by Ricardo Loubriel
Juan Cruz is a Puerto Rican artist who at the early age of five was forced to leave the island and move to New York City, where his journey as an artist took form. Life situations and setbacks sparked the flame of creativity.
Cruz is 77 years old and a resident of Syracuse NY since 1975. He has been invited by the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse to present a retrospective exhibit that includes works from 1960 to the present. The show titled Juan Cruz: A Retrospective, opens on May 4 at 10am, at the Everson Museum, 401 Harrison St. Syracuse, NY 13202. The show will remain on view through August 4th, 2019.
In recent days, we had a chance to interview the artist, who has contributed so much in the fields of painting, sculpture, and the education of our youth in the arts. This is an excerpt of our conversation.
RL: What was the reason for your family to move out from Puerto Rico?
JC: Necessity and lack of resources.
RL: At what age did you first hold a brush?
JC: I was around 20 years old, but even as a five year old, ever since I can remember I spent my time drawing with pencils. This exhibition at the Everson will include one of my first paintings, a portrait of a young girl. That was in the 1960s.
RL: Did your parents in any way influence your career as an artist?
JC: I think about that and a lot. We were a poor family. I met my father when I was 12-years-old. My mom was a seamstress and she had that creative vision for drawing and designing dresses.
RL: Do you feel that the island of Puerto Rico influence your work?
JC: I do not know. My first influences were when I decided that art was more than painting pretty things, like flowers. I felt there had to be something more profound. I used to paint what I saw, very realistic. At that time I was struggling to make money. But when I started to analyze what I was doing, I opened my eyes realizing that art is not painting everything that you see. My work evolved in an attempt to reflect my experiences and my moods.
RL: Do you have a memory or anecdote that continually comes back to mind in relation to your art?
JC: I always liked to draw; I never had an interest in baseball or other sports. The truth is that all children are creators. The first thing they do is draw on walls, on the floor or the stove. We are all artists, but there comes a time when we take other interests or shift directions. For me, art comes from another planet. I am centered on personal experiences and social problems such as abuse, in all its manifestations.
RL: What does your art express, or what is the primary focus in relation with your work?
JC: My experiences, what I have lived through. Art for me is like music. Sometimes it grabs you and it speaks to your spirit. It pulls something out of us that provokes a certain connection. It is different for each person. The same happens with painting.
RL: How do you feel about this upcoming exhibition at the Everson Museum?
JC: Last New Year’s Eve, I was wondering what would happen to me this year. I was sick, alone, far from my family, broke and very cold. I read in a horoscope, “This year, something will open up for you.” I thought to myself, “There’s no other way around it!” One week later I got an invitation from the Everson to organize a show.
RL: Is there anything else you would like to say?
JC: Yes, art is therapy. I would like to send a message to our youth and tell them to think about what they are doing. Life in street gangs hit me hard when I was 17 years old, and landed me in prison without even speaking English. I did not know to read or write. I learned to read, write and paint in prison. Not knowing English was a problem and one of the reasons why I would not advocate in my own defense. I learned that it is important to think before taking any action, rather than act without thinking. Any decision made thoughtlessly can change your life in a second. I spent 16 and a half years in prison, for a moment’s action that I made without thinking. That can take you to jail or to your grave. I want to advise our youth and tell them that it is never too late; that education is super important and it is what will pull you out of many miseries. It is important to be patient, think about what you do and work hard to move ahead. I was able to overcome that crisis in my life. I held on to my art. It saved me. Many do not have that life support. I want to tell our young people to not waste time, to get an education, seek understanding and do not let anyone pressure you to act without thinking. Art is therapy