Maria Valdivia didn’t know Adrian Velazquez personally.
But the recent Kearny High School graduate remembers Velazquez, whose life came to a tragic end at the age of 19 last March in a car accident in Delaware.
“I remember seeing him in school,” Valdivia said. “He always had a smile on his face and he had these rosy cheeks.”
Valdivia, who played soccer and ran track at Kearny, knew the pain and anguish that thousands of people from Kearny and Rutgers-Newark, where Velazquez played last fall as a freshman, felt after the horrific crash.
“Everyone was so touched about what happened,” Valdivia said. “I spent days of thinking that it couldn’t be true. It was so unbelievable.”
Valdivia, an aspiring artist, wanted to do something to honor Velazquez’s memory.
Valdivia, who will begin her studies as an art major at Union County College later this month, was approached by her art teacher at Kearny, John Bednarczyk, if she would paint a portrait of Velazquez.
Valdivia said that she started to draw a lot when she was in second or third grade, but then stopped for a long time.
“I don’t remember why I stopped,” Valdivia said. “But then last year, I started again. But I never painted. It was always drawings.”
Valdivia began to take her art talents seriously last year, first doing a portrait of music icon Kanye West, then doing portraits of Kearny athletes Diego Torales and Rauly Cordero that were entered in a Hudson County art show that she earned Best in Show honors.
But Valdivia never did a full body action painting before.
“I was really nervous,” Valdivia said. “I never did a fully body shot and never did action before. But I knew I wanted to do something nice to remember him. I knew I had the chance to do one last painting before I graduated.”
So in her art class, Valdivia got a basic 4 foot-by-4 foot piece of plywood and started to sketch an action picture of Velazquez playing for Kearny that appeared in the school yearbook.
After that, Valdivia got the right color paints and became an absolute stickler to detail, capturing even the folds in Velazquez’s jersey in the painting. And of course, there’s the color in Velazquez’s face.
“I started it in June,” Valdivia said. “It took me about a week to finish. I would work on it in art class and if I had free periods. I would stay here for most of the day.”
The finished product is simply amazing, considering it was drawn right on the plywood and then painted. There was no canvas at all. The wood was her canvas.
“I’m really excited with the way it turned out,” Valdivia said. “My goal was to make it look realistic. If I spent more time on it, I could be happier.”
Valdivia said that Velazquez’s mother has seen the painting.
“She was really happy that someone did this for him,” Valdivia said. “She knows how much everyone loved him.”
Valdivia has donated the portrait of Velazquez to the school. It has not been determined where the painting will remain forever, but it will be hung in a prominent location for everyone to remember Velazquez and admire Valdivia’s great work.
“I just want to make sure it’s hung in the right place,” Valdivia said. “Wherever the school thinks is best, then I will think it’s the best.”
A lot of people have seen Valdivia’s finished product and are astounded.
“They think it looks just like him,” Valdivia said. “He had a lot of friends in my class and they’ve seen it.”
The Velazquez painting has already led to other pieces that Valdivia is working on.
“I’ve already had a couple of people who want me to do portraits of them,” Valdivia said. “I would love for my art career to go far. I’m glad I really started to push myself and take myself seriously, but I’m grateful for the amount of support I got. It makes me want to do more and more. I want to make everyone proud of me. I’m really excited for my future and what it brings. I feel like this is just a start, but doing this painting just tops off all I did in my high school career.”
And as Valdivia moves on with her education and her life, a piece of her remains in her alma mater _ as does a fine remembrance of a spectacular athlete taken way too soon.
“Just knowing that I did give back,” Valdivia said. “That means everything. Having his family and friends tell me that it looks just like him. It makes it feel like part of him is still here with us.”
Recent Kearny High School graduate Maria Valdivia poses with her painting of former Kearny soccer standout Adrian Velazquez, who tragically died in a car accident last March. Photo by Jim Hague