Artist returns to Syracuse Near West Side to live, paint and teach
January 16, 2011 at 11:31 AM
Juan Cruz is settling into his new challenge. He is artist-in-residence in the Near West Side of Syracuse.
I’ve known this artist and teacher a long time. We met when he was a part of the art program at Auburn prison, directed by Jim Harithas, the director of the Everson Museum at the time. Juan later earned a degree at Syracuse University, a patron of his off and on over the years. SU owns the building that is Juan’s home and studio – it used to be Rainieri’s Restaurant – and is partly responsible for his new position. The university is a major backer of the Near West Side Initiative, that includes the artist-in-residency.
Juan is two years in our town from Puerto Rico, where he was born nearly 70 years ago. He spent five years in the commonwealth, living with family, intending to “retire, collect Social Security and paint.” Eventually, he said he was discouraged about that sunny prospect.
He came back to the city where he’d spent 28 years specifically to restore a mural he’d first done in 1990 at the Onondaga Commons building, home to Rural/Metro Medical Services, owned by his friend, and mentor, Marty Yenawine. Juan credits Marty with getting him back to Syracuse, along with “a little luck.”
The mural faces Shonnard Street, not far from Juan’s new home and studio on Tully Street.
He moved into the converted bar in October. There’s an art studio and teaching space on the first floor, storage in the basement and a nifty one-man apartment on the second level. Windows look out on the West Street Arterial and Juan’s car under a snow bank. Although he left us to enjoy a warmer climate in the Caribbean, he found Puerto Rico was “too hot” for his taste. Plus, Juan says, “I was sick a lot” and he found the political climate in his birth place uncomfortable.
“I was painting,” he explained, and he made friends among other artists on the island. He connected with two galleries, including one, URI, that sponsored a show of his work. “He returns to his country,” a writer in the exhibit catalog declared in 2007, to find it “has lost a good share of its innocence, decency and enormous generosity and he finds a country marked by violence, lies and very questionable values.”
Juan plans to open a “small art school” in his studio space where he will teach art, along with fashion design and music. Early on, the school, which he foresees as enrolling youngsters from about 9 or 10 to 15, who would come in for two hours after school. Juan will need help teaching fashion design and music.
He’s already talked to parents in the neighborhood about “what the kids need” and has a few teaching helpers lined up.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” he explains.
Juan says he has lot of support in this first residency, including the neighbors who sit on the Near West Side Initiative’s advisory board, and the staffs of the Gifford Foundation, Huntington Family Centers, Peace, Inc., Spanish Action League and Say Yes to Education and La Casita Center Project, his neighbors in the district west of downtown.
Juan has lived and worked in the Near West Side neighborhood before. He did murals on walls that have since been painted over and got young people to help him on the Onondaga Commons and other mural projects. His family moved to New York City’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood when Juan was 5. He’s been drawing ever since. His mother, Carmen Julia, died in 2008, which was part of his motivation to move back to Syracuse. Back then, he found Syracuse to have a difficult climate to exist as an artist.
His sunny apartment is filled with work and works in progress. There’s a large, unfinished canvas on the easel downstairs. I’d call Juan’s work abstract. His latest passion is a series of paintings based on his interest in designs that originated with his cutting up of Christmas cards and putting pieces back together “like Humpty Dumpty.”
Juan’s anxious to start working with young people who live on the Near West Side, “working with kids who want to learn.” The school will be a learning experience for him, as well: “I’m going to learn how to sew and read music,” he says. “I want to work with the community.”
He was pleased to find the neighborhood has a ãcome back” feeling that he didn’t see when he left Syracuse. He praised the SU chancellor, Nancy Cantor, for working to connect the university with people in the community. “There’s a lot happening here,” Juan says.
He pays no rent at his new digs and lives on his Social Security check. He looks forward to selling a few of his paintings in the future. He sends money each month to his two children, a son and a daughter who live in New York City. He’d like to get a dog, if it’s OK with the landlord.
Juan seems content, after all the upheavals in his life. He’ll be 70 this year. The horizons brighten.
“This is a new frontier for me,” he says, adding “at my age...I’ll give it my all.”