Faith comes first for American representational artist Kristen Valle Yann. She aims to glorify God in all she does, and she’s constantly asking herself how her art can appeal to everyone, regardless of their beliefs.
The 24-year-old Floridian artist, of Cuban descent, is at the start of her career and is eagerly exploring the different techniques of past masters, while creating meaningful works that move the viewer in mysterious ways. She’s currently preparing for her first solo exhibition.
Faith-Based ArtAs a Christian artist, Yann trusts that God will use whatever she paints to move someone in a way she doesn’t anticipate. She believes that the key is to be open and flexible in what she creates, surrendering her own ideas. And by doing so, she is led by God’s will.
Cuban HeritageYann was born and grew up in rural Tampa with her three sisters, all of whom are her best friends. It was pretty much like “Little Women,” she laughed. Each sister is gifted in something, whether it’s music, crafts, or cooking. But only Yann is an artist, a talent she inherited from her father.
Yann’s father, who had once aspired to be an artist himself, encouraged her artistic talent. He saw her passion for art, and he and her mother encouraged her to pursue a career. Since she grew up in America, they knew that becoming a full-time artist was possible.
“It was truly a Renaissance home growing up. We would go outside and really connect with nature and our imaginations, and we were constantly creating,” she said.
Yann’s paternal grandparents lived close by, and often her extended family–including aunts and uncles—would visit her grandparents. It’s on those visits that she learned from her grandfather about his father, the family farm, and their prior life in Cuba.
The reality of living in communist Cuba, she said, is that whether you were a surgeon or a taxi driver, you stood in the bread line for food each month and used newspaper for toilet tissue; some people were living in houses with dirt floors and no air conditioning.
Her family was against Castro’s communist regime, and her grandparents signed the family up for a freedom flight, which flew Cubans out of the country to Miami between 1965 to 1973.
As a result of signing up, her grandfather was deemed anticommunist and was sent to a forced labor camp, where he was enslaved for several years. He was forced to work the land, doing hard labor under terrible conditions. The family didn’t know where he was, or when he would come back. During that time, Yann’s grandmother had to find odd jobs, such as painting designs on dresses, to support the family. When her grandfather was released and the time came for the family to leave, Yann’s great-grandfather was on the brink of death. The family had to leave before he passed away—he died a week later.
After they left Cuba, the communist regime robbed them of everything. The regime took the family farm and everyone in the family had their citizenship revoked. The family put their faith in a new life in America, she said.
Yann is humbled by the sacrifices her family made. Because of what they went through in Cuba, Yann grew up with a deep appreciation of things that many of us take for granted.
Seeking Good Art TrainingBefore she went to art college, Yann went to a community college where she learned the basics of composition and technique. There, she found that the professors were passionate about drawing and painting from life. She assumed a university would be similar. It wasn’t.
Getting a degree was something that she knew her family would be proud of, as she’d be one of the first in her family to do so. That made her determined to graduate. “But each semester that went by, I just kept asking myself, ‘Is this a joke?’ … It was just very poor training as far as technique goes, and a heavy emphasis on how to think,” she said.
The one golden nugget of advice she got from college was to look at the websites and résumés of artists whom she admired and see where they trained. For Yann, that was Alex J. Venezia. She found that he, too, had been to a university but ended up training at East Oaks Studio in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Learning True ArtEast Oaks Studio, she explained, is not an instructional program. It’s a community of artists who paint together, share information, and critique each other’s work. She found the experience invaluable. “I learned from observation, and that’s a really wonderful thing because you don’t get a lot of this ‘head’ knowledge blocking your intuition” when you’re painting, she said.
Yann spent long periods of time watching East Oaks Studio co-founder Louis Carr and resident artist Venezia paint. Venezia is one of her favorite living artists. She believes that observing artists at work far exceeds reading about techniques because you can see art in practice. You see how the artists put their brush to the palette, how much paint they pick up on their brush, how they mix their paints, and even how they hold their brush.
She also learned things that she wasn’t taught at college, such as color harmonies and applying edge values to forms in order to create depth of space in paintings.
For the past few years, Yann has been perfecting her painting skills, with many of her works being practice pieces rather than having definite meanings behind them, she said.
Yann’s first still-life painting, “Apricot With Silver Chalice,” was a practice piece, and one that she created with some input from Carr and Venezia. Venezia encourages all artists to draw or paint fruit, as it can help them paint skin. He particularly favors peaches because this fruit’s skin mimics the elements in our skin, such as areas that are fuzzy, smooth, and translucent. Yann chose apricots and added a goblet and tablecloth to the composition to make the painting a bit more poetic. Even though it was a practice piece, she still wanted to make it beautiful.
Several of Yann’s still-life paintings have the theme of the passage of time. She is fascinated by how objects transform from new to old just like in “memento mori” paintings and “vanitas” paintings, where symbols represent the transience of life and the inevitably of death.
American sculptor Sabin Howard, who is currently working on the Washington National World War I Memorial, collects Yann’s work. He commissioned her to create “Blush Arrangement” as an ode to Dutch painting, which he loves.
In the painting, Yann mimicked the Dutch flower paintings by showing the different stages of life, where the flowers are closed, in full bloom, or in various states of decay. There’s even a ladybug, as Dutch still-life paintings often included insects.
In “For a Time,” a nest, some acorns, and weathered oak leaves rest on an empty wooden chest. It’s a sentimental remembrance piece, Yann said, and the chest is an heirloom from Carr’s grandfather.
Her painting “Providence” is another remembrance piece, of a sort, to honor a bird that she happened upon providentially. Yann had wanted to paint a bird like those in Dutch still-life vanitas paintings that were often pictured hanging up. Being vegan, however, presented a moral dilemma: She didn’t want to harm any creature. Yann spoke to her husband about it while they were out on a walk one day. She thought that if God wanted her to paint a bird, then an opportunity would present itself. On that very walk, they stumbled upon a sick bird, which they moved from the road onto the safety of the grass. Later that evening, Yann found that the bird had died. That’s how her painting “Providence'' came to be.
We can see where Yann is today by looking at her “Self-Portrait at 23,” which she created in January 2021. It was her first self-portrait since high school. She wanted it to reflect that she’s an artist at the early stages of her career, and that she’s still learning and still growing.
She painted it in the style of the old masters, although it’s not directly influenced by any one painter. She particularly admires how 19th-century French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted skin, which she has emulated in her self-portrait.
In her painting, she gazes to one side. She’s without makeup or jewelry and is wearing a white headscarf. There’s nothing to indicate the time and place of the painting, although her headscarf alludes to the past. The white of the scarf helped her gauge the color contrasts to avoid making the lights too light or the darks too dark.
Painting the Human ExperienceYann now lives with her husband in Tallahassee, Florida. As part of her need to reflect on how she can best use her art to magnify and glorify her faith, she found some of her answers in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament about the enigma of life. Yann explained that, just as in vanitas paintings, the book describes life as being like smoke: It’s there one day and gone the next, and like vapor, it cannot really be grasped.
What Yann loves about the Book of Ecclesiastes is that it takes the concept of faith and makes one realize that it’s not transactional. “Just because you put your faith in these things doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the perfect life with no pain and sorrow and suffering. But amidst that reality, we can have a hope for something eternal and something beyond this life.”
Her first painting of the series is “Entering In,” which features a woman from the back, slightly turned. She represents the reader, who has Yann’s likeness, entering into the teachings of Ecclesiastes with an open mind, ready to learn the lessons. The last painting in the series will be a woman facing forward, representing a reader who has gained wisdom from the book and, maybe, another perspective.
She is presently working on a piece called “The Vanity of Self-Indulgence.” Vanitas still lifes often have this as a theme: All indulgences in life soon pass just as we do.
With the exhibition, Yann hopes her faith-based paintings will be the essence of the human experience that we all share. She hopes that Christians “can look at these works and know that this [life] is not the end. And maybe, if you have a different worldview or a different outlook, then you look at these works and just feel comfort [in] knowing that you’re not alone in that human experience.”