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Apples, oranges, and guava 

A Santa Maria photographer competes on reality TV

On June 9, at 11 p.m. Bravo is debuting a new reality television series called “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” The competition pits 14 artists from around the country against one another with the winner walking away with $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. One of those competitors is Santa Maria’s own Mark Velasquez, a photographer by night and Tom’s Takeout cook by day. For more information about Velasquez’s work visit

Sitting in on a New Times interview with Velasquez was Bravo Communications representative Maile Marshall. 

NEW TIMES When and why did you apply to be a contestant on this show?


VELASQUEZ Well, I’m not a big fan of reality shows. I’d just done a 13,000-mile cross country trip heading down to Florida and Nova Scotia and Seattle and my dear friend Michael Neff who acts as my, I guess he’s my business manager. He lives in New York and he’s very up on the art world. He said ‘oh you have to check this thing out, it’s going to be great.’ And I said, ‘oh man, that’s just not me. I don’t want to do that. That sounds so dumb.’ He kept pestering me and sending me e-mails and eventually he just put it down to if you value our friendship at all you’re gonna do this. You’re gonna at least fill out this application and you’re going to go down to LA and you’re going to stand in that open casting call. So I said fine. And within five minutes of being in the room they picked me and they said, alright you made it to the semi-finals. The whole experience, from beginning to end, has been surreal.

NEW TIMES I guess that’s reality television for you.

VELASQUEZ I suppose so. I really honestly have not watched enough to have much of an opinion on it. I’ve never seen American Idol. I’ve never watched an episode of Survivor. Now that I’ve been on one I defend it a lot saying no, but this show is different. It’s a creativity and a talent-based show as opposed to a show like Survivor where you get a bunch of jerks together and see who can screw the other one over. 

NEW TIMES When did you get word that you’d definitely been selected?

VELASQUEZ I think that was September. (To Marshall) You think it was September sometime?

MARSHALL We don’t really get too specific about dates for casting.

NEW TIMES So you had to keep it quiet for a while then?

VELASQUEZ A long while, which was difficult. (To Marshall) Can I talk about non-disclosure agreements?

MARSHALL Not really, no.

VELASQUEZ Great. Well Mark Neff had to know about it but I really couldn’t tell a lot of other people. Which was hard. A lot of what my photography and artwork is about is being very honest and sharing my life. My creativity and my models and all that really are a part of who I am. They come to my birthday parties and they’re part of my daily life. So not being able to tell them was very weird. But, you know, you do whatever you’re told to do in those kinds of situations.

NEW TIMES What was your reaction when you were selected?

VELASQUEZ I think I stood up out of the chair I was sitting in and said ‘holy crap.’ Really what I thought was both positively and negatively, ‘oh my god what have I just gotten myself into.’ I’m a very honest person so I’m not always aware of what’s coming out of my mouth because I’m speaking my mind. So then I just thought ‘holy crap, what am I gonna say on camera without being aware of it.’ And I still have a little of that fear.

NEW TIMES I don’t know if you’re allowed to tell me this but where are you at in terms of filming?

VELASQUEZ (to Marshall) Am I allowed to talk about that?


VELASQUEZ Ok, it was filmed last fall in New York City. I’d been to NYC once before and I’ve never been one of those people, you know growing up in a small town you have these ideas of NYC, and the big city, everything is there. I was never one of those people who dreamed about going to New York. Even when I was in art school and people talked about New York. I was just never one of those guys. Being there and being around the energy and the people and the style, I really liked it.

NEW TIMES How long were you there for?

VELASQUEZ (To Marshall) Can I say that?

MARSHALL No, sorry.

NEW TIMES So how are you feeling about having to sit down pretty soon and watch yourself in this competition?

VELASQUEZ I’m really excited and I’m deathly afraid, equal parts. I’d like to think that I presented myself clearly. Even though we’re all individuals and we’re real people, I have a feeling we were each cast because we’re all caricatures. I mean I’m kind of a loud-mouthed chubby Mexican guy from a small town. That’s definitely a character. That’s definitely something that can be packaged if you wanted to do so. So, part of me is a little nervous about how that character is portrayed. I start to wonder every once in a while if the worst parts of me were captured and when and how and that’s scary for anybody. For anybody, if you took a random quote they said in a day and presented it on screen and repeat it over and over again it’s gonna sound bad no matter who they are. I definitely have fears about that. At the end of the day I think I was pretty true to who I am and hopefully I won’t be judged too negatively by too many people for that.

NEW TIMES I’m pretty familiar with your work, but for people who aren’t, what is it you’re trying to accomplish with your photographs, with your art?


VELASQUEZ Jesus…a lot of my work is basically social commentary. My number one influence is Norman Rockwell who was painting and capturing the world not as he saw it but as he wanted it to be. I see the world as it is and heighten it for dramatic effect. I have that photo called Pride where a woman is laughing at a man’s small penis or a nerdy guy is intimidated by a woman’s sexuality. Stuff like that is very real. And I’m sure a lot of men and women can look at these photos and identify in a way. I don’t like sugarcoating things. I don’t like making things not what they are. But I also like adding a little bit of humor. I think that when you add sexuality into any kind of artwork you’re definitely going to get more attention. My intended audience is the plumber who likes hot chicks but who can get a deeper meaning out of the photograph by looking at it.

NEW TIMES And your relationships with your models?

VELASQUEZ My relationship with my models is very familial. I think of them like little sisters even though I ask them to strip down to their underwear, or even less. A lot of these girls are definitely these young attractive women but at the same time to get them to trust me I have to be a good decent guy. I have never hit on a model. I’ve never tried to date a model, anything like that. Because that’s not what the relationship is. It’s a partnership. Sometimes girls need to be picked up from work and taken home. I’ve done that a lot. Some of my more damaged models, I’ve taken them to the ER and sat up with them all night because they’ve taken drugs or cut themselves or what have you. Everyone thinks my house is the Playboy mansion and it’s definitely not.

NEW TIMES How long have you been working at your family’s hamburger joint?

VELASQUEZ My parents bought it when I was 10 months old…

NEW TIMES So you’re writing a book about your experiences with these models?

VELASQUEZ It’s more of a photo book. There is a page of writing per girl. It’s about five or six of the models that I’ve worked with the most in this area, just how I met them, how our relationship’s developed, a little bit of psychoanalysis of each one. The best part about it is that my relationship is so good with them that I wrote the text to each one and then sent it to them because I wanted their approval. Like I said, I’m very honest about what my work is and who I am so I wanted them to know what I was saying about them and if they disagreed with it. They could tell me if they didn’t like it.

NEW TIMES Do you have a publisher?


VELASQUEZ No, I’m going to use Blurb, it’s basically a self-publishing site. I know many photographers who have used this site. They make wonderful books and instead of you investing $20,000 and buying a bunch of these books and having them sit in your room hoping you can sell them one day the website prints one at a time.

NEW TIMES Do you have a date when this will be available?

VELASQUEZ Around the first week in May.

NEW TIMES Given that you have established a working relationship with specific models and friends, was it difficult moving out of that community for the show?

VELASQUEZ The hardest part was not having models. I couldn’t work exactly the way I always do. And that’s fine. I’m very adaptable. It’s not about just photography. I do have all these other technical skills. But it was much more time restraints and the restrictions of each challenge that they give you. Even then it was fine but I’m used to working with models. And with no access to models and basically being sequestered you don’t have what you need necessarily. That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing, for me. I’d just gotten back from my cross-country trip where I had taken photos of 20 strangers so I was already ready. I had been sleeping on floors and sofas and in my truck so I was already kind of in this boot camp mode.

NEW TIMES How has your normal working routine in Santa Maria been affected by your experience on the show?

VELASQUEZ It’s been a little difficult in that now I know how to step it up a notch. A few people wanted kind of the same typical photos I don’t want to do anymore. And that’s kind of why I went on the cross-country trip to begin with; I was already getting to a creative point where I’d kinda done it all in this area. I’d kind of achieved what I wanted to achieve, creatively and stylistically pulled off a lot of stuff that I didn’t think I could do. So I needed a new challenge and I was ready to move to the next level. The cross-country trip was great and it really broadened my horizons. Then this crazy experience was wonderful and it really just reminded me more about the art world that I had kind of forgotten about in college. I think I’m still in transition mode. The next few photos that I have planned are definitely more stepped up—technically, the level of props, the level of staging, it’s bigger and better.

NEW TIMES As you already know, Gawker’s been kind of hating on you, not you specifically, but the show.

  • LUST :

VELASQUEZ It seems like no matter what work I’ve done, whether I was in college or whether I was in high school, I’ve always had people be detractors. My theory is that if you’re pissing somebody off you’re doing something right. If you’re making everybody happy, in every field, in every genre then you’re way too watered down, you’re a sell-out or something. I think you need to not be afraid to put yourself out there and challenge yourself and challenge other people’s perceptions. And a lot of people aren’t going to like you. A lot of people are going to respect you. They may not like you but at least they’ll respect you. And there will be people that will fucking adore you. It’s nice to have a little bit of push and pull. You have to realize the concept of an arts reality show is crazy. It’s difficult. The points that they brought up on that website are points that I totally agree with. The day I went to that open casting call they said ‘how do you feel about a reality show being based in the art world.’ I said I don’t think you guys can pull it off. Good luck. You’re kind of making a show about all these different mediums and all these different styles and it’s like judging apples, oranges and guava. How do you compare the three?

NEW TIMES Once this does finally air, how are you anticipating this affecting the scale of your career or people’s reactions to your work?

VELASQUEZ The best part of this is the exposure. That’s the reason I attempted it in the first place. My theory of all press is good press though that’s not exactly 100 percent, it really does help. Even if people are being negative, as long as people are talking about you that’s gotta be a good thing, right?


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach thinks reality TV is more TV than reality. Send comments to


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