By Carol Masshardt
The art of plants is displayed in the work of Julio Cesar Roman-Rios of Micro Plant Studio on West Broadway, and the inspiration was formed through his experiences of both trauma and resilience. His path to the Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a Tufts University Master’s Degree in Public Policy, he has now been a business owner for the challenging past five years. His life and work is a testament to community, possibility and effort. Healthy plants and his uniquely designed pots create an environment of hopefulness and creativity, but the inspiration is decades old.
Originally from Puerto Rico, nature caught his imagination and spirit early and in what were often trying circumstances. The impact of domestic violence inflicted on his mother and the fear he, his mother and siblings experienced after a fire was set to his home in early elementary school became an undeniable trauma in his life.
“When you go through trauma,” he said “you have to find ways to re-direct yourself and to heal.” Given the frightening circumstances in Puerto Rico, the family relocated to Connecticut when Julio was in third grade.
There is every reason that this young child could have closed down and turned sadness and fear into something quite different, but Julio had the ability to see beauty in people and plants, and others saw it in him. And his mother’s expressiveness and coping was noticed by her son as she sewed and cooked.
“In Hartford, I had teachers who noticed that I had a special gift in art. I saw kids drawing cars and I wanted to do that! My teacher was Mr. Hector Reyes, and he grounded me and taught me about belonging and identity,” he said. “And then, Mr. Rafael Perez-Saldano, an art teacher, showed us a painting of a garlic plant, and taught us about incorporating art into everything else we were learning. He took my drawing to a competition and it won,” he said. “Public education has had a huge impact on my life and without an amazing middle school art program I may not have reached this awesome age of 44!”
The awards would go on, and the number of teachers who made a difference could fill pages with his appreciation, each remembered distinctly by an accomplished man who could have been a lost as a boy.
A special teacher, Margaret Hayes, nurtured his education and portfolio development, and led Julio to understands better than most the importance of mentorship. “She and her husband brought me to interviews, and that’s how I ended up in Boston,” he said. He graduated from the Museum of Fine Arts School, and then went to work earning a graduate degree in public policy, and years of successful non-profit leadership, including with the Boston Public Schools became part of a tapestry of how meaningful community, art, people and nature were to his view of life.
What may have seemed to be discordant paths are strong threads of a life woven by artistry, commitment, respect for nature and the complex world of all growing things.
“Everything I do I have to do well. I started this business on savings, and it encompasses a lot about my holistic view. Plants have to stay healthy, like people, and be cared for. I feel a need to bring nature to urban areas,” he said. Of course, it looks easy, and it is not, as he explains to customers the etiology of plants and the care they require to flourish. It is a specialty not shared in big box stores and even suburban garden centers. It honors the plants, the containers and the vibrant lives of his customers who get more than a plant or flowers. He shares his expertise wisely and gently.
Arranging beautiful lavender and white flowers in this just barely spring season, Julio was inspired yet again. “When people but flowers, it is their stories and my stories and the flowers. I particularly like “make up” flowers. Forgiveness is pretty cool, don’t you think?” he asked.
Ruben, a customer working in finance and living in South Boston for eight months stopped in for an exquisite bouget for his girlfriend, and left the artistry to the artist. “I like the ambiance in here. It is calming and Julio is friendly and meets your needs,” he said.
Overcoming adversity is not unfamiliar to this small business owner, but his focus seems more on adding beauty to West Broadway with his age-old talent and contemporary designs. It may just make your day to see what he has done to create a special space on a busy urban street.