Julio Suarez paints a por­trait. Julio Suarez | Courtesy

Julio Suarez walked into his blank-walled office and took off his large black painter’s smock. As he sat down, he spread out a few art pieces on his desk. 

“Those were done by my stu­dents,” he said. They were col­lages made from mag­azine clip­pings, modeled after famous works like Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.”

“They did very well,” Suarez said and smiled as he stacked the art papers.

Julio Suarez is a new assistant pro­fessor of art. He started working at Hillsdale this semester, filling a space left by Sam Knecht, who retired last year after 38 years of teaching.

“The college had skills and tra­di­tions that were important to me that aren’t important in many other places,” Suarez said of his decision to apply for a job at Hillsdale. “For example, the idea that good drawing is the basis for most art, whether painting or sculpture. Also the idea that there is a craft to painting that can be taught.”

Suarez said it’s also important to learn the rules of art. 

“There is a place in art for teaching stu­dents obser­va­tional skills,” he said. “Art is not just about self-expression without a fun­da­mental base. You must learn before you can self-express, like in English. There’s grammar; there are rules you must know. Later you can break the rules, but you must know the rules to break them.”

Chair­woman of Art Barbara Bushey par­tic­i­pated in Suarez’s hiring process. She said there were three main qual­ities a new pro­fessor had to have.

“I wanted someone pas­sionate about painting,” Bushey said. “I wanted somebody who would want to be part of an aca­demic environment…Also, it had to be somebody who would fit in at Hillsdale and support the mission of the college and the art department.”

Suarez started painting when he was 21. Before that, he said he was slightly inter­ested in drawing.

“It was some­thing I could do, but it wasn’t a serious thing,” Suarez said.

After getting his associate’s degree at com­munity college, Suarez decided he wanted to go to art school to be a comic book illus­trator. Once he did more drawing and painting, however, he said that he “fell in love” with that aspect of art.

Suarez fin­ished his degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in illus­tration, but he began focusing less on com­mercial work and more on por­traits and figures. He’s now been doing this kind of artwork for 25 years.

Suarez received his masters of painting from Indiana Uni­versity in Bloom­ington this past year.

“He has that level of maturity because he didn’t go straight to grad school from his undergrad,” Bushey said. “Also, being a student really helps being a teacher. Just being out of grad school, he knows what it’s like on the other side.”

Suarez has won several awards for his art, including best in show at the 2017 Greater Michigan Art Exhi­bition in Midland, Michigan. He has also won several acco­lades at the Paint Me Miami Com­pe­tition, including first place in 2013.

This first place painting, an underpass of highways, turned out to have a per­sonal meaning to Suarez. Suarez emi­grated to the U.S. from Cuba as a child in 1980. That highway underpass that he painted was the same place where 100,000 Cubans landed in America through the Mariel boatlift and set up a tent city in 1980.

“My paintings are not usually about story or meaning, but that place was the very spot they landed,” Suarez said. “I didn’t realize that till after­wards.”

Senior Elise Clines, a Spanish and art major, is taking Suarez’s beginner oil painting class this semester.

Clines said she has been learning a lot from Suarez. 

“He gives good con­structive crit­icism,” she said. “He does want us to learn, even if it means he has to give us some tough love and tell us to scrape off a whole part of our painting.”

Suarez stressed that genius comes from hard work.

“Art is no dif­ferent from any other pro­fession in that it’s all about hard work and ded­i­cation, not as much about talent or inspi­ration,” he said. “You can’t just work when you feel like it. You paint first. Inspi­ration shows up later.”

Suarez has already been painting and working on art projects since coming to the college, which Bushey said makes her very happy. 

“In this department, we want everybody to be a working artist,” she said.

Suarez said he’s been enjoying the college and the town.

“Everybody’s been very wel­coming,” Suarez said. “The stu­dents and my col­leagues are fan­tastic. I’m happy to be here.”