Juan Velazquez went to sleep on July 3 hoping that his Facebook request for help painting a mural would receive a reply. That night, hundreds of messages poured in. The mural’s subject — Vanessa Guillen, the 20-year-old U.S. Army soldier who was murdered last April at Fort Hood — resonated with the Fort Worth community, Velazquez said.
“She did her basic training in the same company I did,” Velazquez said. “I didn’t know her. Her story connected with a lot of people. Maybe it is because her mother and sister were asking for help [once she went missing]. One of my relatives died” recently, Velazquez added, saying he could empathize with Guillen’s family.
The Fort Worth-based artist spent the better part of the next day responding to nearly 500 private messages. On July 5, Velazquez, with the help of around two dozen artists, worked to create the “Fort Worth for Vanessa” mural. The heat was brutal, Velazquez recalled. Food vendors, a DJ, and dozens of people from the community turned the painting into an event. Organizers of a planned vigil for Guillen relocated their event and march to Noah’s Art & Supplies, the location of the mural on Hemphill Street on the Near Southside.
Exhausted, Velazquez left the finished mural to go see his daughter early that evening. When he returned, the streets leading to the mural were backed up for blocks in either direction as around 500 people waited to view the image of the soldier in uniform surrounded by flowers, Velazquez recalled.
Velazquez, who now has several similarly massive murals lined up, is a relatively new name in the local arts scene. Two years ago, at the age of 29, after taking five years off from painting, he felt an intense and spontaneous urge to pick up his brushes.
“I don’t know if it was because my daughter was born,” he recalled. “I don’t want to retire from a desk job having done nothing with my life. One day I will have to tell her to follow her dreams. I would feel like a hypocrite if I had to say I didn’t follow my dreams because I was scared. Most of my art supplies were in the garage. I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to give it a shot.’ ”
He kept his desk job for another year but poured himself into painting at night. Landscapes and figurative works were his passion, he said. He picked up oil painting in high school but had yet to develop a style. With minimal formal training, he refined his style by keeping aspects of his works that he liked and discarding the rest.
“I probably did 100 paintings my first year,” he said. “I didn’t know where it would lead. I knew that if I kept painting, I would find the right people to help me.”
One year ago, Velazquez followed another longtime dream: enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves. He recently parted ways with the desk job and is learning how to make a living as a full-time artist. The recent success of the “Fort Worth for Vanessa” mural and a similar one he made just east of downtown in mid-July have cast him as a graffiti artist. Velazquez, who has created art with graffiti since he was a teenager, said the medium allows him to work quickly. He considers himself an oil painter, though, and hopes to show more of those works via a solo show when public health concerns wane.
Though only months into establishing his name as a professional artist, Velazquez has a clear mission: to use his art to uplift others. Whether through murals or teaching kids about the basics of artmaking, the muralist and artist knows the power of creative expression. In high school, Velazquez said, his 11th- and 12th-grade art teacher, Mr. Daniels, provided Velazquez with a focus that kept him away from the wrong crowd. After spending his junior year at an alternative school, the young artist graduated high school as a member of the National Honors Society.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” Velazquez said. “I would probably be in jail, honestly. He changed the way I thought about life.”
While painting the Vanessa Guillen mural last July, one of the hundreds of people who messaged the artist introduced his 14-year-old niece. Velazquez gave the teen a few pointers and thought nothing more of it. Later that day, the uncle returned in tears.
“I just wanted to thank you,” the man told Velazquez. “My niece has been depressed for months and hasn’t wanted to do anything. Ever since she got to paint with you guys, all she talks about is being an artist. She wants to buy art supplies.”
After taking a gamble on an uncertain career, Velazquez said he has finally met the community of artists he was waiting for. When it is safe to do so, the muralist, painter, and graffiti artist has a series of large oil paintings that he wants to display. The collection of landscape portraits is simply titled Fort Worth.