Here for the fire

Who’s claiming responsibility for Mark Velasquez’s unconventional career?

BY ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH
ARTWORK BY NEAL BRETON

It’s 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26, the sun is slowly dipping below a distant cluster of trees, bathing the dirt lot in a terminal glow, and Mark Velasquez is lighting a scantily clad teenage girl on fire in a field.

Opposite the sun, a family of five—large, even by American standards, and clad in Wranglers and boots—gapes at the scene.

Joan of Arc doesn’t often make an appearance in Nipomo, California. And Jenna’s giving the role all she’s got, gazing tragically into the distance and straining her body against the rope at the photographer’s instruction. Her audience instinctively tenses and strains, aping her posture. They fail at capturing her regal aspect. And mostly, they’re here for the fire, anyway.

Velasquez is unquestionably in his element, relishing the control, bantering with both Jenna and the viewers. He’s got a habit of drawing the people in his life, innocents who wander into his parents’ take-out joint, friends of friends, even former Boy Scouts, into a surreal universe of his own making. With his trademark self-deprecating humor, Velasquez would probably argue that he has a strong gravitational pull. He’s about 5’5”, rounder than he is tall, with watchful eyes.

His assistant, Glenn Friesen, for example, is an occasional-model. Friesen was pictured in the second issue of Velasquez’s magazine, NSFW, groping his bride’s breast on their wedding day. But today, he’s manning the equipment, scurrying wherever he’s needed. Everyone keeps a careful eye on the column of eucalyptus leaves and branches behind Jenna. In the hour before the shoot began, Velasquez doused the leaves with two cans of lighter fluid, and no one was quite certain what would happen when the tinder was set ablaze, not even the three self-described teenage pyros watching with glee. They loosen the ropes that bound Jenna to the tree, just in case.

“I’m not setting her on fire. I’m setting behind her on fire,” Velasquez retorts. Besides the occasional quip, Jenna seems completely at ease with her role. This isn’t her first photo shoot with Velasquez. She trusts him, in many ways more than she trusts her own family.

Still, she can’t resist exclaiming when she first wanders down from her car and surveys her would-be pyre: “Oh my God! That’s really close!” Then she calmly steps back and allows Velasquez to clip away her sleeves with a pair of scissors. Velasquez favors a minimalist approach when it comes to his models’ clothing. Which is to say, he prefers them to have none. It’s something of a joke amongst the bloggers who commented on his performance on Bravo’s reality television show, Work of Art: Search for the Next Great Artist. At least, to the art critics and feminists. Except when it wasn’t, and he was labeled a misogynist, and sometimes worse.

More than 2,000 miles and an entire cultural shift away, in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, sits the painting that inspired Velasquez’s Joan of Arc shoot. He can’t recall the painting’s name, or century. Thirteenth, maybe fourteenth, he guesses. What he remembers is that it was a painting of France’s virgin saint, possibly the most famous martyr since Jesus. And it inspired him. Though Velasquez had only known Jenna for a few months when he first spied the painting, he knew, with the fervent certainty exclusive to artists and martyrs, that she was Joan.

“First of all, Joan of Arc died when she was 19, and she’s 19,” he explained. Velasquez will probably never be accused of dabbling in realism, but he expects his models to bring something of their innate personality and experience into play during a shoot. Which may sound like common sense, except that his detractors accuse him of selecting models purely for the size of their waistlines.

Jenna’s waistline is tiny. And in her transparent nightgown, clinging to a tree trunk, she looks especially vulnerable, and joyful. She’s enthusiastic about the role, raving about the injustice of the heroine being treated “like a terrorist,” this brave, young woman to whom the people of France owed their very liberty.

“Jenna is a thin, tough, strong woman,” praised Velasquez. “For this, she’s perfect. Not only her experiences in life, if I had barely met Jenna, she would be Joan of Arc.”

The phrase “experiences in life” refers to a number of things, but mostly the fact that Jenna is dying.

She contracted Lyme disease as a child, and has battled willfully, though in vain, ever since. Everyone’s days are numbered, but for Jenna, every day feels borrowed, her share of life meagerly portioned. A year and a half ago, doctors informed Jenna that she had just five years left to live. It was around the time Velasquez returned from filming in New York, and he documented the fallout in his blog, in a post titled “Coming to Terms:”

“So here I was, not twenty-four hours after returning to Santa Maria and reality, with an eighteen-year-old girl whose doctors give at most five years to live, crying in my arms on my faded second-hand couch while I attempted to answer her unanswerable questions about the fairness of life…

“Jenna and I have many plans for the future, both creatively and socially, for as long as her health holds up. I want to show her things that I think she might enjoy or find important. The questions she’s asked about life being fair, about the how’s and why’s of things, can only be answered with the same directness my parents thankfully gave me: That’s just the way it is. Life isn’t fair, bad things happen to good people, and things might not ever get better.”

Since then, Velasquez has worked with Jenna dozens of times, usually informally, without the set-up and hype of the Joan of Arc shoot. But Jenna’s mortality has become a central theme. In January 2010 they shot “Dust to Dust” (later re-titled “Rebirth”) depicting Jenna sprawled in the mud, wearing only a thong. Jenna later cast off her earthly bonds in “Ascension.” Shot on a deserted back road in July 2010, Jenna springs from an unseen trampoline toward the sky.

“Personally, I don’t like doing nude shoots,” Jenna confides during a pause in the photo shoot. She walked to her car to fetch a pack of cigarettes, not because she likes to smoke, but because the cigarettes help keep seizures at bay. She insists that Velasquez accommodates her points of modesty; when she realized that her nipples were showing in the finished “Rebirth” shot, Jenna was uncomfortable. So Velasquez edited them out.

“He shoots the women that everything’s been taken, whether with rape or fathers beating them or boyfriends beating them. He shoots women that are just trying to find a way to…” she paused. “And he doesn’t use them. I’ve shot with a lot of photographers and a lot of them just use you.”

The rest of his models say the same thing. Kari. Laura. Nataly. Erin. Sara. Stephanie. Most of the men who see Velasquez’s work call him lucky. They think his house must be the Playboy mansion, floozies in thongs swinging from the chandeliers. But they’re wrong. Velasquez doesn’t have chandeliers. He insists their fantasies are a far cry from his reality. He has a strict policy that forbids dating his models, or any kind of sexual interaction for that matter.

“Hugh Hefner fucked every centerfold he ever had, and I never touched a model,” Velasquez said. People who fantasize about Velasquez’s life also fail to take into account the fact that he’s broke. He can’t afford cable, and sometimes lacks enough money to buy gas to get to photo shoots. He’s also more in debt than he’s ever been. This is exactly one year after Work of Art aired, and friends and family predicted the show would launch him into a new lifestyle in a new city, certainly with enough money for cable.

While Velasquez insists he didn’t harbor such grand expectations—the show’s winner only receives $100,000, and the photographer is quick to point out that most of that would go to taxes anyway—it’s almost impossible to buy his statement that he didn’t expect anything to change at all. And the only record that he might have felt differently before the show aired is in his blog in a Dec. 30, 2009 post titled “This Year.” Because of non-disclosure contracts, a reality television standard for participants, his friends didn’t yet know that he would be appearing on a reality show. But his words hint at things to come.

“Honestly, I don’t know where I’ll be this time next year. My guess is still living in Santa Maria near my family, doing what I do, hopefully a little more successful…Listening to some others, however, the sky could be the limit.”

It’s not that he doesn’t have a day job. Velasquez works as a fry cook at his parents’ burger joint, Tom’s Take-Out. Typically, he works six-hour shifts, between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., five days a week. It almost pays the bills, and gives him the freedom to take off on cross-country road trips or simply head off into the sunset with one of his models. It’s not a bad job. But he’s been working there since he was a teenager, “every day after school, every birthday, every holiday,” he drones.

After high school Velasquez attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. He insists he chose the school because “it had the simplest advertising program.”

In college, Velasquez quickly rotated through various artistic skills and interests, easily bored. He started out attempting to draw the human figure. By sophomore year, he felt he’d achieved that particular aim so he moved on to painting. Then printmaking, followed by sculpture. Around the end of senior year came performance art. Among Velasquez’s more memorable exploits, he dressed up as Jesus, strapped a 12-foot cross to his back, and trudged around Seattle while a friend dressed as the Easter Bunny pelted him with eggs. And that’s when photography entered the picture.

“Making a socially conscious politically aware nuisance of myself,” he explained. “I had to learn to record these things. I was learning how to set up a camera with a timer and I was re-learning photography.”

He stuck around Seattle for two years after completing his degree, delivering cookies, he reveals, followed by a joke about his weight. Back then, he subsisted on one potato per day, mostly because 10-pound bags of potatoes were cheap. And, because his dad bought him Raisin Bran in bulk, he ate cereal. Dry. The cost of milk was too dear. No matter how bad things get now, financially, Velasquez knows he’ll always have the expansive Tom’s Take-Out menu to fall back on. But his decision to leave his hand-to-mouth life in Seattle—a call he made because he wanted to be closer to his family—was wrenching. He won’t say much about his youthful dreams, whether he originally planned to live in a more art-friendly metropolis. He’s too realistic for that, he insists. But it’s the rare person who earns their art degree with the intention of living in Santa Maria.

Size-wise, Santa Maria is the largest city in Santa Barbara County, only recently bypassing the county seat. But while Santa Barbara boasts dozens of art galleries, Santa Maria has only one: Town Center Gallery, filled mostly with watercolor landscapes and flowers in oil. There are two part-time exhibition spaces; the library operates the Shepard Hall Gallery, which doubles as a space for meetings and special events and Gold Coast Art and Frames sets aside space for local artwork.

For thousands of years, the valley was home to the Chumash tribes, but today it’s mostly been paved over with strip malls boasting fast food chains and carcinerias. On the town’s outskirts fields teem with strawberries, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce, providing much of the city’s income.

“My first year back was the hardest of my life,” said Velasquez. “I moved in with my parents for about a year. Everyone who knew you knew you from six years ago when you were 18, so they’re treating you like you’re 18 when you’re 25.”

Velasquez’s family—his mom, dad, and brother—help make up the city’s 70.4 percent Hispanic population. The family’s Catholic, and despite the fact that Velasquez is now agnostic, growing up he and his brother served as altar boys. Velasquez says that his parents, and his mom in particular, don’t approve his overtly sexual subject matter. But that doesn’t stop her from passing along the stray bathrobe or wardrobe prop when she’s cleaning out the house.

Whatever his family’s feelings about his work, though, they’ve opened their arms to Velasquez’s parade of models. In 2005, Velasquez began shooting and printing calendars for his family’s burger joint, featuring his semi-nude models in provocative positions. In one image, his father slaps his forehead, surrounded by a half-dozen models. It’s sort of the family joke at this point, except that unlike the art critics’ jokes about Velasquez’s work, there’s no barbed point.

From behind the counter, Velasquez describes his day-to-day routine: cooking, cleaning, taking orders. Since Work of Art aired, he’s been recognized a few times, when he was visiting Philadelphia or New York, but he’s living the life reality television shows fail to talk about when they’re bragging about their prizes. As he talks about his life, a young couple seated at a table with a car seat and sleeping baby happily interrupt, shouting jokes and playful insults.

“You know the girl looking at the guy with the small penis and laughing?” asks Velasquez, referencing one of his images. “That’s his butt.” Velasquez points to the unassuming husband and father.

As it turns out, Velasquez was once the customer’s Boy Scout leader. Now, he’s one of the few men in a stable of potential models at Velasquez’s disposal.

Ten minutes later, another customer’s credit card is rejected. The man’s got a large cardboard tray filled with milkshakes and burgers, and judging by his conversation with Velasquez’s brother who also works there, a baby due any day.

“Don’t worry about it,” Velasquez says nonchalantly. “You’ll pay later.”

The question of why models—and even people who aren’t and have no interest in being—take off their clothes for him is layered in psycho-babble. Everyone’s got their own experiences and motivations. Some of his models reference “daddy issues” or the more general “men issues.” But that fails to take into account the drive to create, or at the very least, be part of something creative.

To the art world, or at least Paddy Johnson of the blog “Art Fag City,” Velasquez takes advantage of women. In a biography, written by contributor Michelle Halabura and posted to the site just before the show first aired, there’s a dismissive reference to his “small town teenage-looking females.” The blog typecasted each of the artists, and predicted that he would be “Mr. Creepy Guy,” a label Johnson stands by though she acknowledges that his performance on the show notched that down a little bit.

“Based on his photographs, I do believe that was a fair assessment,” said Johnson. “He took a lot of photos of very, very young girls that are scantily clad. I mean, I would be clear that Mark Velasquez, prior to being on Work of Art, was not somebody I knew of. I don’t think he was on the radar of the New York art community.”

Her attitude, not quite stating that Velasquez was lucky to receive any notice at all from the East Coast art world, is more clearly stated in his biography.

“We’re going to say that his participation in Work of Art is about as good as he’s got.”

And as far as these critics are concerned, Velasquez didn’t make use of his time on the show to dispel concerns about his work, and specifically allegations of misogyny. He made it to the eighth challenge, out of 10, outlasting eight competitors, defeated by five. A handful of his competitors hailed from New York, the rest from Chicago or Los Angeles, Kansas City and Minneapolis being the smaller cities represented. Velasquez was an anomaly, a subject that his critics never seem all that interested in addressing, despite the fact that he was obviously selected to be on the show precisely because he’s a loud-mouthed small-town fry cook who photographs beautiful women. And no one ever challenged his technical abilities as a photographer. Typically, their concerns were more geared toward his content. And the artwork created on the show validates that, as far as they’re concerned.

“Mark Velasquez delivered what Mark Velasquez was capable of,” said Johnson. “So far as I can tell he did a good job of doing what he does, which is delivering slick but very mediocre work.”

She admits, however, that she did like one of his pieces, a portrait of fellow contestant Erik Johnson, completed for the first challenge. And that there may be a place for Velasquez in the art world, though that’s not necessarily a compliment.

“Our world is filled with really bad artists, totally mediocre artists, and a few good artists. It’s a pretty large pool there. Does he make the kind of work I would like to see more of? No.”

The single, most damning moment occurred in the show’s eighth episode, when Velasquez was paired with Peregrine Honig and the duo was tasked with creating work depicting heaven and hell. Velasquez immediately suggested that he photograph Honig, nude, on the roof. Honig refused, disgustedly and decidedly, and proceeded to trash his work throughout the remainder of the episode. At the end of the episode, Velasquez went home. The following July, when the episode aired, Velasquez shot “Ascension” with Jenna, and posted the photo as an example of what he intended to shoot with Honig, had she been willing. Johnson praised the new image when she blogged about that episode, saying it “clearly would have been much better as it’s a deeply creepy vision of heaven.”

Part of the art world’s frustration with Velasquez is the fact that he refuses to take it all that seriously, and doesn’t consider himself indebted to the Bravo producers who chose him, or the critics who spent their time watching him. From the get-go, he criticized the show’s concept, telling network reps during his first round of casting that he didn’t think the show would work.

“I think the art world, it’s like high school. A lot of the art world has to do with trying to prove itself and legitimize itself. That’s why there’s such a lack of humor in the art world,” he said.

When he returned to Santa Maria after filming, Velasquez was dazed. Fortunately, he’d done some photography work for friends who owned a winery, and they’d traded a box of wine for his services. So, he drank for a month, and hid out.

So, what’s changed?

Velasquez gestures humorously at the empty burger joint. “I have 1,000 new Twitter followers.”

Velasquez meets potential models everywhere, at restaurants and car washes, and simply walking down the street. He’s sociable and confident so approaching them is easy. Convincing them that he’s not sleazy is a more difficult test. But he takes pride in the fact that his models are real women, many of whom he siphoned from local community college Hancock College’s dance program. He started working with Kari in 2007. She convinced her fellow dancers to model as well, and Velasquez cites the year that followed as the most creative period of his career. That’s when he shot a series of photographs critical of the American government. He also documented the seven deadly sins, each transgression more colorful and bawdy than the last.

But his relationship with his models isn’t a one-way street. The girls who remove their clothes for him turned out to be unexpectedly vulnerable.

“It was a surprise,” admitted Velasquez. “I’ve met more damaged women since I became a photographer … it’s not meeting them. I’ve learned how damaged they are since taking photos. In the first couple years, I was even more sensitive and caring.”

Once, Velasquez accompanied a model to the hospital. She had overdosed, and he waited for her release from the emergency room until 3 a.m. On a separate occasion that same model showed up at Tom’s, drugged out of her mind. Velasquez left work, took her to his house, and spent the next two days caring for her.

“She was a cutter, and anorexic, and bulimic. I knew she’d gone to rehab several times. When that Amy Winehouse song came out she was like ‘that’s my jam.’”

He listens to their stories about failed relationships, their misgivings about their boyfriends and husbands. Their lamentations inspired a series in which Velasquez asked them to write a statement, or secret fear, or message they wanted someone to have but couldn’t find the strength to deliver. He wrote these statements on their bodies, “Why do I want you when you’ll only hurt me again” on one girl’s clavicle, “I’m not here to save you” on a breastbone, “I’m surprised at how much I miss you” across a back. It’s a rare quiet moment in Velasquez’s considerable portfolio.

While Velasquez insists that he always respects a woman’s wishes, he’s not above complaining when their inhibitions don’t correspond to his own artistic vision. On Feb. 21, 2011 he blogged about the challenges of finding models willing to pose naked and, more importantly, give him permission to publish these images.

“More often than not, my models more active on the internet have a myriad of personal rules and guidelines for how I may use their photos. It’s always a compromise. The restrictions can range from wanting their nipples Photoshopped out of a bra-less t-shirt photo to not being afraid of showing their vagina as long as their face is covered…

“Still, there are times when I wonder if all photographers have to deal with the constant stream of concerns and compromise, of never feeling one hundred percent secure that the images they take are not subject to being veto-controlled by a third party.”

The fact that a person’s right to control who sees their body, and how much, and in what context trumps a photographer’s right to control the use of an image, is temporarily forgotten in the steam of Velasquez’s rant, even if he concludes that he will continue to abide by their wishes.

So who owes who? Is the model beholden to the artist for projecting their image into the great technological abyss? Or is the artist’s need for a model, a subject, greater? In the case of Velasquez’s relationship with Jenna, those questions seem void. Jenna’s mom is religious and doesn’t approve of the photographs they take together, but that doesn’t seem to faze her.

“Because he understands what I’m going through, and a lot of people don’t,” she explained, softly. “When we can do things like this, I get to act like everything’s OK.”

And for a while, it’s better than OK. Velasquez is enthusing over his preliminary photographs while Friesen and Jenna banter back and forth.

“Guys, I have an itch in my eye!” Jenna calls urgently, still bound to the tree.

“You see what Joan had to suffer through?” a bystander responds.

“I know! She was like ‘guys, itch my eye!’”

Then, Velasquez is done and it’s back to business. Jenna is instructed to once again tense and strain.

“Which way do you want me looking?”

“Up to heaven.”

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