Art Show: Valerie Carpender and the National Foundation for Veteran Redeployment
M., the art dealer, needed a writer. He was curating an event, sponsored by the National Foundation for Veteran Redeployment, that was showing artist/model Valerie Carpender’s work. NFVR is a nonprofit helping veterans establish sustainable careers after their tours of duty. Valerie’s art is inspired by her life in the modeling industry. M. said, “There will be veterans. And models.”
An intriguing pair, I thought.
“An open bar, too.”
I met Valerie on Thursday afternoon in the founder of NFVR’s New York loft, where the show was being held later that night. She was in New York for only a couple of days, heading back to her home in Minneapolis on Monday.
Valerie has bright, smart eyes. She writes that rock and roll themes appear in her most recent work. I asked, “What’s your favorite rock and roll band?”
“The Rolling Stones,” she said. “Nobody is cooler.”
“Hoping you would say that.”
Valerie and I toured the space and she told me about her work. “A lot of these paintings originally came from a dark side I saw within the modeling industry,” she said. “Some of the most beautiful faces in the world, some of the most successful models I’ve ever met, have the deepest insecurities. That’s what I’d like my paintings to show.”
In ways, Valerie succeeds. Heavy strokes of dark color and somber text compliment portraits of women with sad and seductive eyes, lips slightly parted, hair thick, sweeping, and textured.
In one painting, half a woman’s face is masked by the words “want,” “can’t,” and “wait.” A nightmarish billboard, swimsuit shoot on an ashen shore, right of the woman’s face, the tagline reads, “Why don’t you love me?”
Dark themes aside, in person Valerie is charged with positivity. She is adamant about the beauty, strength, and independence of women and genuinely loves what she’s doing. She said, “Making art is my passion. Modeling has been a journey—a personal journey. I think it translates well to canvases.”
After some time, Valerie and I left the loft, walked together briefly, talking about the city, old, gritty, tagged walk-ups in the village, the thrill of a block you’ve never explored before. She pointed out her favorite cupcake shop, and then we said goodbye. “I’ll see you at the show,” I said. “Maybe I’ll bring cupcakes.”
I walked back to my apartment and ate an apple, watching grey clouds flirt aimlessly with the skyline. I showered, put on a sports coat and met a friend for a drink.
It was raining as I walked back to the loft. I carried an umbrella, but rarely had it open, admiring the Gotham-like smog near Union Square.
A friend was in charge of security at the door. “Nice shoes,” I said.
“You’re an hour late.”
We shook hands. A model handed me a glass of champagne as I walked inside. It was a good turn out. Many people crowded around the open bar.
I ran into M. who immediately said, “Good, you’re here. Talk to Rajiv.”
He added, “Quotes! Get quotes.”
Rajiv Srinivasan is the CEO of NFVR. An Afghan war veteran lauded for his military achievements, he is now a frequent contributor to TIME magazine, the New York Times‘ “At War” Series, and PBS’s Regarding War.
We shook hands. I complimented him on the event. He was modest but pleased.
Rajiv told me, “When I came back from Afghanistan I was despondent. I was drinking too much and suffering symptoms of PTSD. Luckily I had an amazing girlfriend and other support to pull me through.”
“And the organization?”
“Veterans have such unbelievable confidence and a wide range of skill sets during their duty. When they come back, employers don’t know how to utilize that skillset in the workforce. They don’t know how to read a military resume. Our goal is to give veterans their sense of utility back.”
“How many veterans have you been able to employ so far?”
“We’re proud to say our 50th veteran has been employed this week.”
We paused to consider that number, watching guests drink, eat hors d’oeuvres, laugh, move to the soft hum of the DJ’s songs, and ponder Valerie’s paintings. It was a wonderful party.
I spent some time drinking with the models, getting along pretty well with a woman named K.
K. loves science fiction and medical texts on dermatology. At Emory, she majored in chemistry. Her parents are wary of her career in modeling but support her goal to attend business school in the next few years. They say, “You should have done that in the first place.”
K., too, has experience with the side of the industry that Valerie’s work hopes to reveal. While she prefers the name “silent actor,” some designers call her a “walking clothing hanger.”
One photographer said, “Starve yourself for 24 hours before the shoot.”
It’s a strange business. Without fail, though, all the models said Valerie inspired them. Through art she empowers herself and other women in the industry.
At the open bar the bartender pointed to a jar, urging me to tip. It had been a slow night. I dropped a few dollars into the jar. I met a veteran named A. drinking near a painting.
He told me, “My tour ends in four years. After? I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe move to New York…join the fire department.”
“We love our fire department.”
“It’ll be strange to be in a position where I’m saving lives rather than taking them.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
There was sadness between us I couldn’t shake. A soft distance that neither him nor I knew how to pass over. Until you meet a veteran you cannot know the reality of their pain, and unless you experience what they do, I wonder if you can ever know the feeling of that pain.
“What do you think of the foundation?”
A. sighed. “I think it’s great.”
“And the party?”
“Free drinks? I think it’s great.”
“That’s why I do these things.”
By the end of the night everyone had become a little drunk and had made friends. We took photographs like old college buddies take photographs: thumbs up, arms on shoulders, smiling, goofy. Everything felt like a success. The models looked good. The art was good. The foundation was building awareness, gaining support.
I shook hands with many people, saying goodbye. I hugged Valerie and wished her good luck. She said, “I look forward to what you write.”
Downstairs I met up with my friend from security. I don’t normally smoke, but we shared a cigarette and took a walk through Flatiron. It was still raining. I carried my umbrella, but rarely had it open. I stared at the Madison Avenue Clock Tower, considering Memorial Day plans. To be alive and in New York, I thought. I know no better feeling.
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