Octavio Perez almost wasn’t an artist. Growing up, he found himself caught between two worlds. On one side, a lifetime of artistic encouragement from outside the home, like the kindergarten teacher who took a young Perez’s dinosaur sculpture on a tour around the school to proudly show the rest of the faculty. But on the other side, the father—handy and creative, but always practical. “I was always making stuff with him,” recalls Perez, “but everything was to do with making a living or keeping food on your family’s plate. Art was never really stressed.” Always a hobby, but never a profession, it slipped to the wayside. Perez went to high school, then college—“the standard”—studying computer science, before dropping out to work in a factory. “I did a horrible job,” he says, and was promoted to plant production manager. 

Here, as coworkers caught glimpses of Perez’ artistic potential, the questions began, all variations on a familiar refrain: “Why are you wasting your life here?” And when his wife, then a student at Ringling College, now an alum, suggested a change of direction, he couldn’t help but listen, and believe. “I was 24 when I made that decision,” he says. “I quit my job and went to Ringling.”

Enrolling full time, Perez dove into animation, inspired by the Disney movies he enjoyed as a kid, but landed in illustration, which he found to be a better fit. Upon graduation, he found work with Hallmark Cards and even lived the freelance life, for a bit. “It’s all-nighters and ‘We need this yesterday’ and the fast-paced grind doesn’t make me happy,” he says. “I just make art when I want to make art.” And the perfect home, he found, was right back where it all started, as a professor of illustration at Ringling College. Today, Perez makes art when he wants to make art, but finds his motivations have changed, or at least become clear. “I just had this transformation,” he says, “where it started being less about my art and more about my students.” A restless problem-solver by nature—which explains the wide range of style and media on display at his current exhibition, Illustrations, hanging this summer in Ringling College’s Patricia Thompson Gallery—what drives Perez to the canvas these days is being the best teacher he can be. And when a student hits a roadblock, Perez pulls up alongside and works it out on his own easel for both their benefit. “It’s helping other people realize their vision,” he says. “In my students’ case, helping them figure out what they might end up doing for an entire career, and it’s just my little jumpstart to get them going in the right direction.”