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These are six photos featuring illustrator and USC professor Marius Valdes and his artwork, graphic design and murals.

South Carolina Sunshine is honored to feature 
Award Winning ZOO Valdes Illustrator, recognized public art muralist, and author of Bird Break, Marius Valdes.

Marius Valdes is an artist currently based in Columbia, South Carolina. He is a Professor in Studio Art concentrating on Design and Illustration at The University of South Carolina. He lives in Forest Acres, South Carolina with his wife Beth and daughter Emma.


Valdes' artwork has been exhibited and published in throughout the United States and Europe. His work has been featured in several books about contemporary graphic design and illustration. Design publications such as Graphic Design USA, HOW, Print, Communication Arts, Creative Boom, Creative Quarterly, STEP, and industry competitions including American Illustration, World Illustration Awards, AIGA InShow, AIGA SEED Awards, and The South Carolina Advertising Federation Addy Awards have recognized Valdes' work.


In 2017, Valdes completed a one year residency as the inaugural visual Artist-in-Residence at the award-winning and innovative Richland Library. In 2020, he completed a series of commissioned artworks and murals for MUSC's Children's Hospital located in Charleston, SC.

This is an illustration of dogs by Marius Valdes.

Above, Dogs and Frogs sketchbook drawing by Marius Valdes. 

Q & A with Marius Valdes

Dawn Hunter: Why did you become a Graphic Designer/Illustrator? Do you consider yourself both, or do you consider yourself an illustrator?


Marius Valdes: I started college as a Psychology major and took an art class (my1st art class ever) as an “easy” elective. What I found was that I could sit in a 3-hour drawing class and never lose interest, but a 50-minute Psychology class was torture. I was a little worried about telling my father I wanted to be an art major (since I had no training) but he told me to go for it. He talked to a colleague at his job that was in the marketing department, and he suggested I look at Advertising. I joined the Ad Club at the College of Charleston and won an internship with a local designer named Gil Shuler. I spent the whole summer in Gil’s design studio and knew that design was what I wanted to go to school for. Once I learned what illustration was, that became my real passion. These days, I have resolved myself to the fact that I am an educator 1st, artist second (because I can make art whenever I want), and I do illustration for clients when I have the time and there is interest. I love design but running a design business while teaching full time is very difficult to do properly. I use a lot of my design training in my art though from technical skills to aesthetics of my minimalist and colorful style.

This is an illustration of fish by Marius Valdes.
This is a mural installation by Marius Valdes at MUSC.

Marius Valdes mural installation at the reception area of the MUSC Children's Hospital, Charleston, South Carolina.

Above, a commissioned painting for MUSC Children's Hospital

by Marius Valdes.

Dawn Hunter: This year you provided the illustrations for Columbia’s Vista Lights event. Is this the first year you collaborated on the event’s promotion? Or have you collaborated on it before?


Marius Valdes: Several years ago, I was approached by Vista Lights to do some new art for them. I created a huge library of art for them, and they have used various elements from that collection over the last three years. I believe there is interest in creating a new look next year and I look forward to that. It truly makes my day to see my characters on banners, billboards, and beer cups! I was stuck in traffic on I-26 when I saw my reindeer pop up on a digital billboard. It instantly put me in a good mood.

This is a banner hung in the Visita, Columbia South Carolina for the holidy season. It features a Gingerbreadman designed by Marius Valdes.

Above, and example of one of Mairus Valdes' illustrations for Vista Lights, Columbia, SC.

Dawn Hunter: What are the most important skills for an illustrator? 


Marius Valdes: Conceptual ideas and a visual language that is your own. The technical side of it whether it be computers, software, etc. is just a tool. You need to know some of those things to produce a professional level of artwork but if you don’t have a good idea or a style that is your own, you might not make work that is that interesting to produce and that will show in the work. People are drawn to something that has a bit of personality and that comes from an illustrator who has found their voice in their image making.

Dawn Hunter: You are known as Zoo Valdes, and you create many illustrations that feature animal characters. How did you get started on that path? 


Marius Valdes: When I first started making art, I was trying to do portraits of people and I am terrible at it. Making characters that are animals and creatures is a little more forgiving when it comes to stylizing and simplifying them. Plus, I truly love animals and am quite fascinated by them. I could watch animal reels on Instagram for hours. (Sometimes I do). Also, I originally came up with Zoo Valdes because I figured it would be easier to spell than Marius Valdes. just sounded more memorable. I have had numerous calls over the years from people calling to see if I could bring animals to their kid’s birthday party.

Dawn Hunter: Where do you find your inspiration and how do you research a project? 


Marius Valdes: I love books and magazines and comics. If I see an illustration in any of them that I like, I immediately try to find them online and learn more about them. I literally tear things out of magazines weekly and tape them into my sketchbooks. It might be a New Yorker cartoon or a cool photograph of a rock star. It might not necessarily be of something that I would make art of myself, but it makes me want to be creative. In the last few years I have become a bit obsessed with comic book covers. I love the art, the type, the colors, and collectability aspect. I can’t make art like that, but it makes me want to make my own art. So, I have these types of things hanging in my office to inspire me daily. 


Researching a project is very important because it often gives you the clues to figuring out what you will make for the client. In doing a mural for The MUSC Children’s Hospital, it was very important to meet the hospital workers, see the space, and understand how my art could be used to make the hospital a better place for their patients. 


Dawn Hunter: Who is your favorite artist? 


Marius Valdes: William Steig was a cartoonist and children’s book illustrator. He created Shrek! I love his drawings more than any other artist I have seen. Charles Schultz (Peanuts), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Jack Kirby (Marvel comics) are close behind. The last contemporary artist exhibition I saw that literally knocked me back in awe was by a painter named David Bates and his exhibition called “The Katrina Portraits”. He literally paints the way I wanted to when I took my 1st art class.

This is a murall by Marius Valdes on display in the Richland Public Library.

One of many mural walls created by Marius Valdes at the Richland County Public Library, Columbia, South Carolina.

Dawn Hunter: You have a few mural projects in South Carolina. Where are the locations?


Marius Valdes: MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital has several. Sumter Gallery of Art. Richland Library Teen and Children’s Room. West Ashley in Charleston, SC off Savannah Highway. AC Moore Elementary Library. Satchel Ford Elementary Cafeteria. I have a solo exhibition at the Koger Center in November 2023 so I am thinking hard about how I can make that my best show ever.

Dawn Hunter: How did those opportunities come about?


Marius Valdes: I have made a lot of art since 2000 and people come across it and think “oh, this would be perfect for us”. So, it usually starts with an email from someone who has just seen my art and wants to discuss a project. The 1st big mural I did was for Richland Library, and it helps potential clients to see what my work looks like in a real environment. So doing larger installations is a newer medium for me but I love it. It’s so rewarding that people let me transform a space for them with my characters. I take it very seriously because I know it will be in their space for a long time.


Dawn Hunter: What piece of advice would you give your younger self?


Marius Valdes: Make more work but be patient about your career. I graduated college and wanted to be a famous artist on day one. I was restless and impatient to have my work be seen. I was not ready to do client work. I needed to find my own voice and that took a few years and a few hundred paintings. 24 years later, I am still figuring it out! But perhaps most important, do what comes natural to you and don’t compare yourself to others even though it’s really hard not to.

This is a photo of an exhibition opening of Marius Valdes' artwork. He is featured in the center and is sourrounded by attendees of the exhibition.

Visiting Artist, Marius Valdes with attendees of his Secret Species solo exhibition at Miami University. Visit Marius' website, click on the underlined link below

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