Converse With Artist Raelis Vasquez Through His Vivid Paintings

Dominican Republic born and raised painter Raelis Vasquez captures moments in time through his signature style of expressive settings, and boldly realistic portraits. Extracting imagery from his own home town, the artist portrays daily, nostalgic occurrences on the large scale canvas. Whether faced with an evening "sobremesa" with drinks and beers, or the local glances in the produce market, the viewer feels embraced in the scenario. One can almost hear the sounds of people speaking, feel the heat and tropical humidity, and taste the cold drinks and home cooked food. We had the chance to speak to Vasquez and take a deep dive into his background and style.

Noches en el Pueblo de Dios, 2020, 40” x 60”, Oil, acrylic, and oil stick on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, and how did art first come into your life?

 I was born in the Dominican Republic, in a campo called El Pueblo de Dios (Mao, Valverde), where we barely had electricity and running water and where most of the foods we ate, we grew. A place where I grew up running on the dirt roads with the other neighborhood kids. My family and I immigrated to the US (New Jersey) when I was 7.  I started drawing a few months after immigrating, and I think this was as a response to that disruptive experience. I fell into art at that early age and it has been with me ever since.

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies? 

When I was younger, my main concern with drawing and painting was improving my craft. For the last 6 years, I have been asking myself tough questions that have led me to create the work that I am making. I have always been interested in people and painting people and I don’t think that is something that will change. However, the kinds of questions that I am addressing in my work continue to develop and transform my work.

Mercado en Dajabon, 2021, 72” x 72”, Oil, acrylic, and oil pastels on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist

What is your process like? How do you begin a work? 

I work in oil, acrylic, oil stick, and more recently sand. I usually work with many images that I have taken and some things I use outside sources. I need time to work with an image. Before I ever get to the canvas, I take a few months, usually 3-9, to work with one or several images. I then make decisions, such as collaging, changes in color/temperature, and compositional changes,  based on what I am intending to communicate the work with.  This planning time is crucial for my practice. After I feel I have a strong starting point, I begin to work on the canvas and through that process, I abandon some elements of the previous planning. It's very planned and intentional in the beginning stages and becomes more intuitive as the work in the canvas.

Walk us through a day in the studio. 

I love working from home and I work quite a lot. Most days I wake up early and begin to create soon after. I work from 9 am to 4 pm. On really good days, I go back to paint for a few hours in the evening, usually 6-10 pm.  I work on multiple works at the same time and develop them at different paces.

From where do you draw inspiration? 

My family is a really big inspiration. We went through quite a bit together. I also draw a lot of inspiration from my greater community and culture. I often look at the time I have spent in the Dominican Republic, both before and after immigrating. I visit DR every year and that is a huge source of inspiration for me. I would say painting and the history of painting is something that I am inspired to contribute to as well with the news of my world.

Del Otro Lado de Dajabon, 2020, 30" x 48", oil, acrylic, and oil stick on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist

Tell us about your relationship to color. How do the color palettes in your paintings come to be? 

For a long time, I worked with a limited palette in oil: red, yellow, blue, white, burnt umber. I stuck to that process of color mixing for a few years and that taught me to mix the color that I wanted, with a few exceptions. Today I am working with a greater palette that contains more vibrant colors. I often rely on intuition to decide on my color usage in the beginning stages of a painting. I have noticed though that my colors often reflect the kinds of colors that I am used to experiencing in the Dominican Republic. Color to me is more about temperature and relationships with the colors beside them.

What larger questions do you believe your work asks? 

What does it mean to be Latino, black, and an immigrant? How do these identities relate to the Black American and Latino Community in the United States? How can I represent men in a position of vulnerability? How has my life been different from the lives of many of my cousins and friends due to the presence of my father? 

How can I continue to push and improve my work so that it reflects what I see and experience in a way that feels honest to me?

How do I contend with having US citizen privileges when knowing the detrimental role of the US in countries around the world including the Dominican Republic and Haiti?

How do I contend with having US citizen privileges, when a lot of my family does not?

What's next for you? 

I am towards a solo exhibition with Sakhile&Me in Frankfurt, Germany that will open in September. I am working towards a few other fairs and group shows for this year and 2022.

I will be spending about a month in the Dominican Republic this summer and I’ll bring some materials to make some small works there from life. I'm really looking forward to that and spending time with my family out there.

Buen Provecho, 2020, 40” x 60”, Oil, acrylic, and oil stick on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist

At the end of each interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love and would like us to interview next. Who would you suggest? 

I would highly recommend Kevin Demery. I met Kevin in Chicago while we studied at SAIC. He was getting his MFA while I was getting my BFA and have been great friends since. He is a brilliant artist and a great friend.