In Iqaluit, Jonathan Cruz helps youth by design
“Why not give the chance to the kid that used to be me?”
As Jonathan Cruz tells it, he always knew that he wanted to start a design agency in the North.
“I was always thinking of doing this,” he said. “I figured I could do this myself, so I decided to go back to school and then came here and opened up right away.”
In 2009, Cruz started Nuschool Design Agency in Iqaluit. Through it he’s become famous for his dramatic outdoor and indoor murals scattered throughout the eastern Arctic in places like Iqaluit, Puvirnituq and Igloolik.
And those murals, which feature striking, oversize colour portraits and images of people, bowhead whales, walruses, dogs, polar bears and other animals, have become even more meaningful to him because of the ideas that people gave him on what to paint, Cruz said.
Cruz, 30, grew up in Toronto, but has lived in Iqaluit for the past 10 years after studying illustration design in California, at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
Earlier, he’d graduated from Sheridan College near Toronto in 2004, and at the time was “still painting, still doing murals and stuff,” he said, adding “I was also cutting hair, I was a barber.”
To Cruz, no matter what he did, it had to be creative.
Arriving in Iqaluit in 2000 for a summer job, Cruz worked at a day camp and a group home.
The next year, he moved north permanently. He coached basketball, ran a tournament during Toonik Tyme, and was involved with the local hip hop scene.
This inspired him to work with the youth he came to know.
“I was just watching these kids grow,” he said.
And, with their help, Cruz painted two murals in Iqaluit, one near the Nunavut Court of Justice and one near the hospital, in bright turquoise greens, pinks, yellows, oranges and blues, against a darker purple and black.
Each mural has a flowing and effortless quality.
The mural near the hospital was done in two phases, the top portion involving youth, which allowed them to “take ownership of the space.”
But, while working on the mural last June, Iqaluit was grieving the loss of Sula Enuaraq and her two young daughters, Alexandra, seven, and Ailyah, two, as well as their father.
So Cruz wanted to do something positive, despite the tragedy and despair many felt.
“I didn’t want to do an exact replica,” Cruz said, but the woman with outstretched hands in that mural represents hope. “I just kept thinking about mothers and children.”
Children’s faces are woven into her long, dark hair.
“At the end of the day it’s not for us, it’s for the community,” said Cruz, adding it’s to celebrate mothers and children and to remember those whom the community has lost.
Some kids came every day to help.
“Why not give the chance to the kid that used to be me?” Cruz said.
So, it was very much like paint-by-numbers, with the youth doing fills of colour between the outlines, and cleaning the brushes. Then, Cruz and more experienced artists would go on top of it and freestyle.
“It becomes like this army of kids,” Cruz said.
They often finished faster that way, too. “People could say ‘hey, that looks like it could be done in a month,’ we could rock that in like seven days,” he said.
That’s something Cruz takes seriously.
“It’s something that’s very dear to me, being about helping kids that are troubled or that are in trouble or have broken homes,” he said.
Cruz said enjoys it too, because “we’re at the wall, we’re painting, we’re joking around, what kids don’t know is that I feel like a kid too when I’m painting because it just feels fun.”
For a mural in Igloolik, Cruz chose walruses for the theme, because the town is known for walrus hunting.
“We were like, why don’t we just put a giant walrus on the wall, so that’s what we did. We put it down and we got a lot of love from the community. People just flipped out,” Cruz said.
Murals aren’t the only designs Cruz is known for.
When Nuschool printed 100 “I heart NU” T-shirts for Nunavut Day one year, they sold out in 15 minutes.
Cruz says Nunavut needs more focus on design, which is why he opened up his business.
“Just to provide a different feel or different flavour to the design world, especially here in the North. I found a lot of things were getting very corporate so I was like, why not put an artistic flair to design, where it can be read clearly but it can be viewed artistically as well,” said Cruz, adding that he’s like to expand Nuschool to southern Canada and one day to the United States.
“I just want to play a part in the design industry,” he said.
And as for the name? Cruz says it’s a play on the abbreviation for Nunavut, and a spin on the term “old school” in hip-hop. “We’re the new kids in town.”