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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.”