Good Luck

September 19th, 2019

cruz painting old manThis painting is one of about 50 currently on display as part of Julie Caffee Cruz’s exhibit, “Art from the Heart,” on display now at Baker Arts. The exhibit is up through Oct. 4. L&T photo/Robert PierceROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times


From an early age, Julie Caffee Cruz realized she had love and talent for art.

“It just came so naturally to me,” she said. “Even in grade school, people would bring me their notebook and say, ‘Can you draw me a strawberry, a ladybug or something as simple as that.’ I remember doing drawings for people way back then, and the more I drew and people enjoyed what I drew, the more it encouraged me to just keep on.”

In high school, Cruz, a Southwest Kansas native, said she wanted to do art, but she also wanted to teach.

“I love school, and I always thought that’d be a good way to keep me connected with art and teaching,” she said. 

Cruz later went to school for secondary education and graphic design, graduating from West Texas State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1985.

Since then, she has taught youth from all ages from grade school to college, most recently for 11 years at El Paso Community College.

Before she finished high school, though, Cruz was diagnosed with scleroderma and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and she had no idea the devastating and debilitating consequences of these diseases.

Cruz was determined, however, to continue to create art even as her hands drew closed. She said she did not think much about how the condition was affecting her craft.

“I just felt like everybody was making a big deal out of nothing,” she said. “Even though the doctors explained to me what could happen, at that point, I wasn’t ready to hear it or believe I could not do what I always had loved.”

Cruz said her condition gave her a little more motivation to continue doing art simply because many people were telling her she couldn’t do it.

“I know it’s a God-given talent because at such an early age, I was drawing, and it came so easy,” she said. “I always feel like I should take advantage of that talent. I was given a gift, and I don’t want to squander it.”

Cruz has had to learn to draw and paint differently, but she said what she has had to learn most is patience.

“Because of my arthritis, I learned to do things differently,” she said. “I take more breaks and simple things like that, but when I get work on a drawing or a painting, it can be two or three hours, and all of a sudden, I feel like, ‘Ooh my back doesn’t like this, or my hands don’t like this.’ I know I should get up and move around and take a break.”

Cruz said, though, she has learned small tricks and tips such as holding pencils and brushes differently.

“Because of my hands and the issues I have, I don’t have a lot of strength,” she said. “I can draw very, very lightly with a pencil, so it’s easier for me to get the subtle stuff as well as going through the range, where as other people tend to draw heavier. It makes it harder to get those subtle changes, so I think that’s an advantage.”

Cruz has had dozens of surgeries, joint replacements and other procedures, including a tendon extension, to help her deal with her condition.

“Because of scleroderma, it draws up your joints and causes them to not move, so my fingers are pretty much rigid,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of flexibility, which does reduce the pain, and it also makes it a little harder to hold a pencil. They tried to do a tendon extension.”

Cruz said one of her hands would have fingers straight, while the other hand’s digits would curl up after the tendon surgery.

“It was not successful, but little did I know at that time that if we would’ve made my fingers all straight on my left hand, I wouldn’t have been able to hold a pencil or a pen because I am left-handed,” she said.

At the time of the surgery, Cruz said she never believed the surgery would not be successful.

“When you’re young, you just think, ‘I’m going to have surgery, and everything’s going to be fixed,’” she said.

Cruz has also had knees and hips replaced, and after five hip surgeries, one of her hips has been replaced by a spacer.

“It got infected, and there’s been some issues there,” she said. 

Cruz has also had her jaw and shoulders replaced, as well as foot and hand surgeries. She said while each surgery fixes something, it seems as though more still needs to be done.

“You have a surgery, and you want it to fix everything, but it doesn’t,” she said. “It’s just been so long since I’ve had it. It’s just part of my life. I just have learned to adapt and change.”

As both an artist and a teacher of art, Cruz said she likes a mixture of the two, with one not necessarily taking over the other.

“I love to share the knowledge I have and see people grow and increase their art ability, but when I teach, I’m always thinking, ‘Oh I want to draw. I want to draw, or I want to paint,’” she said. “Helping them makes me want to do it. It has to be a combination of both.”

Cruz, whose art is featured in an exhibit at Liberal’s Baker Arts Center, has done many pieces she has done over the years, and she said she has a few favorite subjects.

“I had a piece that was a large drawing, about two feet by three and a half feet, and it was a drawing of a baseball team praying with their striped uniforms,” she said. “They’re all knelt down in a huddle praying, and I hung on to that for a long, long time.”

She said this piece is her favorite, as she is a baseball fan, and initially, she did not want to sell it.

“A children’s hospital in El Paso contacted me, and they wanted to buy some of my work,” she said. “I kept telling them, ‘That one’s not for sell.’ She talked me into it. What she said was, ‘Think of how many people will see it if it’s hanging in a children’s hospital than if it’s hanging on your wall.’ That’s what finally encouraged me to sell.”

Cruz said she will continue doing art as long as her body can hold out, and she said simply having a positive attitude is part of what keeps her going with her craft.

“Everywhere I go, I’m taking pictures and seeing things,” she said. “When I see something, it’s like, ‘That would be a great drawing. That would make a great watercolor.’ I think just general life. I see things, and it makes me want to make, so as long as I can do it, I want to keep doing it.”

Cruz’s exhibit, “Art from the Heart,” is on display through Oct. 4 at Baker Arts Center at 624 N. Pershing in Liberal.

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