Arts & Entertainment

Juan Diaz: So Very, Very Personal

The hot young artist pours his soul and history into three different forms of expression.

BY July 29, 2014


A peek into the childhood of 7-year-old Juan Diaz would reveal no bedroom floor littered with superhero toys, no Nintendo controller in hand, no soccer game on TV. His native Colombia could be neck-and-neck in the World Cup final and still he could not stay put. He would quickly grow bored and retreat to his drawing table, his easel, his drum set. Maybe pick up a book, or build something in his father’s in-home ceramic studio.

He’s wired a bit differently from most. Meet him today and you’ll likely see his eyes dart across your features now and again, just for a second, studying you as he would a subject to be painted. Art is his way of life.

Now 32, Diaz has arrested the attention of Southwest Florida. The innovator wows with three distinct outlets of expression, each refreshingly original and answering to a different demand of Diaz’s being. And while his confounding talent is all his own, he has openly allowed his history, and some exceptional people, to build his life’s portfolio.

“I’ve always just been curious about the creative process in any medium, because to me it has always been about expressing something that I cannot through words,” Diaz says. “So I have never tied myself down to just one.”

Clearly. His arsenal is fully loaded: oil, acrylic, watercolor, pencil, pastel, spray paint. Beyond canvas and paper, he has commanded clay, wood, metal, blank walls and towering fabric.

It’s all about freedom. He has invested heavily in his materials and knowledge of technique so he can execute any idea that comes to mind.

At 13, Diaz moved to Naples from Bogotá, hungry for a new experience. At Naples High, he spent an optional senior year in and out of the photo room, pottery studio and computer graphics lab.

Proof of his breadth lines the walls of the home of Chris Ceron (well-known on the area event scene as DJ Ceron). The two have been like brothers since meeting over 15 years ago, and Ceron has easily a dozen Diaz gems—original sketches, pieces that have hung in The Baker Museum, his first pastel on paper, his first painting by spackle knife. That last one, a stirring portrait of Simón Bolívar, will later spend time in Miami’s Colombian Consulate.

Another painting took five whole years to finish. When Ceron got the news it was finally “signed,” he feigned sickness to his boss and bolted.

“I got in that car—I think I took the first left turn on two tires—I run, I get there, ding dong, Juan opens the door, I like push him out of the way, I’m running,” Ceron says. “And it was pretty much like a light was hitting it. I looked at it and I was just so overwhelmed I started crying like a little boy.”

The ceiling fan of one room forms the blades of an overturned helicopter. Another is filled entirely by a spray-painted mural. The laundry room holds an extremely personal outpouring, on a piece of wood recovered from the road in torrential rain.

The diversity is a double-edged sword. It is exceptional that, as Ceron explains, “If you’ve seen one painting, you haven’t seen all the different faces of Juan.” But it also works against him. To a gallery, he doesn’t have that stamp—like Lichtenstein or Britto or Hirst.

“Business-wise sometimes it doesn’t work, but that’s OK,” Diaz says. “The art career is a long career; it’s a life career. … Every single artist in the history of the arts I appreciate and I respect, because they were pushing the limits and they just wanted to express themselves. But I do not want to be any of them. I want to just be myself.”

And that means never painting just to paint. He could draw the most gorgeous flower, Ceron says, and people would be blown away by its beauty every time they saw it. But unless there was a story behind that flower, he would not draw it.

Juan Diaz

SCAN, created in 2012 through mixed-media collage and image transfer from existing paintings, was inspired by the numerous exams Diaz's father completed while battling cancer.

It’s dead of night in the Diaz home; 3 or 4 a.m. His family sleeps, eliminating all distractions of daytime—it’s just the teen and his canvas. Maybe Ceron and a pot of coffee for company. His clean pants become a muddled rainbow from repeatedly wiping paint from his hands. He might flip the piece on its side if it’s not working, decide the subject is “meant” for another canvas, or paint it all black and start again.

All too quickly, it’s time for Diaz to go to work. He looks at the clock—pop. An idea gets away from him. He begins to iron his shirt, eyes still glued to the painting—pop, pop. Next, his pants—pop. He must tear himself away for a shower. Pop, pop, pop. The bubbles burst with every step.

He’s headed to a restaurant, a construction site, a country club—another gig not suited for the creative mind. He comes back, adds a little color here, a little there. But ultimately he will throw the paintbrush away. If he wasn’t going to give that piece 100 percent of himself, it wasn’t going to let him finish it. Art is very jealous, as his father has said.

So, at 21, he quit that existence. Ignoring insufficient funds for art school, he barely left his house for about three years to study history of the arts. He took a huge risk, says Naples Art Associ ation Executive Director Aimee Schlehr.

“It has really paid off for him and it will pay off for him,” she says. “It’s that kind of dedication that artists these days need.”

“The going to a job, making money, putting it in the bank, paying my bills, paying my car, having this nice apartment—it just didn’t make me happy,” Diaz says. “It made me actually very depressed and sad. What made me happy is just discovering how to be human through art.”

It wasn’t long until he was discovered himself. A meeting at an artists’ studio led to a nearly four-year mentorship with renowned representational artist Jonathan Green, which taught Diaz everything he knows about the business side of his craft. Studying under an expert of completely different style prompted him to look at reality in another way, and to reconnect with his culture. But it was caging him in.

When Green moved to Charleston, South Carolina, Diaz stayed behind.

“After he left it was like taking back my track.”

Juan Diaz

Diaz painted Marrying My Best Friend in acrylic live last fall at La Playa Beach & Golf Resort.

Stage 4 pancreatic cancer shook Diaz’s foundation next. His father’s prognosis was three months.

Always his unfailing support system, Diaz’s tight-knit family is everything to him: his mother, his two sisters, his niece. And his father, Alfredo—those two understood each other better than anybody else. Alfredo’s influence as a world-class sculptor helped lift Diaz to his road as an artist, and his staunch endorsement helped keep him there.

The eldest child and only son, Diaz moved home to assume the responsibility of man of the house. He had to give back to this man who had surrendered so much—his country, his career—for his family.

“My career was about to probably boom at a national level, but I needed to do that,” Diaz says. “Just as much as I needed to create, I needed to be there for him.”

He traded his material for bills, nutritional care, chemotherapy sessions and hours of philosophical discussion. And he asked his father to quit his job.

So necessity forced a new manifestation of his creativity. Requiring more income, Diaz asked Ceron to promote his painting services to his clients.

Soon Diaz’s process, always incredibly private, was live on display. And that type of work—literally documenting a wedding ceremony, a bat mitzvah—was not the way he saw the world.

“I never have known how to consider them, because they were painted by me but they’re not my body of work,” Diaz says.

He had to adapt to people rousing his logical mind as he tried to tap into a creative headspace. He learned to leave behind studied sketches and perfected lines, to paint faster, bolder, looser, simpler. He honed his photographic memory. But to Diaz, this “paid education” was never a choice.

Alfredo lived on nearly two years through the nurturing of his family, until November 2012. The slap of life’s uncertainty left Diaz with a shifted perspective, a sudden urgency to express the long-maturing opinions he had been so cautious of exposing in his work.

He removed the bulk of his paintings from the market—not because they were wrong, but because he wants to present a new voice, one that speaks strongly to human individuality, impermanence and place on Planet Earth.

“I remember a few friends, when my father got sick … they were very concerned about me,” Diaz says. “They said, ‘This will change your whole perception.’”

He replied, “Let it.”

Guests enter the Naples Art Association’s 60th anniversary gala to the unexpected song of birds and crickets.

Diaz stands behind a bowed, floor-to- ceiling structure hung with semitransparent muslin, backlit to clearly reveal to his audience the magic he’s about to perform.

They watch as he begins with a thick stripe of blue across the top, then adds water to send acrylic chasing down the fabric. As subsequent colors run south, he takes them in a fresh direction with each stroke, not unlike stop-motion film. His narrative unfolds unpredictably, continually transforming through color, light and sound. Two figures take shape in rich, earthy hues, and We Are All Nature. Seek Your Essence!, urging a return to balance between civilization and the natural world, is born.

“People were immediately engaged in what he was doing,” Schlehr says. “We had quite a few reactions: ‘Oh, what other pieces does he do?’ ‘Is he selling this piece right now?’ ‘Can we buy it?’ It was very, very positive.”

The light series began with 240 square feet and a 20-minute window. Diaz’s friend Robert Hayman, a photographer, was holding an exhibition of installation and performance art in early 2010, and he asked Diaz to be a part of it.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t do installations or performance art,’” Diaz says. “And he said, ‘There you go! Be creative.’”

Diaz sat in his studio, thinking: What is performance art? What is installation art? He used what he knew—music, color. He borrowed lights from Ceron. He remembered how fascinated people were to experience the creative process, but he still preferred to maintain an undisturbed intimacy with his work.

“So I thought … why not create a space where I could be inside of it as if it was the room where I taught myself how to paint, but at the same time I’m sharing with people?” he says. He hoped the production would lead viewers a little bit further than a stationary painting toward what he was trying to say.

The setup allowed him to paint on the immersive grand scale he forfeited when he moved back into one bedroom of his parents’ home. Even though you couldn’t see him, he was completely exposed.

He made it through his first performance, The Thin Line Between Peace War, and it brought him to tears. It had made him feel alive.


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