Rafael Cuello finds his passion by helping other artists

Newark artist Rafael Cuello
Newark artist Rafael Cuello

“Art was my savior” says Rafael Cuello

Rafael Cuello is an artist, photographer, and co-founder of Artfront Galleries in Newark, NJ. His passion for art enables other artists to have a place to showcase their work. How did Cuello get to his journey in creating Artfront Galleries.

Where did you grow up?

Rafael Cuello: I grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, the smallest city in the smallest state. It is a predominantly Latino community with many families much like mine, who immigrated from Colombia. I’m the first born in my family and first generation American in my family. I lived and did all my academic years in Central Falls. My move in 2012 to Newark was a universe alignment. My partner (whom is originally from Newark) was given a job opportunity. And at that particular time, I felt as if my creative growth had plateaued in Rhode Island. I needed and wanted a change. Moving to Jersey was not easy by any means. The struggle was real, but one of the best decisions I could have ever made.

Did you always want to be an artist?

Newark artist Rafael Cuello's Hierophant Dorsey card
Newark, NJ artist Rafael Cuello’s “Hierophant Dorsey card”

RC: For as long as I can remember, I was drawing. I’m fortunate to have many creative and artistic individuals in my family, my grandfather, my father, and uncle to name a few. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the luxury to pursue a career in the arts when they came to this country. So, my interest in the arts was always encouraged and fostered from a very young age. My grandpa (whom recently passed) played a big part in my early art life. We spent countless hours watching Bob Ross paint his majestic forest scenes. Instead of paints though, we would use pencil and play with shading.

I wasn’t an athletic kid; I was always about the arts and in a band. I dealt with a lot of bullying growing up for being on the ‘softer’ side. Elementary school and junior high were some difficult times. Art was my savior. Once kids saw what I would create, I became ‘cooler,’ even popular. Art gave me a voice. I gained many allies and respect, even from some of those same bullies.

Did you go to school to study art?

Newark artist Rafael Cuello
Newark artist Rafael Cuello

RC: For my high school years, I attended a vocational school, William M. Davies Technical H.S. That’s where I embarked on my graphic design journey, which led to amazing intern opportunities that truly enriched my high school experience. I later attended New England Institute of Technology, where I received a degree in Multimedia Design and I also attended Rhode Island College for Fine Arts.

“I’ve always been attracted to bright, bold colors”

Do your paintings have a Latin influence?

RC: My work is very much influenced by my Latin background. My family is from festive and vibrant Barranquilla, Colombia. The process is very much organic for me. I’ve always been attracted to bright, bold colors. Growing up, I was always very conscious of what I like to call my “colorfulness” (gayness). The canvas was an outlet for me to unapologetically let out how I felt inside. Well, at least that’s what my therapist would say.

What is your medium? Do you have a special technique?

Newark artist Rafael Cuello at a recent show in the city
Newark artist Rafael Cuello at a recent show in the city

RC: I paint in acrylics and oil pastels. Unlike graphic design, there’s tangible freedom in painting. I like that I can literally use my fingers to manipulate the paint. I’m always experimenting. I like mixing and using mediums that allow the paint itself to transform. I do a lot of layering with the paints, building texture with each layer, allowing for cracking, peeling and exposure.

Are your portraits done with a live model?

RC: Most of my paintings are from photographs I have taken, or drawings of figure studies. I store all my sketches and doodles whether new or old. I reference them for paintings and projects all the time.

When you take a photograph, what are you looking for?

RC: Like many of my works, the process is very organic for me. I like to give very little direction when shooting. I like challenging my models/subjects even if it’s simply by placing them in an unfamiliar environment. I want and seek authenticity in my imagery.

Rafael Cuello is one of the co-founders of Artfront Galleries

How did you get involved with Artfront Galleries?

Newark, NJ artist Rafael Cuello's work was featured at a recent show in the city
Newark, NJ artist Rafael Cuello’s work was featured at a recent show in the city

RC: I’m very proud to be one of the co-founders of Artfront Galleries. When I first moved to Newark, I put out an open call for artists and partnered with a local non-profit to put on a pop-up gallery show. Having had experience in curating community art shows in Providence, Rhode Island, I thought it would be a great way to meet other local artists and begin fostering community building relationships. The first of 12 artists to answer my open call was photographer Timothy Dingman. I was struck by his amazing work, but more so by his passion for the arts and local community.

The artists that participated in my first show varied from painters, to photographers, and sculptors. They were latino, white, black, straight, gay — all showcasing an incredible array of talent. Unbeknownst to me, this pop-up would be the beginning of an amazing journey and the birth of Artfront Galleries.

Tim and I immediately started working together, partnering with local non-profits and using their space to exhibit artwork. This led to building relationships with local developers and business owners who had vacant storefronts or spaces. That led to the Newark Housing Authority giving us the opportunity to curate artwork for three of their recreational centers in Newark.

Making art accessible to everyone is what has always fueled our vision. In 2016, Artfront Galleries went from a loose coalition of working artists centered in Newark to a registered New Jersey Nonprofit Corporation recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3). The mission of Artfront Galleries is to promote temporary, not for profit art galleries that serve as a transformative social and educational tool in urban environments. We are proud to have produced well over 50 pop-up shows in the Newark area since 2016.

There’s a place for all artists in the Newark, NJ art scene

Do you see a change in Newark in the arts?

RC: Newark has some incredible homegrown talent. It’s authentic, provocative, and raw. Personally, in the last five years I have witnessed a great integration of local and out of state talent. With respect comes comradery, like-minded individuals that do it for the love of the art, and for the change that can be made possible through art. I have seen some artists that were up-and-coming five years ago, now expand internationally. I’ve witnessed, and been part of, some fantastic collaboration, all here in Newark. No matter where you fall in your art journey, if you’re willing to put in the hard work, sweat, and tears there’s a place for you in the Newark art scene.

Did you have support as an artist starting out?

RC: I’m very fortunate to have always had the support of my family and loved ones. I have had some very talented mentors and a supportive circle of artist friends that support one another. I have been blessed with loyal clients whom I’ve been doing graphic design work for over 15 years. These same individuals have been a great support as I branched off to painting, photography, and curating. Following your passion aligns you with many challenges and a lot of rejection. Surrounding yourself with those that build you up and respect your vision is vital.

Do LGBT artists have enough recognition?

RC: I have to say there has been LGBTQ representation in many of the shows I’ve been involved in. It’s important to me to work with LGBTQ community. I believe more LGBTQ recognition in the art scene wouldn’t hurt. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many LGBTQ artists most recently while curating the Artfront Galleries LGBTQ art show titled Out Loud for the Newark Arts festival. It was so well received that I have decided to make it a series of shows for 2019.

What do you think is the most important issue for an LGBT person today?

RC: Although being gay is much more mainstream now, I still think an important issue for a gay person is mental health, specifically dealing with depression and healthy self-image. Having battled depression for most of my life, being gay brings about challenges, both personal and society wise, that really ignite the depression flame. I find social media to be very toxic when it comes to having a healthy self image. We have to practice and encourage more self-love. Compare less… and appreciate more. That goes for everyone regardless of sexual orientation.

What do you want people to take away from your art?

RC: When it comes to my digital art, it’s important that people understand and are clear of the message. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with many amazing non-profit agencies providing life saving services to the community. Not only do I make sure the design is aesthetically pleasing and attention grabbing, the call for action has to be understood and clear. When it comes to paintings, mixed mediums and curating, I love to hear peoples’ interpretation of my work. I believe everyone is creative in their own right, I want people to ask themselves “When’s the last time I did something creative?” So often I hear “I USED to paint…. I USED to draw…. I USED to build.” I want them to be encouraged to create something. When curating I want to take them on a journey. There’s an unspoken story in the placement of artwork on a wall. I like to make sure all of their senses are triggered.

What are your plans for the future?

RC: Art was my savior. Hearing about so many public schools not having funding is very troubling to me. I would like to use the Artfront Galleries platform to not only visually make art accessible, but also keep creativeness alive for those who seek art as an outlet. There’s a lot of work ahead, but I believe that with the support of our community and donors we can provide art workshops, classes, and activities for all those in need of a creative outlet. Encouraging artists from other cities and states to take the Artfront Galleries model and start pop-up galleries and artist communities of their own.