Estefania Velez: Florida To New York, The Hard Way

There are hundreds of successful, working artists in central Floridaäó»s dynamic and evolving community. But for many of them, the path to success included a detour through the capitol of the art world äóñ New York City. Thatäó»s where, for more than a century, artists from around the world have converged to find their muse, learn the business, and make lifelong connections. To help spread insight into how art careers are built, we occasionally profile artists from Florida who are in the midst of that rite of passage.

Just over two years after leaving Tampa Bay, Estefania Velez is a rising artist on the New York scene. In just the past few months, she has been part of three substantial exhibitions across Manhattan and Brooklyn. She teaches design and drawing at Rutgers, and she worked closely with legendary performance artist Vito Acconci in the last years of his life.

But sheäó»s has hardly had a smooth path to all of that. She only made it to art school at all after years of hesitation and false starts. A devastating personal tragedy pushed her to follow her dreams outside of Florida, and her years in New York have featured nearly as much struggle as they have triumph.

äóìItäó»s not easy,äó Velez says. äóìI donäó»t want to sugarcoat it.äó

It all started in her early twenties äóñ or rather, that’s when it didnäó»t start. Velez took her introductory college coursework at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, along with a handful of art courses that she adored. But she was pressured to pursue a äóÖreal careeräó» when she transferred to a four-year university, and didnäó»t major in art.

äóìI quit after two weeks,äó she says now, unable to muster enthusiasm for anything less than her passion. äóì[Then] I just worked full time, coffee shops or whatever.äó That lasted about five years, until she finally decided to go back to school, to USF Tampa, when she was 25 äóñ this time, to start the art career sheäó»d wanted all along.

But even then, she might not have wound up making the big leap, if it werenäó»t for a horrific tragedy. Velezäó»s mother, the center of her family life, passed away unexpectedly when Velez was 27.

äóìIt was a very hard time, but also a freeing time. I didnäó»t have anyone to please or to support. I had nothing to lose . . . Thatäó»s when I realized, anything could happen. I might as well go for it.äó

With little time to waste, she applied to three art schools as she finished her degree at USF äóñ Columbia, Hunter College, and Brooklyn College. äóìI picked schools based on who was teaching,äó she says. She still wishes sheäó»d been able to cast a wider net, but the price tag for more than a few applications was out of reach.

That came back to haunt her quickly, when her first response came äóñ a rejection from Hunter. äóìI thought I would at least get interviewed. [Then] Brooklyn College waitlisted me . . . So I was really nervous. I was like, I donäó»t have any other plans for my life.äó

Thatäó»s when she took matters into her own hands. When artist Rashid Johnson visited USF, she introduced herself, and showed him her work. He seemed to like it.

äóìHe knew [Brooklyn College faculty member] Patricia Cronin, and I asked, do you mind writing a letter [of support] for me?äó she remembers. äóìI kind of just sold myself to him . . . I said, Iäó»m 100% serious about having an art career.äó

It seemed to work. äóìHe actually did send the letter . . . I donäó»t know if that had an impact, but a week or two later they told me Iäó»d been admitted.äó

It was an appropriate start to a new phase of her life, marked by both big challenges and relentless determination. With little money, Velez moved from sunny Florida into a gloomy basement apartment in a rough part of New York. äóìI was navigating a whole new space. I would have extreme anxiety every time I left my home . . . I developed psoriasis from the stress.äó

She balanced art school with waiting tables, and struggled to feel comfortable äóñ though she got into the rhythm of her new home quickly. äóìItäó»s about the shift to somewhere where everyoneäó»s busy . . . Iäó»ve done a lot in such a short amount of time. I donäó»t think many people come here without a plan.äó

Her time in art school drove home to her just how important that is. äóìI realized that I am very insignificant. Thereäó»s just so many great artists. Coming here is like, Iäó»m a very small fish in a very big sea.äó

äóìWhat makes me different is just my drive,äó she says now. äóìI think the way people make it is through perseverance. To not give up after getting rejected 50 times. New York is ambition. People donäó»t make it if they donäó»t have that.äó Not surprisingly, several of her friends describe Velez as the hardest-working person they know.

Velez says about a fourth of her classes during her two years at Brooklyn College were with Acconci, who was best known for his confrontational performance pieces during the 1960s. She considered him a mentor, and his unexpected death this year, just as she finished the program, was another tough blow to absorb.

She still managed to hit the ground running, and has already started to build a real-world career. One of her Brooklyn College professors, admiring both her work and her work ethic, recommended her for a part-time teaching position at Rutgers, in New Jersey. Now she makes the long train trip there twice a week, while angling to get into shows or any other foothold that will push her to the next level. Thatäó»s not just shows, but visiting artist positions, residencies, and museum jobs äóñ all while waiting tables three days a week to pay the bills, and carving out studio time whenever she can.

She says sheäó»s very happy with her handful of recent shows, including one at the Dixon Place space alongside fellow painter Aro Cho. But she knows she has a long way to go. äóìIäó»m a nothing still, but Iäó»m getting a little bit of traction. But the people who are seeing my work are other artists.äó

After everything sheäó»s accomplished already, that next challenge seems like one sheäó»s got every chance of overcoming, too.

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