chaos” is on view at the Anacostia Arts Center (1231 Good Hope Road SE) through Nov. 15. Del Valle’s murals can be seen throughout the city at Savoy, Roosevelt, Watkins, Hyde Addison, Garrison, Bancroft and Lafayette elementary schools, as well as Langston Place Apartments, Sisters City Project and Children’s National Medical Center.
Del Valle is the recipient of numerous arts awards, including the 2015 National Museum of Catholic Art and Library Award and the 2013 East of the River Distinguished Artist Award. In 2017, he was honored with the NCIS Director’s Coin by NCIS Director Andrew L. Traver. More information can be found on his website, www.LuisPeraltaGallery.com.