Nery Cruz: Dialogue with an Adventist artist in Puerto Rico

Nery Cruz is a gifted illustrator and artist whose work is known and admired in many countries of the Americas. Born in Jalapa, Guatemala, in 1954, he studied architectural design at Universidad de San Carlos and Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala City.

For the past 13 years San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been Nery’s home and professional base. Here, near the sea, he has his own studio and balances his work between commercial art and fine art. Before coming to Puerto Rico, he illustrated many books and periodicals, working as an artist for Pacific Press Publishing Association in both California and Idaho.

Nery began painting at a very young age, and his life’s passion is art. He has had individual and collective exhibits in his native country as well as in the United States and Puerto Rico. In addition to art, he enjoys other activities that include missionary work, construction, mechanics, and gourmet cooking.

Nery has been married to Lori Le Duc, a nurse, for 16 years. The couple have three children—a daughter, Frances, 14; a son, Justin, 11; and a daughter, Lauren, 8.

The recent diagnoses of his son, Justin, with cystic fibrosis, and his father-in-law with a liver tumor have made Nery more aware of how vulnerable we are on this earth as human beings. All this makes him long more each day for the second coming of Jesus.

When was the first time you knew you had a special ability to draw and to paint?

I have been painting and drawing since I can remember, even in kindergarten. Crafts always attracted me. When I was small, I thought that every child could draw and paint well as part of normal life.

Were your parents supportive of your artistic inclination?

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember my parents showing my paintings to their friends saying, “Looks like he can paint!” But my parents wanted their children to study something conventional, to have a profession. Although they enjoyed my art, they viewed it as a hobby and were not convinced that one could make a living as an artist.

Did you have any formal training?

While growing up I did not receive any formal training. I wanted to go to art school, but we had none in our small town. In addition, our modest financial situation prevented me from getting any formal training in art. I took classes at the university and kept up with art and technique through professional magazines and journals. Living, observing, and experimenting have been my real “teachers.”

Do you think artistic ability is something you are born with, or is it learned?

One is born with artistic ability, but as with many talents, all depends on how you develop them. I see this in my own family, where some have had the talent but did not take time to nurture and develop it. What we choose to do with our talent (art, in my case) is not inherited.

Tell us about your Adventist background.

I was born and grew up in an Adventist Christian home. One of my goals was to use my artistic abilities in an Adventist institution. So I was delighted when, some time after arriving in the United States, I was invited to join the art department at Pacific Press Publishing Association. There I had the opportunity to sharpen and expand my skills as a designer and illustrator. This experience and the friendship with creative colleagues gave me a good foundation for my later work as an independent artist.

Why do you draw and paint?

I enjoy most activities that involve a creative process—except writing. I like architectural design, crafts, mechanics, etc. Why I chose to paint and draw probably has something to do with what materials were available to me in the early stages of my life. I have always considered that my strength is in painting. Recently, however, I have concerned myself more with improving my drawing at the start of a particular work, and then letting the paint flow naturally.

As a husband and a father, I also draw and paint to maintain my family. God has given me the skills and I am thankful that by using them we can dress, feed, and educate our children.

How or where do you get ideas for your paintings?

I choose my initial subject from things I see in life, and on that basis conceive the composition. Then I look for references that will help me in fleshing out the concept. If I don’t find the references, I will take my own photographs. I also take suggestions from friends and bounce off ideas from their ideas.

To what extent does your cultural background influence your art?

I am sure it does. For example, I prefer to use bright and vivid colors. The clothing of the native Indians in my home country, Guatemala, has a broad variety of bright colors. The varied flora and scenery of Puerto Rico, full of color and nuances, also appeal to my senses and is reflected in my art.

What do you find most satisfying about your work as an artist?

I enjoy being myself—working in my own studio, at my own hours, and on my own schedule. Another aspect I enjoy very much is starting to paint, not knowing exactly how it is going to turn out, and then in the end seeing a finished product of beauty.

How do you react to failure—the moment you realize that a piece of art is not what you thought it was going to be?

Failure is a relative word. When I see that a painting is not turning out how I think it should, I start doing something about it, such as changing the color. Color by itself, however, does not always “save” a painting. I will exhibit a painting even when my gut feeling tells me that it has not turned out exactly how I expected it to be. I then let the public judge the artwork. At times I have been surprised by their reaction! I never paint a piece that is technically wrong—at least not in my recent work.

Looking to your entire trajectory as an artist, do you detect stages or style preferences?

Yes, I do. This has resulted from the context in which I have worked, my changing preferences, and my own maturation as an artist. I am a purist, but also a realist. I paint to live, but I also paint because I love it. I haven’t yet achieved the type of painting that my heart wants me to paint. I really like the idea of painting in a surrealist style, with more color contrasts and better balance between the elements. So I continue to experiment!

Does your family play a role in your artistic career?

Every piece of artwork is based on a conjunction of concepts, and many of these involve the human figure. From the moment each of our three children was born, I have used them as models in my work. They have respected my artistic profession and have realized the importance they play in my work. My wife takes care of the sales and other financial aspects.

How do you balance your duties as a husband and father with your life as an artist?

As in any career, time is the key. I make time to work as a team with my family. Some might think that creativity works better when they are alone, but I feel more inspired when my kids are near. And when I sit down to paint, I always remember my obligations to my family. This encourages me to work harder and do my best.

To what extent being a Christian and an Adventist influences your art?

Approximately one-half of my work consists of commercial art. I decided many years ago not to do illustrations that involve alcohol or tobacco. Another aspect where I am able to witness about Christ is the Sabbath. New clients tend to call on the weekends and I get an opportunity to tell them that I do not work or do business on the Sabbath—that is a special time for God and my family. Advertising is a business that is always on the fast track and at a times a bit wild. I don’t even get invited to parties on Sabbath anymore, because my friends and clients know that I am not available.

Are you involved in the life of your church?

Yes, I am an active member of the Campo Rico Adventist Church in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I have been involved in our church’s ministry to take food to heroine and crack users in the streets. I also play the guitar for junior Sabbath school, and I am a deacon.

As an artist, do you have opportunities to share your faith with others?

I had the privilege recently to exhibit with other Adventist artists in the Capitol building here in San Juan. Through the exhibit, legislators became aware of our way of thinking as Seventh-day Adventists. At our exhibit, no alcohol was served. We distributed Christ-centered publications. In private conversations with other artists and clients, God frequently opens the way to be a witness for Him.

What counsel would you give to a young reader who hopes to make a career in art?

My counsel would be simple. Follow your dreams without looking back. Do your work to the best of your ability. Seek God’s guidance to utilize the talents He has given you in whatever field—be it art, music, science, or any other profession. Don’t do anything that compromises your primary aim of glorifying God through your work.

Interview by Humberto M. Rasi. Humberto M. Rasi (Ph.D., Stanford University) is the director of the Education Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the editor-in-chief of Dialogue. Nery Cruz’s address: Gardenia #3; Cape Sea Village Box 138; Isla Verde, Puerto Rico 00979; U.S.A. Telephone: 787-253-2394; E-mail: bleduc@coqui.net