Once a struggling student, Carpender has found her way

As a professional painter, model


Valerie Carpender, a 2002 Forest Lake High School graduate, with one of her original paintings, a 48-inch by 60-inch acrylic on canvas entitled “Thank you, Cabernet.” (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

Some kids soar through high school, excelling in sports, academics and the fine arts.

For others, it’s not as easy. For some, it may be years before their full potential is realized and their future path is defined.

Count Valerie Carpender among the latter.

As a Forest Lake High School senior in 2002, Carpender was often in the background, rarely stepping into the spotlight. No National Honor Society. No sports. No stage time. Only three yearbook photos can be found in her junior and senior years.

“I was struggling to stand out,” Carpender said. “I was very awkward. I was uncertain of who I was or who I wanted to be. I was definitely that girl.”

It’s hard to image the kid of 10 years ago to the young woman of today who is carving out a career as an artist and professional model. In 10 years Carpender has transcended from that high school kid struggling to find her way to an adult who has found success and continues to look for new challenges and opportunities.

Carpender will make one of her biggest moves yet in December when she takes part in the 11th annual Art Basel Miami, one of the world’s premier shows for modern and contemporary art works. The Miami Beach show is a sister event to June’s Art Basel Switzerland and Art Basel Hong Kong which takes place in May.

An estimated 260 art galleries from North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa will showcase the work of more than 2000 artists from Dec. 6-9.

How it Started

Carpender may not have been an academic star in high school, but she found strong early guidance that would help direct her future. Now 28, Carpender says she loved art from an early age.

“When I was a little kid I would always draw,” she said, thinking back to the days growing up on the Forest Lake hobby farm owned by her parents, Barb and Tom Carpender.


As a youngster, her parents encouraged her love of drawing. And there were horses, too, and the young Carpender loved riding and showing the animals throughout her junior high and high school years.

In high school, Carpender said she quickly gravitated to the art department where she immersed herself in as many classes as possible. It was the encouragement of art teacher Nancy Sonnen who inspired the student to continue her love of the arts beyond high school, she said.

“I didn’t feel lost in those [art] classes,” Carpender said.

In social studies, teacher Don Thompson, recognized Carpender’s art talent, and encouraged her to complete visual projects to augment the social studies curriculum. These were the classes she liked the most, she said.

“My math teachers would probably say I was not one of their best students,” she added.

Sonnen recalled Carpender as a diligent student in the drawing and painting classes that she taught. “She was very motivated and a hard worker,” Sonnen said.

“She [Carpender] excelled in the visuals,” Sonnen added. “She was a perfectionist.”

Sonnen said Carpender often found her safe haven in the art department and would spend her free time there working on projects.

After High School

The love of the arts spawned at the high school left a clear impression on Carpender. She knew an art college would be in her future, but she was unsure as to where.

After exploring college possibilities, she concluded that the Minneapolis College of Art & Design was the place for her to be. She was impressed by the school’s full curriculum, small class size and the opportunity for hands-on learning.

Valerie Carpender and her brother, Craig, with a mural that they completed for an event in Minneapolis. (Photo submitted)

She remained at MCAD for just under two years, but during her sophomore year found herself not fully ready to commit to college. In 2004, acting on a whim and with the encouragement of a friend, Carpender entered a model search competition. She won the competition, was signed to a modeling agency contract and spent the next two years working in Los Angeles, modeling various styles of clothing.

After two years, however, Carpender was drawn back to the Twin Cities and MCAD. The timing was right for Carpender as she spent 2006-2008 finishing her bachelor of science degree in visual arts and advertising design. She was glad to be home and her father’s death in 2007 created family responsibilities that would not have been possible to handle had she been living far from home.

Living away from home for two years and losing a parent were two maturing points in her personal growth, she said. “I was almost a different person,” she said, recalling the move from California to Minnesota. She poured her energy into her studies at MCAD.

“I genuinely wanted to be there,” Carpender said of MCAD. Her degree positioned her to embark on a career in advertising or graphic design, but her studies did not concentrate on painting. “I knew it was a bad idea,” she said of following a program that concentrated solely on painting. That was the advice, too, of her teachers, she said.

Carpender said she had to be smart. She had racked up $100,000 in school costs over her stints, but returned from California with enough savings to cover the cost of living while she studied. Like many college kids, dollars were tight.

Almost by chance she learned that art might be a way to raise some dollars. After her junior year, she sold some pottery at an MCAD Art Show and found buyers liked her work. After her senior year, she brought more items to the show, including paintings, and they sold, too. Art collectors liked her work.

“That’s the reason I am a painter today,” Carpender said.

Many Facets

After college, Carpender quickly learned that selling her paintings would not be her salvation to earning a living. She spent time living in Chicago and New York working for modeling agencies. But painting has never been far from her side.

She moved back to Minneapolis in 2011, but continues to split her time evenly between modeling and painting. This year has been a big one for Carpender.

In March, she showed paintings at an art show in New York City. Her work captured the eye of a Miami restaurant owner who commissioned three original paintings for a new dining venue that will open this month. Carpender will be on hand for the grand opening.

“You have to have contacts,” she said. Her college marketing training has not gone unused. On modeling assignments, she will have samples of her work for new eyes to see.

It is such contacts that led to her invitation to display her art at Art Basel Miami in December. She is now working on five original pieces that will be taken to the show. “I want them to be some of my best,” she said of the acrylic on canvas and acrylic/mixed medium on canvas works.

She describes herself as a contemporary artist offering a unique and authentic perspective drawing inspiration from her real life experiences exploring beauty as an art and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality. Her work examines the delicate balance between insecurity and adulation, image and authenticity and the idea of beauty and self worth being defined by others that permeates our current pop culture obsession and runs counter to the common wisdom that true beauty lies within, she says.

Her work often represents memories of her father and growing up listening to classic rock-and-roll music where the lyrics set the tone for some of her favorite paintings. Women are a common theme in her paintings, often displayed on a large canvas. Horses, which were subjects of her early work, continue to provide inspiration for the canvas.

“Through working as a model, I have learned that meaningful beauty has little to do with our physical attributes,” she writes on her web page. “True beauty is what we create – a book written, a baby born, a perfect speech, a painting. That is what makes life beautiful.”

Just Starting

As 28, Carpender says she has accomplished much, but has much more that she wants to achieve.

She will continue to model to produce income and paint to advance her art to new levels. She hopes the Florida show will open new doors for her paintings.

In the North Loop of Minneapolis where she now lives, Carpender says she has found the perfect setting to base her modeling and art careers. Her art has appeal to young business professionals in their 30s and 40s who have moved downtown, among others, she says.

On a career level, she would love to explore television and acting. In October she was cast in a short film produced in Minneapolis for the 2012 National Film Festival. On a personal level, there is hope for a family in the future and space to live where she can one day have horses.

“I want to do it all,” she says. “I also want to illustrate children’s books – one day.”

Carpender is adamant that she can do it all, have it all. “I know that this is the right path for me,” she says.

To Learn More

Want to learn more about Carpender’s work or Art Basel Miami? It’s as easy as going to the Internet and link to: http://vcarpenderblogspot.com or http://miamibeach.artbasel.com.