Juan studies his face intently in the mirror and in photographs. What has changed? How can he capture the move from a city of two million people to a town of 8,000? What type of shading, what pencil stroke will draw the portrait of a young man on exchange?
It’s a difficult task, but Juan is up to the challenge.
“I have liked art since I was ten,” Juan says, a Colombian student spending the year in small town Iowa. “It’s kind of my life.” His art teacher, Ms. L, presented them with a new project this semester. “We are working on a self portrait,” she explains. “I usually tell them this is the hardest thing I can ask you to do.”
Already living 3,000 miles from home, tackling a new culture, a second language, and new friends at the age of 17, Juan is not fazed. In fact, the self portrait is his favorite assignment so far. Painting and pencils have been his particular mediums of choice, and in Juan’s American high school art classes, he is getting the chance to stretch his techniques even further.
“He has a lot of drawing ability,” Ms. L says. “It’s been really good to be able to get him to advance even further.” The class works with pen, ink, colored pencils, watercolor, and later this semester will take on etching and printmaking. Juan doesn’t leave art just to the classroom, working on pieces during the day during Ms. L’s prep time and at his host family’s home. “We have had the privilege of seeing him work,” host mother Jennifer marvels. “He’s amazing. His talent is truly a gift.”
Juan loves art, but this is the first time he has been able to incorporate his passion into a daytime school schedule. In Colombia, art is not typically offered at high schools. He has taken lessons in the past, but until now, they were always extracurricular. “I really think that I will do something in the future for my career, studying art,” Juan says certainly. “I was thinking graphic design.”
It’s not just Juan’s knack for drawing that has made his exchange a fulfilling experience. His teachers and host family agree he is a welcome addition to their community. “He is a very laid-back guy, he doesn’t come on strong. He has a wonderful, dry sense of humor,” Ms. L praises. His host mother Jennifer agrees. “He just fit right in. He’s just been a joy to have here,” she says.
This winter, Juan was working on a new project. Starting from an old, faded photograph of a church in his Iowa small town, Juan created a stunningly detailed pen and ink drawing. The drawing was a submission for his high school art club’s yearly calendar, and Jennifer and Juan’s host father, Matt, were eager to see the finished product. Dodging their requests to see the work and avoiding questions about its completion, Juan had a surprise in mind.
“At Christmastime our husband and I opened our gifts from Juan, and he gave us that picture for Christmas!” Jennifer exclaims. “We actually are very proud owners of a Juan Diaz original.”
Juan continues to work on another original, his self portrait. And like the drawing that is steadily taking shape, Juan himself has been changed by his year in America; his new friends, new family and explorations into his art all look back at him through his face in the mirror.