At first glance, Joel Aparicio’s path doesn’t seem like it would have led to life as an artist. The 44-year-old was a military man and a truck driver, and worked in aerospace and airport security. But one thing ties all these diverse chapters into a cohesive whole: his hands.
“I’ve always been making stuff my entire life,” says Aparicio. “I’ve always had an appreciation for good engineering and craftsmanship.”
Now a fine arts painter who specializes in airbrushing and dabbles in professional photography, Aparicio has put years of hard work and education into his skillset, which has seen him earn praise from Bellingham to New York City.
“I found this one niche, this one thing, that makes me happy, and I got really, really good at it,” he says of airbrush painting. “It set my work aside as so different from anyone else’s in the room.”
A Meandering Path
Aparicio grew up in southern California and joined the Army in 1996. He became an AH-64 Apache helicopter crew chief, seeing deployment to Germany, South Korea and Kosovo during the latter country’s 1999 war.
On September 11, 2001, Aparicio was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. About 48 hours after the World Trade Center fell, he’d been deployed overseas, eventually seeing combat in Afghanistan.
After leaving the Army in 2004, Aparicio worked for Lockheed Martin as a fabricator on F-22 Raptor fighter planes. He spent time as a Homeland Security officer overseeing a small airport in New Bern, North Carolina, and eventually married and moved to Ohio, where he worked for his father-in-law’s trucking company.
But when his marriage fell apart, Aparicio found himself in a dark place. The ensuring divorce triggered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his Army days, and he also needed surgeries on his neck and right rotator cuff. He endured the loss of fine dexterity in the middle two fingers of his right hand, making him less flexible as a mechanic.
Aparicio left Ohio and moved to Oak Harbor to live with his parents, who’d left California to construct their dream home on Whidbey Island. Before long, he was back out on his own, settling in the Mount Vernon area.
Joe Aparicio: Art as Therapy
Although Aparicio used counseling and medication to deal with his emotional trauma, it was art that really helped him find refuge during a time of personal upheaval. He initially turned to easy-to-get-into mediums like pen and watercolors before finding a knack with airbrushing.
“It’s really easy to say that art saved my life,” he says. “You hear that so much. But, during my divorce and all that, I was going through a really rough time.”
Aparicio eventually decided to return to school, and began taking classes at Skagit Valley College. He graduated in 2016 with an associate’s degree and earned an art department award, recognizing him for his artistic efforts.
Aparicio continued on to Western Washington University in Bellingham with several tuition grant waivers, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then spent an additional year completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts, specializing in photography and mixed media.
Since going back to school and pursuing art, Aparicio has done away with both medication and counseling. He’s even spoken with other veterans seeking to leave their traumas rooted in the past, inspiring them to take the next steps towards a brighter future.
Finding His Footing with Airbrush Art
Aparicio once dabbled in tattooing, and eventually picked up photography as an adjunct to better his painting work.
He worked as the only photographer for The Cardinal, SVC’s student newspaper, and also did contract work for the Skagit Valley Herald. Wedding photography has also made appearances in his portfolio.
But airbrushing – which Aparicio says had a distinguished history before being pushed aside in the fine arts world – is his forte.
“It’s an extraordinary tool when you master it,” he says, mentioning Chuck Close as a particular influence. Decades before Photoshop and digitalization, Aparicio says airbrushed advertisements were the norm.
“Every product ad you ever saw, every newspaper or magazine ad you saw from the 1950s – those were all airbrush paintings,” he says. “There were so many skilled artists out there – illustrators – who had full-time careers with that medium.”
When Aparicio went back to school, many of his fellow students stuck to the curriculum with regular brushes. He continued working with airbrushes, adding that he didn’t feel truly competent with the medium until about a decade in, when the companies making his paints and airbrushes began to notice him.
Aparicio’s subjects usually revolve around everyday life, including many of life’s fleeting but wonderful moments.
“There’s so much that you can be thankful for and enjoy in life,” he says. “Sometimes you get too wrapped up in the big picture ideas, and stressing about those, that you forget to stop and smell the roses. That’s what inspires me – capturing those moments.”
Having graduated amidst a global pandemic in 2020, Aparicio saw both his photographic and artistic opportunities vanish. Shows lined up regionally, including in Bellingham, were cancelled, less than a year after he’d had work exhibited in New York City.
As the pandemic has subsided, Aparicio is trying to gain back momentum. To get by, he works for Door Dash while continuing to paint as often as he can. He’s also a parent to five stepchildren, the product of a recent marriage.
Having moved to Port Orchard in November 2022, Aparicio says he’s already introduced himself to local galleries and is busy building up a new body of work. His eventual goal is to become a collegiate-level art instructor.
And if Port Orchard is not to his liking, Aparicio says he’ll head back to the Skagit Valley, which he views as his home.
Regardless of what his future holds, Aparicio says his story is proof that it’s never too late to re-invent yourself, pursue your passion, and find happiness.
Life is too short, he says, to do otherwise.