“Somebody told me before, ‘An artist is an artist when two things happen. One, when somebody steals one of your paintings, and two, you sell one of your paintings. Then you can say you’re an artist.’ But it has happened to me three times!” – Juan Carlos Sierra Barbosa
As early as he can remember, Juan Carlos Sierra Barbosa, a native of Oaxaca, México, enjoyed drawing. The skill came naturally to him, and by the time he was in middle school, his teachers and peers began to take notice.
“In school, we had an art class, and all my drawings were in the first place. And I remember, one of the drawings that I did was even nicer than what the teacher created,” Juan Carlos said. “It’s always been good with me, working with colors and designing and stuff like that.”
The first time someone stole one of his paintings was when he was in the equivalent of his junior year in high school — México doesn’t follow the same grade system as the U.S., Juan Carlos informs me.
It was during his architecture lesson, an elective class. One of his original drawings was on display, and one day, it went missing.
“I knew who it was, but I think the person just fell in love with my drawing and just took it,” Juan Carlos said.
Juan Carlos went on to study architecture at La Universidad Autonomy “Benito Juárez de Oaxaca México”. He thrived in his field, designing buildings and landscapes. But painting was always his first love, and he continued to do so in his spare time.
His work has evolved over the years, both thematically and aesthetically. Branching out from his traditional style, featuring strong angles and geometric shapes on canvas — tokens of his education in architecture. Juan Carlos has also incorporated coins, stamps and broken jewelry in collages and mixed-media paintings.
Like many artists, Juan Carlos work goes through phases, traced through a series of collections. These themed collections consist of anywhere from three to five paintings, each of which tells a unique story. The common thread between all of Juan Carlos’ work is his heritage, and in some of his later works, his perspective as a Mexican immigrant living in the US.
What draws me in to Juan Carlo’s work is this contrast, a visual colliding of two worlds. Drawing on his complex identity, it seems to tell a story of opposites. Passion and emptiness. Community and isolation. Hope and fear.
But such things are better illustrated through Juan Carlos’s preferred mode of communication — the canvas.
“México, Lindo y Querido”
Juan Carlos has fond memories of his hometown. As he recalls, Oaxaca, México is a place of culture and art — home to La Guelaguetza, a regional festival that brings people together in a celebration of folk dance, food and music.
All of this was a stark contrast to the world Juan Carlos experienced when he immigrated to North Brunswick, New Jersey in 1995. In his new cold, busy state, Juan Carlos struggled to make ends meet and could only afford a small set of watercolors.
Creating his first acrylic painting on canvas in the U.S. was a memorable occasion for the young immigrant. “A Brazilian friend Regis Alves Nunes, an artist, he gave me a big canvas as a gift,” Juan Carlos recalls. It was a large canvas, approximately 36 x 48, and he decided to continue working with large canvases.
“By then, the financial part was not a big deal so I could buy my canvas my acrylics, my oils or any colors I wanted. That’s when I started to paint on canvas in a bigger scale,” Juan Carlos said. He had started a landscaping business at that time and was able to make a comfortable living working as his own boss.
Those were some of Juan Carlos’ most productive years. During the winter months when he could not work outside, he painted constantly, often working late into the night to complete a piece.
He completed one of his first acrylic collections during that period. Through “México, Lindo y Querido” Juan Carlos aimed to capture the beauty and vibrance of his home country. The title piece depicts a couple dancing on the colors of the Mexican flag, whimsically floating in the air.
According to Juan Carlos, the piece pays tribute to Mexican dance. Other pieces in the collection also recognize the fine arts. “Qué lejos estoy . . .” for example, recognizes Mexican music. This piece, however, is more nostalgic, as the figures who are floating in the sky also represent what it’s like to be far from home.
One of his paintings “30th Birthday” contrasts elements of his life in Mexico and his life in NJ. The paintings depict three figures in a brick building, evidently celebrating. Colorful balloons fill the room, and yet, the celebration appears somewhat hollow, even cold.
“It represents the differences in how cold and isolated my 30th birthday was,” Juan Carlos admits. “I was born in October, so in NJ, it’s really cold at that time, so you cannot not think about having a party outside and inviting a lot of friends. So pretty much, it was just my brother, my father, myself in a room. That’s all the big celebrations in NJ . . . if this party were reflecting México, it would be like 20 people, at least 25, and it would be piñatas; it would be a lot of food, it would be my brother José Antonio playing the guitar, my cousin Nelson playing the guitar; singing, drinking up to six o’clock in the morning. We do all that in México.”
Still, a glimmer of that festivity is visible on the colorful walls depicted in the painting. One of the walls is a recreation of Juan Carlo’s childhood room. Another is of the room he stayed in while attending a university.
Adding another dimension of meaning to the painting are the figures, depicted as silhouettes or shadowy stick figures.
“That is an idea that I got from looking at cave paintings,” Juan Carlos explained. “That is the oldest form of creativity that we know . . . and the humans depicted in those caves are more like a stick man — nothing fancy and yet tells us so much of what happened back then. So, the idea came that I wanted to just represent the human body without giving a lot of details. And kind of like that, I adopted my own human representation. “
A Non-commercial Artist
Soon, Juan Carlos began exhibiting his work in festivals, parks and libraries. His work was well-received by the public.
“I remember the first time I exposed my artwork; it was in a festival in Plainfield, NJ. And to my surprise, one of my acrylics won the first prize. And that was my first-time exhibition. It kind of motivated me to keep going,” Juan Carlos recalled.
But Juan Carlos never painted for anyone but himself. He has always painted for the joy of it and never rushed a project. Each piece became an extension of himself, and even when admirers of his work offered to pay large sums of money, Juan Carlos refused to sell. To this day, he has never sold an original painting.
One admirer, who was particularly upset at being turned away empty handed, suggested that Juan Carlos start making art prints and sold many of them at his demonstrations.
“Every time I make an exhibition, people buy my prints, so that gives me the motivation to do them because I can see people like my paintings,” Juan Carlos said.
For Cinco De Mayo celebrations, he exhibited in a place called Casa Puebla Casa Puebla in New York City where Juan Carlos met another artist, Angelo Romano who asked if he would be interested in displaying his work in a collective exhibition along with himself and several other artists from different nationalities.
They did more of these on occasions like the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote and the Three Magic Kings Day on Jan. 6th, when they did a collective exhibition at the United Nations Building.
Once, while presenting demonstration his work at a college in New York City, someone in the audience stole one of his prints. “When was I collecting my paintings, I noticed that one of the prints was missing,” he recalls. Although surprised, Juan Carlos wasn’t too upset by the incident, which was repeated at another demonstration in another exhibition in New York.
“That’s alright,” he said. “Somebody told me before, ‘An artist is an artist when two things happen. One, when somebody steals one of your paintings, and two, you sell one of your paintings. Then you can say you’re an artist. But it’s happened to me three times!”
That was the beginning of a new chapter for Juan Carlos and how he came to serve as the Arts Coordinator for the Mexican American Organization. Registered as a nonprofit in NJ, the group worked to promote Mexican folklore, culture and art in the North Brunswick and surrounding neighborhoods.
They demonstrated in libraries and festivals, and as their efforts gained steam, so did their ideas. Juan Carlos took the lead on organizing their own version of the “Guelaguetza” mimicking the festival native to Oaxaca, México.
“We did a series of presentations in different places in NJ, and final one was at the state theater in NJ. In North Brunswick,” Juan Carlos recalled. “It was really nice seeing all these people responding to these cultural activities, so I made another series of paintings to kind of narrate the events that were happening in those days.”
His “Guelaguetza” collections consists of four collages. Each incorporates the bright colors and festivity of the Oaxaqueño tradition. The structure and urban landscape of the places they visited in New Jersey and New York is also apparent in the work and makes for a vivid contrast.
Juan Carlos followed up with two other acrylic collections. The theme for “Just Art” is eclectic, as most of these paintings were made specifically for exhibits Juan Carlos was participating in.
His fourth collection, “Realidad Social” has socio-economic themes. “It kind of portrays my reality in social environment and what it was like being an immigrant in the United States at this time,” said Juan Carlos, explained the concept. The series also offers a subtle commentary on consumerism, capitalism, and environmental destruction.
A recurring image in this collection is an isolated figure, in some cases male, in others female. At times the appears to be battling these modern issues, and at others, the figure appears to be assimilated, going with the tide of corporate logos and consumer trends.
Telling stories through Mixed Media
In 2004, Juan Carlos’ daughter, Alexandra was born. The entire family moved to Georgia where his second child, Jan Carlo, was born in 2007.Priorities shifted for Juan Carlos, and he had less time to paint. Time grew even scarcer when he decided to go back to school. He started at Georgia Gwinnett College with hopes of transferring to Southern Polytechnic (now Kennesaw) to study architecture. However, due to time constraints and other factors, he stayed at GGC, ultimately earning a Bachelor’s in Arts.
He did manage to take an art class at GGC, and that was when he learned how to make mosaics. His art professor Stephanie Coulibaly agreed to show him the technique at a park one day, and he picked up the skill quickly.
While painting became increasingly challenging as he completed his studies, creating mosaics was a convenient and speedier way to channel his creativity. He created his own unique style with the mosaics by implementing coins, tools, and broken jewelry he had collected.
The piece “Time Traveler” incorporates both watches and Mexican coins, and it symbolizes three distinct time periods in Mexico — the pre-colonial, colonial and modern. The precolonial era is represented through stones from the pyramids made by the indigenous Zapotecs, Grecas; whereas the modern period is represented through coins which shape the stock market building “La Bolsa de Valores” currently standing in Mexico City.
With his most recent mosaic collection, featuring Day of the Dead imagery, he has even gone so far as making his own frames out of wood to complement the art. In this collection, he represents his heritage on a historical scale as well as on a personal one.
The skeletons, which are portrayed in a whimsical fashion, as opposed to an accurate depiction of skeletal anatomy. “I’m representing a representation of my human body style, so you see that in here,” Juan Carlos explained pointing to the mosaic sugar skull.
Now that he’s finished college, Juan Carlos has more time on his hands, and he’s eager to start painting again and finish some of his old projects.
“As a matter of fact, I still have one I haven’t finished from almost 10 years ago,” Juan Carlos said. “I just got to put the main character in the middle and it will be done.” Because painting has never been the way he earned his living, Juan Carlo’s work has often been interrupted. His creative process is never rushed, and he finds his work is often richer for it.
In the past, that was often the source of his attachment to his paintings. But now, having amassed a huge collection of canvases, he’s finally ready to part with some of his prized work.
“Now, I think I’m ready to sell some of my paintings. As a matter of fact, this collection of mosaics I’m planning like ten or fifteen 18 x 24’s, I’m trying to find a place or a way to sell them,” Juan Carlos said.
Ultimately, his dream is to earn a master’s degree in art education so he can teach art a college level. But with two school-aged children and tuition to consider, Juan Carlos still hasn’t figured out how to make it all work.
Even without the degree, I notice something in his work that is almost didactic. From the precise use of color, shapes and angles, to the thematic exploration of culture and modernity, everything in his work seems 100% intentional, and viewers who take the time to delve into the fullness of his work will be edified for it.
Criticism and Praise
Over the years, critics have a divided opinion of his work; some calling it too exact, too mechanical. Where these critics find fault with the architectural influence in his work, Juan Carlos has no intention of following their advice. While others find his art joyful, perhaps for the use of vibrant colors.
“In architecture, I learned the principles of perspective I learn the principles of angles . . . I learned all these principles, and now it’s impossible to get rid of them. I don’t want to get rid of them, I actually like it,” Juan Carlos said. “Some people think that it kind of made my paintings cold and took the passion away because it’s very geometrical.”
The passion in his work, Juan Carlos admits often comes from the colors he uses, which also remind him of the colorful streets in his hometown.
“I do agree that living in The States kind of took away the passion from my art because every time I go back to Mexico, I always like to visit Oaxaca City because then, all the colors all the everything, comes back to me. I feel so alive so energetic that I want to just keep creating more paintings,” he admits.
Whenever he paints, there is a reflection of his home country. At times, he explores this heritage on a large scale, mapping the history of an entire people. In other collections, he examines it from a more intimate angle, exploring his personal reality, his struggles and his fears. All of it is a portrait of México, the many sides of his mother land.
He explores the richness of México and its history piece by piece, one theme at a time — tackling it all at once, he believes, is impossible.
“I believe the culture from my country is just too big, too much to even explore,” he says.
Looking at his paintings for the first time when we were both students at Georgia Gwinnett College, they appeared to me something out of the culture section in an academic Spanish textbook. His use vibrant colors and strong shapes reminded me of some of the greats — Pablo Picasso, who is commonly credited with the invention of the collage-style —and the surrealist, Salvador Dalí.
And now, I think I know why it had this impression on me — Juan Carlos’ work is not only decorative or for commercial purposes. It does the viewer a service. It educates and add contextualizes the many threads of his identity, alongside the modern times in which we live.
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To learn more about his work, contact Juan Carlos directly at firstname.lastname@example.org