While Yul Vazquez may be most well known as an actor in films such as “Captain Phillips,” “War of the Worlds” and “American Gangster,” and in television shows such as “Seinfeld,” “Russian Doll,” and “Severance,” he is also an artistic virtuoso.
In 1971, at age six, Vazquez moved with his mother, sister and grandmother from Havana, Cuba to Miami Beach, Florida. As a child, he was completely immersed in the arts, playing drums at age five and guitar at 12, as well as taking up photography at age 10. In the 1980s, he became the lead guitarist of the bands “Urgent” and “Diving for Pearls,” and in the 90s, his face began to grace screens across the world. In between all of this, Vazquez has been working on an artistic passion project titled “Bruce.” The series showcases a blend of his photography and mixed-media pieces, filled with incredible intricacies, miles of depth and, as Vazquez describes, a world of “spirits.”
On July 16, Vazquez opened his first solo show at the Red Fox Art Gallery in Pound Ridge, with over 200 people in attendance. The exhibit will be on view through September 3.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Vazquez about his art, career and joie de vivre lifestyle.
Katonah Connect: When did you start making art?
Yul Vazquez: Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I was going to go into the arts. When I was very young, my mother bought me a camera from a thrift store and I was just always taking pictures. From there, I started to draw and I felt a connection with that, so I did it more and kept going.
KC: What inspires your art?
YV: My childhood and family, especially my mother. My mother has had an impact on every aspect of my life. She encouraged my sister and I to be the best we could be, and she sacrificed everything so that we could have a good life. My mother was my biggest champion.
In fact, she still inspires me. My studio is in Miami Beach, Florida, which is where I grew up, so everywhere I look I have a memory of my mother.
What do you intend to convey through your art?
YV: As an actor, I usually have so many layers between me and the final product– a writer, a director, an editor. But when I go into my studio and I start working on stuff, there’s a direct line from my insides out. My art is like a visual diary– it shows what’s happening daily in my soul.
KC: This diary aspect of your art is especially seen in the text found in some of your mixed-media works. How do you use photography as a diary as well?
YV: With the camera in my hand, when I start shooting, I set out to reconcile with myself. I’m really just trying to photograph what’s going on inside me, but I find that outside of me. A photograph tells you more about the photographer than the subject. What’s not in the photo? Photographers choose to show you just a certain frame of what they’re photographing – a photo is a great truth and a great lie.
KC: What truth do you share with your photography?
YV: If I see something or someone that gives me a feeling, I try to capture the spirit of that feeling. I photograph things that may be mundane to some people, but I think everything is interesting. I’ve taken thousands of photos, and I can almost always remember where I took them.
KC: Who is Bruce? In the titular piece, Bruce is a rabbit – is this all some great homage to “Donnie Darko?”
YV: Bruce is a benevolent entity. Bruce started appearing in a lot of my pieces in different forms – sometimes it’s a cat, sometimes an alligator, a dog, a bunny rabbit. But Bruce is everyone – it’s you, it’s me, it’s anyone who’s kind – Bruce is in all of us.
KC: Your art has so many small details and features. Could you break down some of the recurring symbols in your pieces, such as the crowns and infinity symbols?
YV: The crown is a symbol that has been around for so long – it’s something very regal, very gothic.
The eights, or infinity symbols, put infinity into the painting and the viewer. When you look at it, I’m giving you infinity. Here, have some infinity.
KC: Thanks! What about the number 93 seen in your work, what does that mean?
YV: For the number 93, I just love numbers that are divisible by three. I was born on March 18, and three goes into 18. My studio is an apartment number 39, again divisible by 3, but also the number 93 reversed. I just love the way 93 looks.
KC: So 93 is not a year or age?
YV: No, but watch, I’m gonna die at 93 now. I mean, that’d be a good, long life, I wouldn’t complain.
KC: Could you describe your artistic process?
YV: If I’m starting with just a canvas, I don’t know what will happen, the canvas tells me where to go. I start making little marks, then those become more marks and it ends up feeding itself until something begins to emerge.
With photos, sometimes I have an idea of where a piece will go, but I’ll also just sit and stare at a photograph to see what comes to me. I’ll find what the photo is saying, or what the subject is saying, or what spirit is coming from the photo.
I don’t go into my pieces with a plan, because I don’t go into my life with a plan. It’s all a leap of faith, even leaving your house is a leap of faith.
KC: So you’re a man without a plan?
YV: I never had a plan to not have a plan, I just kept going through life.
Little kids don’t have plans, they just feel and do what they like – playing the drums, playing the guitar, singing, whatever. So I just kept doing what I liked. And then I was an adult, old enough to make a decision – and the decision was to just keep going. There’s a point of no return with the arts. No sane person goes into the arts.
KC: So….you’re saying you’re insane? It seems to be working for you.
YV: You have to have a goal. While the journey towards that goal will have twists and turns, that goal is still your north star, your navigation in life. In the arts, you’re gambling with your entire life – not knowing where your future will go or if you’ll ever make a dime – but you keep going because you know you have to do what you love.
KC: What advice would you give to young artists?
YV: To be a great artist, you have to be a great fan.
KC: Who are you a fan of?
YV: I remember when I was 12, and I heard Led Zeppelin playing on the radio for the first time. I was like, “What in God’s earth is that? That’s incredible! I want to do that.” I became a giant fan of Led Zeppelin and they became my target. I had been playing drums, but I immediately switched to playing guitar. Also when I was a little kid, I saw Queen live. It was so insane, my head nearly exploded. That changed the course of my life.
KC: What has been a life-changing moment for you as a visual artist?
YV: The first time I saw Cy Twombly’s work, it just stopped me in my tracks, I was just like, “Oh my lord, this is incredible!” As a visual artist, if you see somebody’s work and you go, “Oh my God, that’s amazing, I wish I could make something like that,” that’s the moment you become a fan.
KC: What are you working on now?
YV: I’m in the middle of filming a television show called “Godfather of Harlem.”
KC: What are you feeling connected to right now?
YV: Myself – I feel very in my own skin at the moment.