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Strings of boxlike buildings, each a framework of metal and oil-stained cement, line North Andrews Avenue just south of Sunrise Boulevard. The tinted windows of auto-detailing shops, the shimmering metal of used-car dealerships, and the dingy vehicles crammed into repair garages blur into a gray landscape of harsh lines and right angles. This postindustrial blight hardly seems a fitting spot for an Eden of tropical artwork. But Luis Lazro Valde's and his father, Luis Valde's, see a canvas in every steel-reinforced slab of cement, every discarded piece of plywood, and every chainlink fence.
Behind Tropical Café, a Cuban restaurant at 925 N. Andrews Ave. in the midst of this automotive affliction, the artists of the Valde's clan (their last name contains an apostrophe to emphasize the soft "ess" sound, according to the younger Valde's) have fashioned a haven. In the café's four-car parking lot, multicolored Picasso-like faces stare from a metal storage shed's exterior, King Neptune emerges from a cement wall, and white boats float across a light blue fence. While many galleries serve up fish portraits and tropical landscapes -- the meat and potatoes of South Florida's mainstream art scene -- the family's unadvertised backyard exhibition offers a nuanced mosaic of abstract swirls, cubist noses, mythical heroes, bright colors, and cement sculptures.
For about 25 years, the Valde's family has owned and lived in the back half of the building they now share with Tropical Café, an open-air eatery with a simple red-and-white sign out front. The elder Valde's, a medium-frame man with glasses and thick black hair, has sculpted and painted since his youth. In 1948 he emigrated by himself from Havana to New York at the age of 14. He tended bar and worked other odd jobs, squeezing in as much time as possible to sculpt. In 1970 he moved to Miami, then to Miami Beach, and finally, in 1976, to Fort Lauderdale. He married his wife, Marcia, and they had two sons, Luis and Noel. In 1990 the elder Valde's left bartending to work as an insurance agent. Three years ago, at age 65, he retired.
Despite his obligations as husband, father, and breadwinner, Valde's has always found time for art. Although he has produced a large collection of sculptures and paintings, he's taken only one art class, a University of Miami sculpture course in 1976.
While artistic expression is no newcomer to chez Valde's, the artists started painting and sculpting their parking lot- cum-gallery only six years ago. The younger Valde's, a hip 24-year-old with a five o'clock shadow and black hair styled in a tastefully gelled flattop, says his father has always encouraged artistic expression. Since graduating from Nova High School in 1995, he has worked at an insurance company and taken computer classes. He aspires to study landscape architecture at Nova Southeastern University.
The Valde's duo's garnished parking lot has a permanent collection (images painted onto cement walls and fences) and removable artwork (wooden boards decorated with waterproof paint). The two men intended their outdoor gallery, part of South Florida's under-the-underground art scene, to add some life to their otherwise boring back yard. But when tourists began asking about the décor, they realized they could perhaps spark potential buyers' interest.
On a recent April afternoon, the two men walk around the enclosed square of blacktop and explain each piece of artwork. The tour begins at a rendition of Neptune by the elder Valde's. A tactile image made of cement and paint, the marine monarch's head drips with tangled yellow hair, and his nipples glisten blood-red.
Then the elder Valde's saunters to the northernmost boundary and points to a moss-green picture of a boot with faces and wormish squiggles erupting from the toes. "It is my name," he says, explaining the boot represents an L. The squiggles create a distorted, mirror-image U-I-S. "I'll give you a dollar if you can find my whole name spelled out," he adds, grinning. His challenge, reminiscent of searching for N-I-N-A in New York Times cartoonist Al Hirschfeld's work, ends after about 20 seconds of fruitless scrutiny. "I'll show you," he says, pointing to a vertical column of squiggles.
Next the younger Valde's, gesturing toward another painting hanging from the fence, explains that he specializes in images like this one: a flat still life of sunflowers and bees.
The two men excitedly explain the genesis of a man's profile painted on the side of a storage shed. They noticed that, every day around 11:30 a.m., the sun casts a shadow in the shape of a forehead, nose, and mouth. One day they traced the shadow's outline. After a while they painted it tomato red and endowed their creation with a huge, glaring eye.
On the other side of the shed, the younger Valde's points to a man and woman painted in a style that echoes both cubism and the look of kings and queens on playing cards. "As the woman is yelling at him," the young artist says, "he's trying to hear her, but he's deaf in one ear." The man, he explains, is Don Quixote.
At that point in the tour, the younger Valde's pulls out a white, three-ring binder of sketches. In contrast to his father's affinity for three-dimensional work and straight lines, the younger Valde's draws swirling lines of hair, eyes, flower stems, insects, mouths, and the ocean. A few things captivate him: Yellow, he says, represents peace, as do sunflowers and the ocean. He points to one picture, a scrubby explosion of orange. "A woman and man are attached by the hair," he continues, smiling. "I guess they're tangled up."