After closing out a successful Miami Art Week, Elizabeth Sutton was looking forward to a celebration and coronation for her assistants, Juan Salazar Salas and Pedro Valerino.
And at first, it was. Sutton and her crew danced the night away on Dec. 10 while celebrating her Hustle Chic pop-up event at Art Basel and saluting Salas and Valerino, who showcased their art to the biggest audience the Cuban-born artists have had.
But one of the best nights the trio had together wound up being one of the worst mornings for them.
After the party, Salas and Valerino got into an accident on Interstate 95. Sutton said that Salas had pulled over to check on the passengers in the car when another vehicle hit Salas and Valerino. Salas was thrown from the vehicle by the crash, according to a report on liveauctioneers.com
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Salas, who left behind a wife and 3-year-old daughter, died from his injuries. Valerino remains in the hospital and had to have brain surgery to remove excess fluid.
Sutton received this news at about 3:30 a.m. when she was headed to catch an early flight back to New York. She said the situation left her numb and when she finally got back home she felt compelled to start a GoFundMe campaign to help support Salas’ family and Valerino in his recovery.
“We went from like a high high to a low low,” Sutton said. “I said, ‘I need to do this. It needs to be personal.”
To date, the campaign has raised nearly $30,000 and Sutton is hoping to see it continue to grow. She said that Salas and Valerino were more than just assistants; they were and are talented artists in their own right.
“She invited these guys to show their artwork and connect with their community,” said Natasha Roberts, a spokesperson for the Elizabeth Sutton Collection. “It’s devastating that this is what came out of this journey.”
Both studied at the Jose Joaquin Tejada Academy of Fine Arts in their native Cuba and found their way to the United States not knowing how to speak English or to navigate the competitive art world but, Sutton said, they always showed determination and great spirit.
“They would go home after working all day and work on their own art,” Sutton said. “Juan and these guys were more trained than me.”
Salas was a printmaker. Before displaying his work with Sutton, he had been featured in galleries in New Orleans and in various galleries in Cuba and Spain. Valerino is primarily an acrylic painter.
“Art is my modus operandi, the passion that excites my days and gives me the strength to carry on,” Salas wrote in a statement that appeared with his art at the Hustle Chic event.
And beyond their art they were great friends and supportive of her as she went through a divorce and began planning for her Miami Art Week event.
Sutton said the two also helped her put together her new apartment while she was away on a trip to Israel.
“I become friends with the people I work with, and Juan and Pedro were the people I worked with the most,” Sutton said.
Her focus now is on Valerino’s recovery and supporting Salas’ young daughter and his mother, who live in Cuba, and his wife here in the U.S.. He would send money to his family there and Sutton hopes to send some of the GoFundMe proceeds to them.
Sutton anticipates Valerino coming back to New York to work with her again and she hopes to continue honoring both men through her collection.
“Art, dancing and driving. He went out doing the three things he loved the most,” Sutton said.
To donate and for more information on the GoFundMe campaign visit https://www.gofundme.com/juan-and-pedro-emergency-fund.