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Exclusive Interview: Juan Travieso Discusses His Paintings of Endangered Species

Miami-based painter Juan Travieso brings his work to life with vivid colors out of a sense of necessity. In his early days as a child in Cuba, his access to art supplies was limited because of the country's trade restrictions. As a result, Travieso has a deep appreciation for color and takes advantage of the hues available to him with his full-spectrum palette. His oil and acrylic paintings on canvas often feature geometric forms interacting with birds and other animals. Travieso uses this juxtaposition of realism and design to draw attention to the adverse effects human activity has had on nature. He views each painting as a chance to give voice to the powerless and endangered species on our planet. We spoke to Travieso about the ideas behind his paintings, as well as his artistic evolution.

Miami-based painter Juan Travieso brings his work to life with vivid colors out of a sense of necessity. In his early days as a child in Cuba, his access to art supplies was limited because of the country’s trade restrictions. As a result, Travieso has a deep appreciation for color and takes advantage of the hues available to him with his full-spectrum palette. His oil and acrylic paintings on canvas often feature geometric forms interacting with birds and other animals. Travieso uses this juxtaposition of realism and design to draw attention to the adverse effects human activity has had on nature. He views each painting as a chance to give voice to the powerless and endangered species on our planet. We spoke to Travieso about the ideas behind his paintings, as well as his artistic evolution.

We’d love to hear a little about you. Where is your studio and where are you from? 

My studio is located in the heart of Wynwood in Miami, Florida. I was born in Havana, Cuba.

What was it like for you to come from Cuba to live in Miami? How did that affect you as an artist or influence your work?

Coming from Cuba was a struggle at first. I originally moved to Boston. It was a great culture shock at first not knowing the language. It was also very cold, and for somebody that had lived in tropical weather his whole life, it was tough. I moved to Miami after a year of being in Boston because of the weather. Living in Miami definitely influenced me in many ways. I loved being outside as a kid and exploring my natural surroundings. That passion developed into my appreciation for nature, which is now the core component of my work. I have also done a series of paintings based on my political views of communism, and living in Miami helped nurture my understanding of it. I used a comparative method for both countries and determined that Cuba’s socialist political system will never work or benefit its people.

Tell us a little about your artistic background. What brought you to this infusion of nature with designs with such a bright and vivid palette?

I have always loved color. I learned to appreciate color by having a lack of options growing up. I never had a full set of crayons or color pencils until I was ten years old. This was due to the “Special Period” in Cuba. The early nineties was a time when very few things were being imported into the island. Due to the limitations of color choices as a child, using the full color spectrum excites me as an artist till this day. Color is another language for me. I use color as symbols all of the time in my work.

As a part of nature, I am aware of the fact that we are trying so hard as a species to disconnect ourselves from what we are. I feel that it is my responsibility as an artist and as a citizen of the world to give voice to the powerless species on this earth. Therefore, I have been focusing on endangered species for the last six years. One of my goals is to paint all of the endangered birds in the world. I am constantly discovering and educating myself on the environmental issues at hand. It is a necessity for me to communicate these issues with others through my paintings.

Was there an influence that inspired you to put so much energy and time into focusing on working as a professional artist? 

The first influence artistically was my father. He used to draw characters for me all of the time. I would cut them out and make figurines to play with. Those were my first action figures. My dad also used to make me toys out of wood and found materials. For example, he used to make me these wooden robots that had the top of metal cans attached to their chest. He is still one of my biggest inspirations. My mother and two sisters also have played an incredible supporting role. Their encouragement has been vital to my success as an artist. They form the greater part of my motivation.

Your images appear to be trying to tell us something. What was the origin of producing this particular marriage of thoughts? Where did this style begin?

The ideas come from narratives from all over the world. History and research play a key role in the conversation with my audience. The appropriation of different motifs and compositions are my way of adopting the language that already exists and combine it with new possibilities. Painting is like making a soup. My goal is just to make my soup with the most interesting set of ingredients possible. I play with the arrangement and the juxtaposition to achieve new solutions. My style and my subject matter are distinct elements and will hopefully differentiate me from every other painter before me, and those that will come after me.

These paintings, as well as your previous works, seem to belong to a large body of work – perhaps a series of thoughts on the subject of nature being affected by encroaching human influence. We are curious what your thoughts are on this, what message is being presented?  

I love exploring an idea as far as possible. My work is always done in series because of this approach. Working on a series allows me to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and become immersed in the subject matter. This helps me understand what I am saying better. For example, in my ongoing series of “Endangered Birds,” I realized after two years of painting that the message of these pieces would be expressed through power in numbers. The more different species I painted, the more the audience would understand the great value of their loss. One of my dreams is to have a retrospective with all of my bird paintings under the same roof. It would be a grand statement on the toll we have taken on nature.

What is life like in your studio? We’re curious if you work in solitude or around other artists. Do you enjoy music or some type of entertainment going on in the background, or even perhaps silence while you create?

Life at the studio is very intense. I paint everyday. I have amazing and talented studio friends: Reinier Gamboa, David Olivera, and Leo Castaneda. They keep me sane and inspire me to keep painting. They add to my conversation by constantly critiquing my work. Having a positive creative atmosphere is very important. I love music. Music like art has enticing qualities and the two together offer me the stamina to connect with my work. I barely make art without listening to music. With good music available it’s like having the greatest concentration of raw elements and senses available in the world. The music ranges from Thom Yorke to the Little Mermaid soundtrack. All music comes with a gift. When aligned, the painting experience is perfect.

So what do you do when you’re not creating? Is there something that you spend your time doing to recharge or gain new inspirations to bring back to the studio?

When I am not creating, I am researching and trying to brew a new idea that will inspire a painting. I love spending time with nature and learning from it. It is very important for me to make an emotional connection with the subject matter I am researching. When an article or story makes me feel something, then the narrative becomes worthy of my time. I invest in it and ultimately it becomes a piece.

Do you think in terms of scale, the size of the work, when you start a new painting? How do you feel that the dimensions of a finished work affect the idea itself?

Scale can play a major role in how we perceive an image. Usually when something is very large it has dominance just by its ability to capture our attention. However, that does not mean that it states an idea more clearly than any of the smaller pieces. Size can be secondary to the content embedded in a painting.

Where might viewers find you in the near future? Please tell us a little about what you have coming up and where people can see your work? 

I have a show coming up in Los Angeles at Giant Robot Gallery curated by Andrew Hem. I also have been given the honor of being the honorary print for an upcoming event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I am constantly showing in galleries and museums in the United States and many other parts of the world.

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