Santa Maria native’s photos explore faith, heritage

Even a good-natured guy like photographer Mark Velasquez occasionally gets down in the dumps.

“I don’t know a single person who isn’t struggling — emotionally, financially or spiritually,” Velasquez, 34, said. “In hard times like this, we all go back to comforting things.”

His new show explores the need to find that inner strength — whether the source is religion, spirituality or tradition— in aworld torn apart by war, natural disasters and economic instability.

“Keep the Faith,” which opened Friday, runs through Jan. 29 at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo.

A Santa Maria native, Velasquez gained national attention when he appeared on the Bravo reality competition “Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist” in 2010. The show returned for a second season in October. Although Velasquez didn’t win “Work of Art,” “I just rolled with the punches and enjoyed it,” he said. “You can’t take yourself too seriously because someone’s going to knock you down to size.”

Since filming “Work of Art,” Velasquez has turned to other projects— such as his book “Show & Tell,” which explores his relationships with six models over the course of his early career.

“Keep the Faith” is his first solo show.

“I have fought (doing) gallery shows for a long time because I know how much money it costs,” said Velasquez, a graduate of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle who has participated in several group shows in the Central Coast and the Pacific Northwest. “The work they show (at the Steynberg) is really in tune with contemporary art.”

According to Velasquez, “Keep the Faith” features a mix of colorful and contemplative images.

“Your faith is either a very passionate, public thing or it’s a more subdued thing that you keep to yourself,” Velasquez explained.

Some of the photographs, such as a fiery portrait of the medieval French saint Joan of Arc, draw their inspiration from the former altar boy’s Catholic upbringing.

Others reflect Velasquez’s desire to reconnect with his Mexican heritage.

“Las Comadres,” “La Inocente (The Innocent Girl)” and “La Viejita (The Little Old Lady)” were inspired by the Latin American holiday known as the Day of the Dead. Velasquez painted the intricate sugar skullstyle patterns on his models’ faces.

“It’s basically people celebrating the darker parts of life and appreciating the good with the bad,” Velasquez said. The people who have struggled the most or worked the hardest are the people who sing the loudest.”

Like much of Velasquez’s work, “Keep the Faith” is sure to court controversy by showcasing attractive female models — some in various states of undress. “I totally get flak (for that),” he said.

Still, he said, “There’s psychology to it.”

“My No. 1 inspiration is Norman Rockwell. He took how he saw culture and reflected it back on society,” Velasquez said. “Our culture is all about getting the prettiest version to tell our stories.”

By using attention-grabbing methods, the photographer added, he’s able to draw attention to more important issues.

That philosophy can be seen in the quarterly photography magazine NSFW, which explores mature subjects such as sex, censorship and drug abuse. Velasquez and his partner, New York City artist Michael Neff, launched NSFW in November 2010; it’s currently offered on a print-on-demand basis.

“It’s Playboy without the naughty jokes,” Velasquez said of NSFW, which takes its name from the Internet acronym for “not safe for work.” “We take our subject very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”