Julio Cotto knows what it's like to suffer for his art. Since moving to Charleston in 1998, several of his paintings have been stolen and he's sacrificed the most basic amenities in exchange for cheap rent. "The shower situation was barely better than living in a third-world country," Cotto says of an apartment he lived in on Wentworth Street. "It consisted of a wraparound curtain like in the Karate Kid Halloween party scene, a 100-foot garden hose heated by light bulbs in an insulated wooden box — the hot water lasted five minutes, tops — with a turtle kiddie pool and water pump for a tub."
But the hard times aren't why Cotto is moving to New York this month. After all, the 36-year-old has also enjoyed some great successes during his time in the Lowcountry. He has three Best of Charleston plaques — Charleston City Paper readers voted him best local artist in 2004, 2006, and 2008. He's shown his work in venues across the city, including the City Gallery's Contemporary Charleston show in 2010, and he's managed to eke out an acting career on the side, with regular roles as an extra on the Lifetime series Army Wives. Cotto has watched the local contemporary art scene grow exponentially over the years, and he arguably played a role in that growth. Though he's looking forward to having more opportunities in New York, both with his painting and acting, he'll miss the tight-knit community he's been a part of for so many years.
Cotto refers to his early years in Charleston as "the college years," even though he didn't go to college. After growing up in Greenville, he soaked up the party scene here, waiting tables to pay rent. In his spare time he worked on comic strips, a skill he'd learned as a teenager while doing inking and lettering for his uncles' company Bugged-Out Comics. He tried his hand at painting formal landscapes — "I was horrible at it," he remembers — then decided to parlay his love for comics into a more contemporary, graphic novel-style of art. "I was trying to figure out what I wanted my style to be, because I wanted to do something different to stand out," he says.
His first piece was based on a sketch of a woman's face he'd done while working as a graphic designer in Greenville. His roommate's friend — who was the bar manager at an artsy King Street restaurant — saw the painting and offered to buy it for $75. "I knew it wasn't much, but it was also kind of exciting to feel like, this is what I consider my first painting," Cotto remembers. "It was exciting to have someone offer me money before it was even finished." He agreed to the low asking price with the stipulation that the buyer hang the painting in the restaurant. Since then, Cotto's work has been featured prominently in restaurants and shops around town, including Torch, the Black Cart, the Trusted Palate, and, most recently, Social. "I wanted my work to be everywhere, just to get my name out," he says.
While you can still see hints of Cotto's comic book beginnings, his work has progressed over the years. "When I look at my first paintings, I don't even know why people were excited about my work," he laughs. "I think there just weren't that many contemporary artists [in Charleston]. I used to be just very basic."
But even in the early years, plenty of people wanted to own a Cotto original — even if they had to resort to theft to get it. "I've had a lot of artwork stolen unfortunately," he says. "I don't know if it's the venues or the audience that really dug my work at the time. They were young and at bars and drinking ... I don't know. It's pretty strange actually." Cotto recovered some of the paintings, while others are still missing to this day.
His most recent work is based on a graphic novel he's developing called The Day the Peacemaker Made Peace. "It's half Western and half sci-fi/fantasy, two separate but intertwining stories," he says. "The cowboy on the long-legged horse and variations of him will be a familiar fixture in my work to come." While much of his earlier paintings focused on female subjects, his newer pieces use women almost as part of the landscape.
In addition to his painting, Cotto has built up an impressive acting portfolio over the last three years. "It was kind of this secret that no one ever knew," Cotto says of his early acting aspirations. "I just had this secret desire to act ever since I was a little kid." He went to an Army Wives casting trailer on a whim in 2009, they took a headshot, and he got a call-back the next day to play the Iraqi sniper who shoots Wendy Davis' character Joan Burton in a cliffhanger season finale. "My female cousins were mad at me for doing that because they like her character," he says.
Since then he's played everything from a fireman to an Afghani striker to star Drew Fuller's photo and stunt double on the show. "It's fun being summoned from your private trailer room and getting a paid shave, shampoo, and haircut every few days. And the food is amazing. You get fat and spoiled," he says. "The wardrobe ladies told me that I've played the largest range of extras for them." Cotto signed with Tout Talent earlier this year and he's gotten roles in several indie short films, including Box Fan, Duel, My Sister Sam, and Butterflies Wake.
Cotto's looking forward to more acting opportunities in the Big Apple, and he already has an art show scheduled. But his departure is bittersweet. "The contemporary art scene has blossomed, it's flourishing," he says of Charleston. "It's still definitely dominated by the touristy palm tree art, but I'm impressed with how much it's grown. It's amazing for the size of this city how well art is received here."