Artist Spotlight: Juan "The Fox" Toscano

By Victoria Sullivan

Born in Honduras, Juan Toscano moved to the United States at the age of 7. Once his family settled in Maryland, a whole new world was presented to him.

A new place and essentially new life influenced his interest in bridging his imagination with the relationship between himself and the world around him. The relocation early in life lead him to observe the world through the lens of a stranger in a foreign place.

“I was pretty shy as a kid, I guess was kind of intimidated by unfamiliarity, so I read a lot of books, and doodled in all my notebooks,” Toscano admitted. This significantly influenced his development as an artist, specifically, a painter. He came to treat his subjects with a mood of things being out of place, or not being quite right.  

This major life change nurtured his exploratory side, wondering curiosity, and fascination with things existing in fiction, leading him to hoard thoughts and narratives even to this day.

Toscano immersed himself in the art world by working at different art supply retailers, becoming familiar with various materials, techniques, and mediums. While he worked, he simultaneously accumulated pertinent knowledge essential to his growth as an artist. 

He later studied at Montgomery College and received an Associate’s degree in Illustration. This served as the catalyst for his developing interest in the relationship between narrative and interpretation. 

Throughout his body of work, he underlines elements of the surreal and imaginative, accentuating them with tones of human emotion such as joy, nostalgia, and melancholy. He also pursued his budding interest in creating allegories using the fantastic to examine human relationships and experiences.

Furthering this interest, he chose to explore the ideas of perception versus emotion and sensory feeling. The interaction of both realistic and expressive color juxtaposed with detailed, solemn shadows and highlights are the minutiae that wonder and still intrigue Toscano.  His relationships, imagination, and experiences serve as the fuel for his narratives.
His most recent body of work is entitled Stubblefield. This collection is a series of paintings of the townhouses of the neighborhood in which he grew up in Maryland.

“In a way, I view the work as a portrait of myself.  The compositions are inhabited by childhood friends,” said Toscano. “They are portrayed in a way that distances them from having too much footing in realism, but rather serve as biographical depictions, or phantoms, from memories,” he explained. 

The inclusion of the two elements is meant to pay tribute to, as well as position, each painting between the past and present. This all culminates in an effort to transform the work into a study of time in relation to the Toscano’s life.

When arranged in a gallery setting, the collection of the different panels mimics the forms of the houses they represent and portray. The works are stylized, reconstructing memories in the present, while a cut-and-paste style collage of shapes and images tears the compositions, distorting and displacing the works from reality. 

The rich nature and heavy body of oil paint as a medium allows for evocative colors and exciting brush marks to fill and complement the solid structures. These elements create an interesting relationship between shape, color, and movement, as well as defining two separate worlds, converging on canvas.

The colors are meant to express and evoke the feelings of joy, sadness, and nostalgia associated with the portrayal of old friends almost forgotten, and the estranged neighborhood in which Toscano once lived.  “It is the product of me now, reintroduced in the essence of my youth.  This work is an expression of memory,” he said.

Juan currently attends Hood College in Frederick, MD as an Art and Archaeology major.  He is in his senior year, preparing for his final exhibition this coming May.

In preparation for this showcase, he is completing the final painting course offered at Hood, Painting III. Gary Cuddington, a New Jersey native and Baltimore resident, teaches this course as well an accomplished fine artist and oil painter.  “Juan Toscano-Madrid has taken several of my classes and in each he is among the hardest working. Juan’s continually ambitious ideas are backed by a drive to tell a story,” said Cuddington. “Much of his work tells fanciful tales twisted around anthropomorphized creatures in uplifting narratives that parody mythological stories such as Icarus and his wings made of wax.”  

Toscano spends the lion share of his time in the Tatem Arts Center on Hood’s campus, more specifically, the painting studio on the second floor. “Let’s say I put three hours in at the school painting studio, I’ll try to match that amount of time working at home that same day,” he said, “It works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t, but I prefer the classroom setting.”

Stubblefield is the title Toscano’s final senior show. “I figured I’d do something from my youth, my old neighborhood, kind of as a tribute…” he said. “My old neighborhood when I first came here, moving from Honduras—in a way, they kind of took me in. I kind of always appreciated that.”

There will be 9 pieces featured in Stubblefield. However, this was not the original plan. “It was actually supposed to be more; each panel was supposed to kind of be a townhouse, so in a sense it was going to be very geometrical, set up kind of like a neighborhood,” Toscano explained. “But because of the space, I had to condense it.”

“Right now, I have two pieces in the works and I have sketches for more.” Each panel features a townhouse that existed on the street where Toscano grew up, including his own.

Most panels feature more than one house, at least in part. However, the panel featuring Toscano’s childhood home stands alone on the canvas. In the sketch for this piece, there is a shark in a tank-like structure below the front door step.

When asked about his decision to include this animal, Toscano explained, “[sharks] most people think of them as predators, or predatory creatures, and I wanted to depart from that and redefine them as kind of honest creatures.”

He then continued to underline the message he was trying to convey in this portrayal, “I guess, biologically, they are one of the few creatures that have barely evolved, they’ve always kind of stayed true to themselves and who they are… it represents who you are beneath it all, at your most basic. Who you are, deep down inside, and I think growing up, a lot of that plays into who you become, and you can either deviate from that or nurture it, but either way it’s a part of who you are.”

If you ask any classmate of Juan’s, they will surely tell you that it is his passion and dedication to his work that sets him apart from other artists. His beguilingly childlike innocence and imagination comes to life in colorful harmony on each canvas he touches. Each and every minute detail is a part of the grand narrative that is his inspiration.

Juan continues to work on this illustrative series as the fall semester comes to a close. This story will be updated periodically as his work progresses, accompanied by photographs.






Extra behind-the-scenes interview material that didn't make it into the story!
Q: You have figures in nearly all of your pieces. Are they all from memory?

A: “Some of them I’m drawing just from memory, and others I have photographic references for, and I’m going to combine the two.”
*All of them except this one will have human figures. All of them except for the panel that represents himself will have human subjects, whereas his features animals—a shark and a fox (his signature creature)*
“They’re going to be based in realism, but some elements will be imaginary, so just stylized, I guess.”

Q: When did you first come up with the concept for this?

A: “I think last year, I had to, like mid April, towards the end of Painting II in preparation for the upcoming semester. "

Q: Has your idea changed or evolved at all since its conception?

A: “The idea has kind of been the same, just the overall presentation and structure in the gallery has changed. Originally there were supposed to be sixteen or seventeen different pieces, all 24” x 36”.”

Q: How long have you been incorporating animals in your work?

A: “In my art? Oh, here and there, forever. But into a narrative? The last year or two, but I think I’ve always been interested in animals, but yeah I think mainly in last semester’s painting class they began to surface in my work. "

Q: The first animal you chose was the fox, which has kind of become your brand or your trademark/logo. So, what is it about the fox that you identify with to the point where you would have it represent yourself as an artist?

A: “It’s not so much a representation of myself as it is my ideas. They’re swift, cunning and, I don’t know, there’s something about them, I like the fact that they’re just like, swift.  There’s a poem by Ted Hughes, I think I read last year, or was introduced to last year, that talks about a fox being your ideas and your thoughts, and I liked that.”

Q: Last year you began using colored under paintings, starting with teal. The project you’re working on now has a red one. How are you using this in your exploration of your ideas?

A:“The red is more of a cautionary color, like a warning. The next one is going to be green. I also think that the color links the four in the series—color kind of travels, and in the last one, the fox had some red and the foreground was blue. These are not a part of Stubblefield, though. They are just a series for this final painting class.”

Q: Have you titled this series and developed a storyline?

A: “I don’t have a title for these, but the idea is essentially the rise and fall of the foxes, where they kind of have grown and evolved and as they have, they’ve become ambitious, they kind of dared to adventure.

In the end, it’s going to be a fall from grace. The professor compared it to the story of Icarus. Also, the Tower of Babel, I thought of those two stories.

“The first one you see is based off of last year’s painting concept Fox Island, that your ideas are being safe-guarded and protected, where you can kind of just pluck them, harvest them. And they’re being guarded by the giraffes.

“The first piece was supposed to be the seascape, with the island gone and the giraffes bodies throughout, with their necks raised and their heads above the clouds. But the Fox Island is gone, the foxes are gone.

“In the second scene, that’s when we see where the island has gone, and the island has also grown and evolved but at the same time, they are also beyond the reach of the giraffes, so they can’t really protect them anymore.  For all of their growth, they’ve kind of left their comfort zone.

“This one here is the next one, and it takes you a little bit higher, they’re encountering new creatures and animals and introduces the condor. I like the condor, but for this one I kind of had to turn them into villains, but I guess in a way they’re supposed to represent reality, and they’re kind of going to be their reality check. So the condors will kind of bring the foxes back down to earth.

“I chose the cloudy skies to make it more fantastical, lofty to kind of represent the loftiness of certain ideas. It’s great to have all these ideas, but you still have to  keep them in a realistic frame of mind.
“The thing about the balloons is that they’re fun and cute and all, but they’re not really practical, so for all of their growth and progression, they chose to use…well I chose for them to use… balloons, so it’s kind of like their new safety net instead of the giraffes, but it wasn’t very practical, so there are going to be consequences for that.”