BOSTON—Juan Perez passed out homemade empanadas and Joumou, a Haitian stew, to his fellow classmates in a technology class for senior citizens in the South End Community Center. He scanned the room and greeted everyone with a warm smile.
On the last day of the course Sept. 30, the 75-year-old artist showed his appreciation the best way he knows how to: by giving back to his community.
“I am so blessed to have this space, so I can see my artwork,” Perez said, who has been an artist in the South End and Fenway area for decades.
Perez, who moved into his studio in December, has been giving back through the years.
He offers free art lessons at the Community Art Studio to young students ages 6 to 8 years old. Perez said he appreciates drawing with only pen and paper and he teaches his students “contour drawing,” which is a specific sketching technique.
“I teach only 10 children at a time, just a small amount,” Perez said.
The children sketch different objects in front of them, such as fruits and vegetables that Perez brings them from the market.
“The kids come running in from the bus stop and knock on the door, which is beautiful,” said Perez. “It’s such pure and honest energy. The children bring me back to my childhood.”
The Community Art Studio on 607 Columbus Ave., is a welcoming and bright space. Perez’s original artwork hangs from the walls and they are for sale.
Perez said he knew he loved drawing when he was a sophomore in high school. Originally from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, he moved to New York City when he was only 9 years old.
“We didn’t have running water or electricity. That’s where I came from,” Perez recalled. “We had a backyard, and what we ate was what we raised.”
As a teenager, Perez enrolled in The Arts Students League of New York in Manhattan, where he studied closely with the renowned Gregory D’Alessio, whose work was featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of the City of New York.
“I had to take two buses and two trains just to get to the Arts Students League. I had no money,” Perez said.
During those long hours of commute, Perez would draw other passengers across from him, mainly to pass the time.
“New Yorkers don’t like to be stared at. So, the lesson is, you look, you remember, and then you draw,” said Perez. “I constantly drew from memory.”
D’Alessio gave Perez many opportunities that he didn’t give his other students, said Perez, recalling how D’Alessio took him to special events at the Russian Tea Room and gifted him his first ballpoint pen and pad of paper.
Now, Perez passes on the lessons he has learned from art school to curious students who share the same passion. As a volunteer, he teaches students of all different cultures in the South End, including Northeastern University graduate students.
“You have everybody here,” he said. “You should love your neighbors like you love yourself.”
Community Programs Director Sage Carbone at Fenway Community Development Organization said she first met Perez at a food distribution event during the first couple of months that the community studio was operational.
“Juan is warm, knowledgeable, and very engaging,” she said. “His art is fantastic and highlighted in many spaces around the Fenway neighborhood.”
The organization owns most of the buildings on the block, including the Community Art Studio, and donates art materials for the students to use, such as watercolor sets, pads of paper, and pencils.
Through art—and food—Perez said he hopes to inspire.
Volunteering makes Perez think of his grandmother, who taught him at a young age to give back to his community.
“My grandmother taught me to share,’’ he said. “That’s part of my culture.”
This report was published in collaboration with the Boston University School of Communications School of Journalism. The journalism student is a member of a Reporting in Depth class taught by former Boston Globe reporter Meghan Irons.
Eloise Lushina is a junior studying Journalism and Film & TV at Boston University. She is from Chicago, Illinois, and was a previous professional actor in television, musicals, and film. Now, her interests lie in broader storytelling, from writing, creating films, and producing.