Ken Valastro | City Lights

By Rosemary Carstens

Ken Valastro’s bold blasts of color seem to reverberate on canvas. Against an atmospheric backdrop of subtle hues, eye-popping high-chroma colors emphasize key focal points and draw the viewer into the action. Urban scenes are his primary beat, and his vigorous brushwork captures impressions of quick-paced city life as pedestrians and traffic flow together and break apart, like herring schooling in an open sea.

Valastro brings enormous energy and imagination to his work, plus a dash of impatience to “get it done” that no doubt underlies his preference for, in his words, “blasting color on canvas,” quickly capturing a pictorial moment. For Valastro, painting is a full-body sport. Approaching the canvas, he goes all out, painting, he says, “like former champion ski racer Franz Klammer attacked a slope—pushing the boundaries, staying just under control,” using his whole arm to sweep on slashes of color or swathes of thick impasto.

Umbrella Glow, oil, 40 x 30.

“I like to portray movement,” Valastro says, “the inner dance between all the characters in a scene.” The painting UMBRELLA GLOW, of a typical rainy day in Manhattan, illustrates this and also exemplifies Valastro’s signature urban scenes. Backlit umbrellas glow like street lamps against the gray gloom of the day while dashes of bright reflections boogie in vertical, rhythmic patterns across the canvas. Loose, impressionistic strokes carve out clusters of figures and traffic and heighten the painting’s sense of energy and movement.

But city life is far from the only setting to attract Valastro’s attention. From suburban vignettes to marinas and rural scenes of long-forgotten pick-up trucks and tractors, the artist sees the world around him in terms of shapes, story, and relationships, and in a flurry of action he transforms those moments into art. As Mark Kihle, director of Knox Galleries in Beaver Creek, CO, remarks, “Ken paints things as he sees them. A rainy day, an old truck, children playing in the creek or riding a bicycle—he gives the viewer a sense of being present at that place, at that moment in time.”

His painting HARBOR HUES offers viewers that kind of invitation. It was inspired by one of the few remaining working ports in northern Massachusetts. The viewer’s “vantage point” carries you forward, down the boardwalk to the docked boats; it then pulls your gaze upward and outward along the curve of the distant shoreline to the horizon. Startling blocks of color fashion a sense of abstraction—the artist has squinted his eyes against the day’s bright light and juxtaposed the alluring shapes and shadows of a rapidly disappearing era.

Born in New York, the 55-year-old artist spent parts of his childhood in Brooklyn, Colorado, Vermont, and New Jersey, enjoying a cross-section of urban, suburban, and rural settings. His mother, an Army nurse and a World War II veteran of the Normandy invasion, had an interior design degree from Pratt Institute and designed one of the first wheelchair-accessible kitchens. Also a skilled ceramic and fiber artist, she went by the motto, “Don’t be hog-tied by tradition!” Ken’s father, a WWII bomber crew vet, was a first-generation Sicilian-American, a haiku poet, an architect, and an award-winning fine-art photographer whose work was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is in its permanent collection. Their influence on Valastro was enormous. “I dedicate my success to my parents,” he says. “They fostered a creative and artistic environment for me as a child. I was drawing constantly from the age of two.”

Washington Park Winter, oil, 40 x 30.

While other children drew stick figures and box houses, Ken recorded everything he saw or experienced in great detail. On the walls of his present home are framed childhood drawings of baseball games and Olympic competitions. Again acknowledging his parents’ influence on his life’s direction, he relates their many family visits to New York museums and says, “They were my biggest fans and followed my art career with great interest right to the end. I’m so blessed they knew I had become a professional artist before they passed.”

Valastro studied advertising design and production at New York’s Mohawk Valley Community College. Although the desire to become a painter was always with him, he spent time doing reforestation work in Oregon and several years in a solar heating business before attending the Art Students League of Denver, where he studied with such notable artists as Jay Moore, Doug Dawson, Michael J. Lynch, Mark Daily, Quang Ho, and Kim English. English, whose work is recognized internationally and who Valastro calls his “biggest mentor,” spoke about the artist’s work recently, saying, “The size of Ken’s pieces and the way they are painted creates a bold impression that stays with you. Whenever we painted together, I came away with a new appreciation of our subject.”

Among the Valastro’s passions is his work as an instructor at the Art Students League, where he’s taught classes and workshops for the past seven years. His students find him very approachable, and he strives to make them feel a part of the process when doing a painting demonstration. “My goal is to get students to loosen up their painting styles with a more painterly approach,” he says.

Beyond his art, Valastro brings his same can-do-it enthusiasm and vigor to other interests. He’s an avid mountain biker; he follows environmental issues and enjoys listening to world music. He and his wife, Christina, are intrepid travelers, dipping their toes into many of the world’s cultures. If he hadn’t become an artist, he says he would have become an inventor. It’s not unusual for him to envision creative new uses for items, repurposing them in practical and innovative ways. He built his own pochade box (a compact, portable painting studio) from an old storage unit found in a second-hand store. He designed it to suit his needs when painting on site, right down to positioning each canvas to allow plenty of room for his sweeping strokes.

Most every day finds Valastro either out combing Denver neighborhoods for reference materials or working on multiple canvases in the huge barnlike building behind his home, where he’s surrounded by works in progress, framing materials, rolled-up canvas, bicycles and cars, and a miscellany of found items. Although he has done a good amount of plein-air painting, he also makes use of photo references and keeps his computer nearby. But, he cautions, “you can’t just render what’s seen in a snapshot, you have to make your own art out of it.” Composition is key to his style, and he looks for scene components that inspire, usually those with interesting gesture. They become the springboard for personal interpretation. Combining reality with inventiveness, working wet into wet, he starts by blocking in big abstract shapes, going back and forth between positive and negative space, whittling detail as he goes. He emphasizes he doesn’t want to over-describe a scene: “I want to make a painterly statement that shares the imagination processes with the viewer by letting them fill in the rest from their own memories and emotions.”

Farmalls Best Friend, oil, 36 x 48.

To invite viewers to “fill in the blanks” requires a keen eye for scenes with story value. On a recent driving trip through Vermont, he spotted an unusual sight—some two dozen weathered old tractors in a back field, among them a number of classic Farmalls. Farmall tractors, first produced in 1924, were an American mainstay on farms across the country for many years. No longer manufactured, they are cherished by vintage tractor fans, and Valastro was ecstatic when the owner gave him permission to take photos. FARMALL’S BEST FRIEND is one result. The close-cropped view of a farmer, wrench in hand, studying the beast before him, reenacts a common scene on family farms nationwide. There is a touch of nostalgia here, without sentimentality, about a time when U.S. manufacturing reigned, when it signified excellence and reliability. Valastro’s enthusiasm for vintage machinery is clear: “The architecture and style of the Farmall is like nothing else! It’s a tractor that has gesture and character, proportion and detail.”

Ken Valastro’s work is about how life feels; it’s about the gesture and character of the incandescent life force that surrounds us daily. As a cancer survivor who fought a tough personal battle, the artist has experienced the preciousness of that force and holds nothing back as he strives to relay it through his art.

Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; The Gallery at Rich Designs, Colorado Springs, 
CO; Knox Galleries, Beaver Creek, CO; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Arts at Denver, Denver, CO; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM;

Featured in October 2010