Central Coast photographer Mark Velasquez scoffed the first time he heard about “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” a Bravo reality show in which 14 artists compete for fame, fortune and a solo show.
“I said, ‘Good luck pulling it off. You can’t judge performance art versus painting,’ ” the Santa Maria native said.
The show’s casting directors must have appreciated his honesty. “Work of Art” viewers watched Velasquez for eight weeks before he was eliminated in an episode that aired July 28.
The show’s season finale, which pits Dover, Pa. artist Abdi Farah against Minnesota native Miles Mendenhall, airs tonight on Bravo. The winner will receive $100,000 in prize money and a solo show at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum of Art.
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“This will be a launching pad for so many of us who don’t have access to the national consciousness,” Velasquez, 33, said.
“Work of Art” is the latest in a long line of reality competitions, following in the footsteps of “Top Chef” and “Project Runway.” Although other Bravo shows have dealt with food, fashion, hairstyling and interior design, it’s the first to introduce viewers to the fine arts.
Produced by actress Sarah Jessica Parker and hosted by art enthusiast China Chow, “Work of Art” brings together young and established professionals from every discipline. In each episode, the artists create original works of art, drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as a trash heap, a children’s museum and a drive in an Audi Forum.
The results are judged by a panel of New York City luminaries, including art critic Jerry Saltz and gallery owners Bill Powers and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. Art auctioneer Simon de Pury serves as the artists’ mentor.
Velasquez initially heard about “Work of Art” from his manager, who urged him to try out for the show.
“I immediately dismissed him as a joke,” said the St. Joseph High School graduate, who received a bachelor’s degree from the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
Upon further prodding, he attended a Los Angeles casting call in July 2009 and impressed producers with his straightforward answers.
Filming for “Work of Art” took place that fall in Manhattan, and the show premiered June 9.
According to Velasquez, the experience could be overwhelming.
“You just get wrapped up in that world and think it’s the only world that’s important,” he said. “At the end of the day, I would say to myself, ‘This is just a reality show.’ ”
Velasquez credited his down-to-earth attitude to the time he’s spent flipping burgers at his parents’ restaurant. Miguel and Mimi Velasquez have owned Tom’s Take Out in Santa Maria since 1978.
“I’ve dealt with drug dealers on a first-name basis, and I’ve dealt with the mayor and the chief of police on a first-name basis,” he said. “I learned very quickly how to sum up people as they really are.”
That skill served him well in the emotionally overwrought world of reality television.
“People tend to give off an aura of drama or being disrespectful or childish, and I want to avoid that,” he explained.
In addition to dealing with overblown egos and unfamiliar surroundings, Velasquez and his fellow artists had to create art in a matter of hours.
“If you think people on that show are going to make a piece of art you would be really proud of in 12 hours, that’s not going to happen,” he said, comparing the show’s challenges to “homework assignments that you’d make in freshman year.” “The whole point of the show is to be adaptable and do what you can in the time you’re given.”
During one challenge, Velasquez designed a book cover for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” In another, he helped create an outdoor art installation in Manhattan’s Hudson Square.
Velasquez’s favorite challenge invited the artists to explore shocking subjects. He created a triptych of colorful paintings recalling the horrors of childhood sex abuse.
Following the path
Although the show’s judges often dismissed his work as “too literal” or “too obvious,” Velasquez said, “That’s not a problem. That’s what I’m going for.”
“Blue-collar plumbers and welders are my target audience,” he said. “It’s important to make your work very accessible for anyone to look at it and get it.”
On “Work of Art,” he said, “I was really reminded of the cliquishness of the art world, saying it’s high-minded when it’s just a popularity contest. People forget that these are human beings with their own motives for judging or making work.”
Ultimately, Velasquez said being on “Work of Art” inspired him to pursue his own artistic path without fear.
The photographer just published his first book, “Show & Tell,” which chronicles Velasquez’s early years snapping photos on the Central Coast. His work also appears in the inaugural issue of San Louie magazine.
“Being on this program made me confront all of my major issues at once,” Velasquez said, from his lack of self-censorship to his insecurities about being overweight. “I’m able to sleep better knowing I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Tonight on Bravo
Watch the season finale of “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” at 10 tonight on Bravo. Learn more about the show and Mark Velasquez’s work by visiting www.bravotv.com/work-of-art and www.markvelasquez.com.