How Art Saved His Life: Juan Alberto Cruz

DJ Hellerman and Juan Cruz at the Opening Reception for “Juan A. Cruz: A Retrospective.” Hanging behind them: Untitled, 2010, Oil on board, 96 x 96 inches
02/18/2020
by Nancy E. McCarthy

In early 2019 Syracuse artist Juan Alberto Cruz, 77, purchased a car with artwork sold from an exhibition. Cruz should have been content but he was broke and worried instead. His distinguished art career was maddeningly unpredictable. There was nothing on the horizon.

Then Cruz read a horoscope: Let 2019 unfold for you. “I felt like this message was talking directly to me. The weight fell off and I felt so relaxed.” He just hoped whatever unfolded would be good.

It was. Soon after, DJ Hellerman, Everson Museum’s art curator, contacted Cruz about a solo exhibition. While this seemingly fell from the sky, the museum wanted to showcase an artist with strong ties to its history and the Syracuse community. “Juan was a perfect choice,” says Hellerman. “He has shown his work at the Everson in the past, he is prolific, and has such a robust career but hadn’t had a large retrospective exhibition.”

When Hellerman visited Cruz’s studio he was blown away by the volume and depth of the work. “I remember thinking, wow, prolific is an understatement. This is incredible,” he says.

“Juan A. Cruz: A Retrospective” was up by May 2019. Works spanning roughly 50 years included drawings, paintings, murals, and sculpture but his vivid abstracts and collages dominated the show. Surprisingly, Cruz loves sculpting best. “No thinking,” he explains. “My hands just do it.” From tabletop sized to enormous public art installations, he’d do more but it requires expensive materials and lots of space. Plus, “It usually makes a huge mess,” Cruz laughs.

Local art lover Gary Grossman purchased one of Cruz’s tabletop sculptures on exhibit. “Much of Cruz’s work is complicated and intense,” says Grossman. “Like most of his pieces this sculpture was strong but it’s a simplistic strength.” Though created in 1980, the carved redwood sculpture (with what resembles an Egyptian eye as its focal point) is reminiscent of an ancient work.

To date, Cruz estimates an even split between his representational and abstract pieces in a variety of media. Cruz’s signature abstracts are bold and semi-figurative – often integrating human forms or features.

Everson’s Assistant Curator Steffi Chappell writes that “Cruz uses the emotional realities of his past to articulate his feelings about economic inequality and systematic injustice.” To fully appreciate this veiled statement, you must understand Cruz as both artist and human being. Economic inequality? The financial disparities and closed doors he attributes to his Hispanic heritage. Systematic injustice? Cruz was incarcerated at age 17 for life.

He would serve 16 years of this unimaginable sentence before art literally saved him.

Evolution of an Artist

Cruz was 5 when he moved from Puerto Rico to Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his mother, stepfather, grandmother and baby sister. Cruz went from playing freely outside to the confines of a tiny apartment. His main entertainment was copying newspaper comics onto paper bags.

Cruz didn’t speak English and fell behind academically. He was 12 when they moved back to Puerto Rico and Cruz met his biological father for the first time. For five years he went to school, learning to read and write – in Spanish.

Cruz was the oldest of six siblings when they returned to New York with his mother. He didn’t want to go but neither his father nor grandmother could care for him. The school and neighborhood were riddled with gangs and Cruz fell in with a violent crowd.

A social worker recognized the troubled teenager’s artistic talent and found him a summer job at a greeting card company. Though capable of designing cards, Cruz was relegated to the mailroom. He was mainly off the streets but after a rival gang mistook him for a gang leader, Cruz became the linchpin of a brutal confrontation. Using a borrowed gun, in a melee of other stabbing and shooting gang members, Cruz says he wounded three, and a ricocheted bullet accidentally killed a bystander. Though he says the bullet did not match his weapon, Cruz was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in 1959.

“It hurts a lot to think of that person,” says Cruz.

He eventually landed at the Auburn Correctional Facility and stayed to himself for his own safety. Cruz learned English, got his high school equivalency and kept drawing. Cruz says “My body was in jail but my thoughts were in the street and with my family. I wanted to re-do things the right way.”

In 1971, Cruz, 30, enrolled in a prison art program led by Everson Museum Director Jim Harithas. He was exposed to formal instruction and began painting how he felt rather than what he saw. He was a star student and, through Harithas, nearby businesses displayed and sold his paintings. The local newspaper reported Cruz’s story and Harithas spearheaded a letter-writing campaign involving local and national artists, which resulted in a commuted sentence in 1975.

He was free.

Life in the Finger Lakes

Syracuse University offered him a scholarship and Cruz took it, though it would take 20 years to attain his degree. Meanwhile, he worked art-related jobs, painted and taught art. Thanks to a series of grants, Cruz traveled to explore the art cultures of Spain, Mexico, Central America and Cuba. He credits Harithas for his salvation. “I was lost,” says Cruz. “Without art I wonder what would have become of my life.”

The late Marshall Reisman, a successful entrepreneur and art collector, discovered Cruz’s work during his incarceration, later found him in Syracuse and purchased several modestly priced paintings. When he inquired about a portrait still on the easel, Cruz bartered the untitled painting for one of Reisman’s company cars. The portrait was loaned to Cruz’s 2019 retrospective exhibit.

This transaction elevated the artist’s stature but Cruz still struggled with placing a value on his artwork. He didn’t have any guidance, learned by “doing” and much of his decision-making was “trial and error” – in art and in life.

One thing he was sure of was that art saved his life. It became important to him to make the arts accessible to underserved youth. Cruz believed art was the therapy that could lead them down the right path.

He’s followed through with his personal mission through extensive involvement in youth-based programs. Syracuse is decorated with Cruz murals, including his latest in partnership with the Everson Teen Arts Council. Yet Cruz, a proud father, asserts two of his finest productions are his grown children. Omar works at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and Mia is a lawyer, wife and mother in New Jersey. 

Cruz paints profusely because he is compelled to but also out of need. Selling artwork supplements his income. Though he has received awards and accolades from numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, the Everson retrospective offered a significant opportunity to show his body of work to a wide audience.

“Exhibitions are wonderful and strange,” says Hellerman. “The ripple effects vary and last for a very long time.”

Cruz began his 2020 following up on the ripple effects his Everson exhibit prompted from galleries and collectors. He is still painting, of course, and only time will tell what will unfold this year.

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