• Katy Rigg

Julio, 47

I meet Julio one night at a trendy art exhibition he’s involved in, in a converted back-street tunnel in South London. Outside, it’s a miserable November night, filled with relentless rain and bitter, sobering winds and people walk through the door happy to finally be warm and dry. It’s the kind of night where you wonder if you might have been better off staying at home in your pyjamas and barricading the doors, but here we are in a disused train arch discussing water colours, so I decide to make the most of it.

The crowd is a mixture of typical arty types: an eccentric Parisian going by the name of ‘The yellow lady’ (dressed head to toe in yellow), moustachioed men swilling red wine and people of both sexes in eye-catching suits. There is an eclectic mix of artwork and sculptures on display, and in the corner, a man is busy making pancakes to feed to the masses. This is a gimmick, as opposed to some sort of ‘performance art’, but it’s going down a treat nonetheless.

Julio’s artwork is a mixture of portrait photography and water colour paintings, and they not only fill the side wall, but the prints and unframed photographs that he sells also line the floor in wicker baskets. There is an animal theme to his paintings and when he catches me gazing at a picture of two wild horses, he approaches me and offers to explain.

“I like to paint animals,” he tells me. “I believe they’re nicer than people.”

Our eyes wander to a picture of an old woman dancing with a brown, furry creature standing on its hind legs. They are dwarfed by a giant mango tree to the right and the two figures seem to be disappearing off into the distance.

“This is a picture of my great grandmother as a tribute to her 104 years on this earth,” he says. “When I was a kid in Colombia, I used to eat the mangoes from this tree until I was sick. We’d pass it on the way to church when we walked together, talking and holding hands all the way. I wanted to create this memory I have of her but I didn’t want to paint myself so I drew her with this little animal instead.”

I ask him about his journey from Colombia to the UK and his reasons for leaving. He was 12 when he first came to England, his parents having left the country behind to come and live and work in London. His mother had been a seamstress and his dad worked in the family business.

“Life was difficult before we left,” he said. “My childhood was unstable because we moved around a lot. When my parents split up I changed schools many times, and on top of that it was back in the day when you had to pay for education. My mother’s family never had enough money for school supplies or books. I was kept back in elementary school year after year because I couldn’t finish the year, and therefore wasn't allowed to pass. When I left the country at the age of 12, I was still in second grade.”

He spent his teenage years in East London, living with his family in a flat in Wapping, before moving to Highbury 20 years ago, where he still is today. He had a daughter and a son, who are now both young adults.

Julio began his creative journey by doing a BA in Photography, and opened a photography studio where he specialised in taking people’s portraits. I see from the prints in the baskets that he is very talented.

“Would you like to know where I learnt how to paint?” he asks me and I nod, eagerly.

“I spent two and a half years in Wandsworth and High Point prisons,” he says, as matter-of-factly as he would perhaps discuss the weather.

I am stunned, of course, but curious too, and ask him how he ended up there.

He describes what happened with a blunt, refreshing honesty that I’ve never heard before from a stranger. There had been an altercation with a bouncer in a Central London bar. He’d been refused re-entry to use the toilet even though he was sitting outside drinking with his friends. The bouncer wouldn’t tell him why he refused him entry and he was thrown to the floor. It escalated quickly, and ended up in a fight.

“He picked on me because I am small,” Julio explains in his own defence. “But what he didn’t know was that I am Colombian and respect is a very important issue to us.”

“I wouldn’t wish prison on anybody,” he goes on to say. He was in a very dark place when he entered, and joining an art class was a way for him to focus his mind on something positive. He lost his photography studio and as he couldn’t use his photography equipment inside, he decided to take his creativity in a new direction.

“I’d never painted before, but it helped me to survive. I was determined not to let the experience belittle or squash me. I wanted to come out as something better.”

I ask him about what it was like to leave prison and re-integrate into society.

“It was very hard,” he says. “I almost lost my home, but my daughter managed to hold onto it for me. I had to spend 3 months in a hostel upon being released and all I wanted to do was go home. I had lost almost everything and it was hard to try and start again, but painting has helped me find myself again.”

Julio has since been nominated for a prize at the Global Arts Award and was given a special commendation by Benjamin Zephaniah. He hopes to work with at-risk youths in the future to help keep them out of trouble and give them a new purpose and sense of direction.

After meeting Julio, I think about my first assumption of the exhibition being filled with ‘typical arty types’ and I wonder if I might have been wrong. Maybe there isn’t such a thing after all.

To find out more about Julio and his work, you can visit his website: www.juliocesarts.com

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