A Conversation with Juan Bastos (General Fine Arts BFA) ’84

Since graduating in 1984, MICA alumnus, Juan F. Bastos, has enjoyed a successful career as a professional portraitist. Hundreds of his oil paintings and pastel drawings adorn the walls of private homes, corporate offices, educational institutions, and public buildings all over the world.

Although he is now based in Los Angeles, Juan was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and spent his adolescent years in his family’s homeland of Bolivia. As an adult, Juan has traveled and exhibited his work throughout Europe, South America, Central America, Asia, and the United States.

Juan Bastos

How did you become interested in art?

My father’s sister, Yolanda Aguirre, painted my portrait when I was twelve. Sitting there for hours and then seeing the result, made a deep impression on me for the rest of my life. While she painted me, she shared with me her vision of how to do a good portrait.  She was a professional artist so every time that I went to her house on Sunday, I would see what she was doing in her studio. She worked with pastels and oils, and she became my teacher, giving me my first set of pastels and then my first lessons with the medium. In addition, my mother’s first cousin, Maria Esther Ballivian, was also a professional artist and she was my teacher as well. So, from both sides of the family, I guess I inherited artistic genes. Both relatives had friends who were artists, and although I was very young, I loved talking with them about art and their work. 

I've always been very interested in the visual world and storytelling. In order to be an artist, it’s not just about paint and painting, but you also need to explore other aspects of your life.  When we arrived in Bolivia in 1969, there was no TV, so I took piano lessons and constantly read writers like Dostoevsky, Hermann Hesse, and Thomas Mann, and I was passionate about seeing foreign films. Every Saturday morning for seven years,  I went to a cinema club where art movies were shown and later discussed. Although moving to Bolivia at the age of eleven was filled with wonderful new experiences, I still yearned for the cultures I didn’t have access to. It wasn’t until I came to the U.S. that I learned to appreciate the wonderful writers and artists of South America.

Why did you choose to come to the United States and to MICA, in particular?

I first enrolled in architecture for three semesters at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, but as I was not happy with the program, I suggested to my father that I could study commercial art as a career in Argentina. But my father said, “It’s going to cost roughly the same to send you to Argentina as sending you to the United States. In the 20th century, everybody should experience the American dream and  learn English. I didn't do it, but you can.” He said he could only send me for one year to Georgetown for its English as a Foreign Language program, but fortunately the rest of my education was paid for by my grandparents.

For me when I visited the main building at MICA, I felt I was in Florence. I fell in love with the atmosphere and the bohemian quality of the campus and the city. It was very exciting to be in a place that had such strong European roots, but combined with the uniqueness of Baltimore with the artistic ferment of the early eighties.

I first majored in graphic design, then switched to illustration, but soon realized that I was ready to major in fine arts and become an artist. Fortunately, my parents, although from a conservative South American family, supported my dreams.

MICA offered many life-drawing classes, which became my passion. In addition, the school happily offered  two courses in cinema. There was a particular class at MICA called, “Survival Course for the Artist”.  When visitors spoke to the class, it was on the condition that they made a living as a working artist.  It was a wake-up call about how hard it would be to survive as an artist.  Five years after I graduated, I spoke to the class. I started by showing them a slide of the first drawing that I did as a present for Theresa Bedoya. At the time she was the Director of Admissions. The next slide was a pastel, a portrait commission that she paid for so that she could give it to her father. And then the next slide was a pastel of a dog and the students said, “What? You did a dog?” And I said, “Yes, I had to pay my rent.” The students were taken aback, but this was my reality since I didn’t have a trust fund. Sometimes I had to do certain things that were less grand, but I did them anyway.  I reminded the students that the school offered a bulletin board where they could find work if they needed extra  money.

What were your greatest personal achievements as an undergraduate?

I was very proud that I received the Daniel Cooke Steinmetz Memorial Scholarship. MICA also selected my work, and that of five other art students (along with our pictures), to be part of a large brochure that was sent to every school in the country. 

I applied for a two-person show at the small MICA gallery at the train station and was accepted. At the time, I had done a few  drawings of  women during my classes so I was inspired to develop them in larger charcoal and pencil formats. Three of the six drawings were based on ballet dancers, and an eight- foot-tall charcoal of women disrobing was also displayed and then purchased by Theresa Bedoya.

Six months later, I did an ambitious 4 by 6 feet wide oil version of eight ballet dancer figures and it was presented at the senior show. The Baltimore Sun did an article about the exhibition and the art critic singled out me and my work, saying that it was excellent and that it reminded him of Matisse and Degas with its composition, color, and human forms. It was a great way to say farewell to my education at MICA. 

How did your MICA experience influence your development as an artist?

When I arrived at MICA, I had already been drawing and painting for over ten years, but mostly on my own. By then, I was aware that I had the gift for portraiture. At MICA, working with my talented classmates drove me to be much more competitive. That ability was essential for me to survive as an artist. The diversity of the students and their talents and the inspirational teachers were essential for my growth as an artist. The Baltimore and Washington museums that I constantly visited also had a deep impact.

Can you share some advice for artists who will soon be starting their careers?

Not only do you have to be driven if you want to be a working and successful artist, but also you have to be able to market yourself.  I think I spend as much time developing my brand as I do painting and drawing. Also, embrace your identity. I’m Hispanic and gay and I’m comfortable to emphasize that when appropriate. Early in my career when I would have a show, I’d go to the Hispanic and LGBT newspapers and provide them with pictures and information about the exhibition. I didn’t wait for the gallery that represented me to do all the work. That has continued to this day. Also, if you are trying to price your work, compare it with other artists who have a similar background and talent as yours in order to have a realistic vision of what to charge. In the end, you have to embrace the risky nature of the profession and believe in yourself.

To read more about Juan Bastos and see more of his work, visit www.juanbastos.com.