Fairhill: Juan Gomez, a Latino Contemporary Artist
Juan Gomez is a first-generation American. His father is from Puerto Rico and his mother is from the Dominican Republic. He is a Latin-American artist and has been selling his works since the age of 14. Gomez grew up in Fairhill, a neighborhood in North Philadelphia, with parents who, in his opinion, were “supportive” of his passion and “down to earth.”
“My father bribed me and my brother one time to pay for art supplies so we wouldn’t be running out in the streets. And it worked,” he said, laughing.
Drawing was a daily thing for Juan Gomez. “It’s like the blood rushing through my veins,” he said.
His first inspiration or mentor was Anita Custalow, his first art teacher at Fairhill Elementary School. Gomez still dedicates most of his work to her because he believes she is the reason he is an artist today.
He would like to start a foundation in her honor for guiding children. He hopes that those children will turn out to be “crazy and creative and spontaneous” in what he calls a “creative jungle.”
Custalow started her 36-year teaching career at Fairhill Elementary School in 1975 and one of her earliest memories is Gomez’s art jumping out at her. She knew he had a special talent and instead of smothering him, ruining his imagination like teachers she had experienced in the past, Miss Custalow was only there to guide him.
“The biggest fight I had with him, I mean, I know he loves pencil, but when I tried to introduce him to other media, I had to fight with him about using watercolor and stuff like that,” Custalow said. “He’s just a natural talent that just took off on his own.”
Gomez has drawn inspiration from everything. He doesn’t enjoy just “tackling” one inspiration at a time, but instead likes to mix them all together and create something for his audience from that unique combination.
“He is a very contemporary artist,” said Rafael Damast, Visual Arts Manager for Taller Puertorriqueño. Damast, who is only completing the work of his predecessor Daniel de Jesús, said, “Look at the pencil marks, they’re very strong. He’s very committed. There’s no uncertainty in his work.”
It wasn’t until a fellow artist and friend suggested he take a drawing and paint it in larger form that Gomez deviated from using pencil. He was part of a group called Arte Alegre and took his friend’s suggestion from within the group. The drawing he transformed into an acrylic piece of art is called “Queen of Maze” and was drawn in 1998. One year later, Gomez completed his first non-graphite piece of art for his collection.
“It was definitely a breaking view for the more current pieces,” Gomez said.
The acrylic version of “Queen of Maze” almost marks the middle of the 20-year survey of his art that is on display now at Taller Puertorriqueño’s Lorenzo Homar Gallery. The exhibit is called “Modified Personalities” and it is the first one-man show Gomez has ever done. The show started on Sept. 30 and will last through Nov. 19. A drawing called “Untitled Silence”, completed in 1991, was the inspiration for this entire collection with 39 pieces of art.
“It’s a lynchpin to the work that we see here at the gallery and ‘Modified Personalities,’” Damast said. He found something unique about this drawing in comparison to the others.
“It’s the only piece that really does something with the white space,” Damast said. All the other pieces in the collection use little to no white space.
But, in Gomez’s mind, “Untitled Silence” is one of the few pieces of his art that he has felt an instinctual finish with.
“This piece, it finished itself. It literally threw me off,” Gomez said. “I stopped and it never progressed. It just stayed where it is now, then.”
Gomez is never quite satisfied with his work and is very critical of his own art. He normally feels that there is nothing right with his work and very rarely feels as if a piece of art is finished.
“I’m always hungry. I’m always doing work. The day I’m satisfied with my work is the day I die,” Gomez said.
Although white space is not a normal choice for his art, frames were a big decision when it came to setting up the display.
“His work extends not just from the image, but also extends to the frame of the work. Each of the frames are a part of the show, a part of the work itself, so he’s very particular about it,” Damast said. “The matting becomes the white space that inhabits these images, kind of like jewels.”
“Moonlight Sonata” is another of the few pieces that Gomez feels are really finished. To him, it focuses on the “turning of the era and the changing of times.”
Times have changed for Juan Gomez.
Alberto Becerra, a Colombian artist in the community who has known Gomez for years said that he is watching Gomez’s transformation into a mainstream contemporary artist.
“That’s a story of one person who, you know, had some guidance and school and he had a mentor. That gave him the confidence he needed,” Damast said.