Javier Padilla’s colorful religious iconography will sell long after his death, when he will finally put a face to the voices he heard as a boy in Puerto Rico.
Javier Padilla regularly reminds himself to snap out of life as an automaton and to take deliberate, deep breaths, reminding himself he’s alive right here, right now as he navigates Virginia parkways, as he works his 9-5 at BioReliance, as he walks his dogs Amber and Onyx.
Padilla’s actions are unhurried but measured, the same rhythm he moves to as a visual artist, the same beat he marched to as a political anarchist as a younger man in southwest Puerto Rico.
At 17, Padilla experienced vivid, colorful dreams and heard voices. To understand what breathed on the side of the life/death membrane, Padilla meditated. His daily practice reaped reward when he was encircled by what he calls a vortex of energy. “All this light came, a rush of energy came through the crown, and all this white light,” he says. He taught himself to paint in order to communicate what happened. Later, Padilla used the same artistic talent to declare his political stance: transform Puerto Rico from a powerless colony to independent nation.
In 2006, Padilla moved to Northern Virginia and spent six months painting abstracts to appeal to local residents. His frustration climaxed when he punched a canvas against the wall. “This is not going to work; this is not me; I’m not feeling it,” he says. “It felt like painting just for the sake of painting. So then I went back to my roots and started painting stuff that I really liked,” says Padilla. He sells them to collectors in Puerto Rico and NoVA as well as a Chicago audience.
How do you deal with harsh criticism?
Harsh criticism is 10,000 times better than a hypocrite’s criticism, and it should be taken on a case-by-case basis. If it comes from a nobody, it is like listening to a dog barking from behind a fence. It does not affect me or my body of work. Good friends are supposed to give you the harshest criticism. I pay attention to the criticism from people that have a real artistic voice and people that I respect artistically.
Have you ever had a surprising comment? Where?
The way my state of mind works is that I expect the worst from everybody. Nothing surprises me then. I did receive some comments from random people in my studio in Arlington about the color on my paintings. Some ladies got in and said “Oooh I need some sunglasses in here.” That is the only one I can recall lately.
Do you have any rituals?
I listen to reggae music most of the time or guaguanco [Cuban Music]. If I’m working on a large-scale painting, I may dance to the beat and on occasions I have reached some kind of trance/vision state—that helps me with the composition and color palette. For small-format pieces, only the music will do.
What are you thinking about in the studio?
I’m always thinking on what will be the next piece even when I’m not done with the one I’m working. There are other ones in queue. I also think a lot on who is going to take care of my creations when I’m gone … if somebody is going to remember me … and if [my paintings] are worthy to be mentioned in history, then I force myself to be better.
How do you know when you’re done?
Only when I get to the point where adding a shade or paint coat has no added value to the image. If the idea I want to communicate is there, it doesn’t matter how much more paint or color I add. It will still say the same.
Who are your three favorite artists?
Color inspiration: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Picasso and [for] composition— because of its “simplicity”: Henri Matisse.
What is your greatest success and your worst failure?
Success: I donated a painting to a museum in Puerto Rico, and it is now part of the collection. I’m part of the museum history, and so is the gentleman in the painting. To me, this is the biggest thing so far. No money can give you that kind of satisfaction.
Worst failure: I’m looking forward to it because that will revolutionize something in me. So far I don’t think I have failed. I have had frustrations with some projects and had to stop collaborating on them mostly because my goals are incompatible, there is nothing challenging for me or I consider that the type of art that is sponsored under these projects will have a negative effect on how people will appreciate mine.
What part of NoVA do you visit for inspiration?
Not a place in particular. Most of my inspiration comes from other things … my cultural background, dreams. Northern Virginia needs more public art. Since I don’t like landscape painting, I don’t get inspired by the scenery … I know other people do.
Have you ever regretted selling a piece and why?
Never, and when I feel that the person trying to buy one of my pieces is not aware of what I was trying to say through it … I would rather give it for free to somebody else who really understands the piece. Believe me, I have done it in several occasions. To me, it is important to know that the pieces are going to be with somebody that appreciates them even if they don’t have the money to acquire it.