By: Ahmad Graves-El
Cumberland County is home to dozens, if not hundreds of artists who, in a different time and place, may have been recognized as some of the best in their fields by the citizens of the world.
Although this local artist initially dreamed of being famous, he is humble, grateful, and content to be in the position he is in now—highly respected, loved by his family and friends, as well as being sought after for the thing he is most passionate about—creating exquisite artwork.
George Perez has lived in Vineland for more than 40 years, and is an accomplished, semi-retired graphic artist, who also does freelance commercial art, illustrating and much more.
“I started at a very young age. I’d say about six, seven years old,” says Perez. “I always had a deep passion for artwork. I ate, slept, and lived art.”
Interestingly, even at such a young age, Perez was in tune with what he wanted his career path to be and set his sights high on achieving that goal.
“Believe it or not, I made up my mind to be a famous artist,” Perez recalls. “I wanted to be hung in museums and my artwork seen in magazines and my name out there. You know how young people think? We shoot for the moon.”
Like many young boys who become artists, the funny pages drew Perez into the world of art.
“Back then we started off with copying off the newspaper comics [and] comic books,” says Perez. “Back in those days, magazines had nothing but illustrations and drawings. They didn’t use as many photographs as they do now.
“Even in the sports section, they would have these sports artists that would illustrate the famous [athlete] of the day,” he continues. “The newspapers … also had portraits of politicians. Comics and newspapers taught me how to draw in line and how to illustrate with a pencil.”
As a student, Perez, who was born in New York, went to the prestigious High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, where he had dreams of working for the company that created iconic superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Batman.
“My goal was to work for DC Comics,” says Perez. “Back in those days, you were able to get your portfolio together, go to the DC Comics building, take the elevator straight up to the head boss, knock on his door and say ‘Hey, you got a job for me?’, and show your portfolio. As compared to now [you have to go through] a lot of red tape. [Back then], if you had the goods, you were hired right there.”
As if the Joker was pulling strings behind the scenes, Perez’s dream of working for DC Comics wasn’t in the cards.
“We had family that lived in [Cumberland County],” says Perez. “We spent the weekend, Dad loved it, and moved us all down to Vineland.”
Perez eventually became comfortable living in the area and after graduating from Vineland High School, and spending some time at Glassboro State College, (now known as Rowan University), he began his career as a professional artist.
Perez names several artists who unknowingly helped to inspire and influence the way he creates his own art, including JC Leyendecker.
“My number one would have to be Norman Rockwell,” says Perez. “…my very first real artist that I was exposed to through a teacher at the High School of Art and Design in New York. He used to bring these old Saturday Evening Post covers and put them on the chalkboard.”
According to the article, Saturday Evening Post written by Beverly C. Tomek for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “The Saturday Evening Post (which began in 1821) became well known for its illustrations, especially its cover images. The magazine’s most popular cover artist was Norman Rockwell.”
Perez learned a lot by studying Rockwell. “I was learning about color schemes and how to apply color, what colors to use in portraits, layout and designing, [and] everything that’s important in a painting as far as the structure of it.”
One of Perez’s favorite experiences was when his wife, Donna, a financial advisor, took him on a special trip on his 50th birthday: “She took me to the actual Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, his actual hometown, where they had all his originals. Entering those doorways and seeing the actual originals that I’d been studying as a kid on magazines … was breathtaking.
“I spent half my time about four or five inches away from the canvas because I wanted to study brush strokes and color schemes,” Perez continues. “A lot of the security there kept saying to me, ‘Sir, could you step back a little bit? And I’d say, ‘I’m just studying the painting, my brother. I’m not going to touch it. Now they have ropes.”
Thanks to his wife, Perez got to examine the enormity of Rockwell’s handiwork.
“The paintings you thought were the size of a magazine—when you saw the originals, they were huge, humongous pieces of art on the wall. I was just speechless. It was the most wonderful thing to experience.”
Other famous artists to inspire Perez include Mad Magazine’s Mort Drucker, who in Perez’s opinion “[I]s the most wonderful caricature artist that I’ve ever seen.” He also enjoys the work by Drew Struzan, who is known for his Stars Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future movie posters, among others, and Richard Amsel, famous for his exaggerated-style TV Guide covers.
“Al Hirschfeld was another guy,” says Perez. “They call him The Line King because he used to do all those exaggerated caricatures of people in the theater and in the movies.”
When he left college to pursue a career as an artist, Perez, who is an avid fan of comedy teams including Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and the Three Stooges, had a very special muse that spurred him on to get as much work as he possibly could.
“My muse was the electric bill, the mortgage, [and] the car payment,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I [really] wanted to be a commercial artist and I had to make a living. I had to support a family. And so what ‘mused’ me into going out and knocking on doors and saying ‘Hey, do you need an artist for your company?’ was the fact that I had to put food on the table.
“But my other muses are just the enjoyment of creating something … as well as other artists,” Perez continues. “But, you know the old saying, the starving artist? I mean, if you’re not out there hustling, you’re going to starve.”
Fortunately for him and his family, Perez has reached a point in his career where he no longer has to live the mercurial and sometimes depressing life of a starving artist. Over the years Perez has been commissioned to create some high-profile artwork for people and places in the Cumberland County area.
“I did [portraits of former] Mayor [Robert] Romano of Vineland and the mayor from Buena Vista, Chuck Chiarello,” says Perez. “I [also] did the mural in the Barse School.”
He has also been tasked by Russell Swanson, executive director of VDID/Main Street Vineland, to create a military mural on a building at a mini-park on Landis Avenue and the Boulevard.
Recently, Perez took on one of the most meaningful commissions of his life.
“I did the Sgt. Dominick Pilla portrait,” says Perez, as his voice lowers. “It was a portrait commissioned by his family to be hung in the newly named Sgt. Dominick Pilla Middle School.”
According to Clyde Hughes, in the article “Sgt. Pilla Middle School?” in the October 10 edition of SNJ Today, “Pilla died while he was a part of Operation Restore Hope, an Army Ranger raid to capture the warlord Mohammed Addid in Mogadishu and the following efforts to recover and extract fellow Army Rangers from a downed Black Hawk helicopter when the convoy was ambushed.” These events were illustrated in the movie Black Hawk Down.
The significance of being asked to do this particular portrait was not lost on Perez.
“Well, I’ll tell you—it was a very overwhelming and very humbling experience to … be asked to do something like that,” Perez says. “They had confidence enough in my work to ask me to work on a piece that represents their son who lost his life in the line of duty. To me, it’s a big responsibility to give them 100 percent and more in what I could do for them.”
It appears as though the process to select Perez as the artist to create Sgt. Pilla’s portrait was brief: “A member of our dedication committee, Carlos Mercado, suggested that instead of using a photograph of my brother in the new middle school, we should upgrade to a portrait,” says Jennifer Pilla, third grade teacher at Pauline J. Petway School in Vineland, and Sgt. Pilla’s sister. “He automatically thought of George, having seen his work in the past.”
“When we were given the opportunity to pick an artist, we wanted to pick someone local,” says Mercado, a fireman with the City of Vineland since 1996, and fundraising chair for the Sgt. Pilla School Dedication Committee.
“Carlos, George and I sat down; George showed me some of his other works, and I didn’t need to meet with anyone else,” Pilla says. “I knew he’d be perfect.”
“George was able to recreate the portrait with all the proper medals at the time of his death,” says Mercado. “We wanted to have a portrait that the students could look at and look up to.”
Working on a commission such as this can pull on an artist’s heartstrings, and for Perez it was no different, especially since he was in possession of a replica jacket of Sgt. Pilla’s and all the “declarations, patches, and pins” that were placed on the jacket.
“You say to yourself, ‘Wow, here is little old me, old blue-collar me, old grandpop me being asked to work on such a beautiful, beautiful commission,” Perez says. “When you work on a posthumous painting, to me it’s just as important as if the person was sitting right there.
“Because he was there when I saw his jacket. She talked about her brother and then it’s all flashing through my mind and I’m saying ‘I have a piece of history right here, which I’m doing a portrait of.’ And they made the movie Black Hawk Down that had to do with the circumstance. Your heart gets warm. You go, ‘Man, I’ve been asked to do such an important job, and I’m just going to do the best that I can.’”
According to many people who’ve seen the portrait, including Sgt. Pilla’s family, Perez did an impeccable job.
“He was so respectful of my brother’s sacrifice, and he was almost reverent about painting him,” Pilla recalls. “When I first saw it, I had my son Dominick with me, and when George unveiled the painting, my son quickly looked at me, because he knows when I’m about to get teary! It was like I was looking at my brother, 25 years later.
“He painted him so beautifully. It seemed like he slightly aged him, as well. The photograph he used was of Dominick at age 19. If he had survived the battle in which he lost his life, I imagine he wouldn’t have looked quite so young and fresh faced. I thought it was perfect.”
The multi-talented Perez, who is adept at creating original artwork ranging from pencil drawings and watercolors to oil paintings, may surprise you with another skill he possesses to show you that he’s far from one-dimensional. He is a polished crooner, who has put on shows in the area including at Merighi’s Savoy Inn, in Vineland, where he sings the classics while selling his art to enthusiastic buyers.
“Of course Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Elvis,” says Perez, as he lists the singers whose repertoires he sings songs from. “Some Beatles songs, some Billy Joel, some Michael Bublé. I try to have a variety to be able to satisfy the different age genres that … came out to the shows.
“I sang the songs that would spark a memory. I’m sure there’s a song that you can think of that could put you right back into that very spot and make you remember where you were, what you ate, what you wore, what you felt. That’s what a song triggers.
“[There’s] a Buddy Holly song, “True Love Ways,” and every time I hear that song, it reminds me of my wife, when we were dating. It was one of his popular songs, not up there with a Beatles song, but it’s a pretty song.”
Although Perez, who has been a professional artist for more than 50 years, didn’t reach all the goals he envisioned as a child, he still became a successful artist and is completely content with the journey on which his life has taken him.
“I may not be on the cover of LIFE magazine or had my paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I’ve had privileges that go beyond that,” says Perez. “I’ve been happily married for 36 years to a woman that, I have to say, is my actual heartbeat. Who has supported me and been there for me.
“We have two beautiful children. [There’s] a portrait that I did hung in the school of a very important person that will be there forever, for my grandchildren to see one day. I thank God for my family and my friends and for everything I’ve been blessed with.”