Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”
Edition 38—Joel Balbuena
Kind, Curious, Hardworking
Artists For Humanity (AFH) alumni often describe the organization as having opened doors to countless opportunities. Joel Balbuena has a slightly different take.
“I actually think it closed my exploration,” he said. “But that’s not a bad thing. That’s a great thing.”
A Boston native from Mattapan and Dorchester, Balbuena shared that while finding freedom and flexibility, AFH also lent vital clarity to his teen years.
“AFH helped me hone my career interests. This was very powerful because I’ve always been indecisive about what I want. Even choosing AFH was a hard decision, but one that had to be made.”
“I loved basketball, but I knew in my heart that at some point I had to stop being a knucklehead and get it together!” he laughed. “AFH helped me envision what I wanted to do and where I could go.”
A newcomer to South Boston, Balbuena began to spend his free time as a teen alone making art.
“It was a major part of my life. I drew all the time — even before school. My brother was an artist and I loved to follow everything he did, so I’ve been drawing since a young age.”
Balbuena described himself as diligent and studious, especially in mathematics. But when it came to art, “All the teachers would nag me about drawing all day,” he grinned. “It was my little rebellious stage.”
In times of confusion, art became a source of comfort and inspiration. Balbuena’s high school guidance counselor recognized his potential and introduced him to AFH.
“I refused to come for a month,” he admitted. “I eventually caved, and once I joined, I was like, ‘This is it!’” It was a moment that marked a return to Balbuena’s “normal self.”
“I consciously made a decision that AFH would be better for me,” he said. “No matter how I looked at it, I had nothing to lose.”
“I remember the interview and orientation and thinking, ‘Maybe I am good enough to do this.’”
Balbuena worked in the Painting Studio for one year before developing a budding interest for animation. His curiosity led him to the Graphic Design Studio where he explored branding.
“It was a really new experience. I was [used to] fine arts and traditional figure drawing. AFH is where I entered the [graphic design] realm.”
Balbuena can recall numerous client projects in detail, down to the sketches he made for inspiration. “I think I remember every single one of them,” he smiled.
“[For example], I painted a big moon that had a gigantic crater with the tiniest little tree on it. I’ve always been in love with outer space, traveling, and the possibility of life existing elsewhere.”
When asked to describe his proudest moment at AFH, Balbuena named two.
The first involved Grand Circle Travel’s Next Generation Leaders, a seven-week paid internship and summer enrichment program.
“They chose me to go to Africa with Fabiola Moquete,” he beamed. “I ultimately didn’t get to go, but I was proud they considered me.”
The second was when Balbuena was selected to do a live painting for an event. “I was so nervous,” he said. “I had never done live painting before, and I didn’t feel comfortable painting fast. It was so scary, but it was fun.”
After high school, Balbuena attended Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. He credits this accomplishment, in part, to AFH, which guided him through the college application process and beyond.
“I learned so much at AFH. They walked me through the FAFSA, they did the application with me, and they pretty much went the entire way in helping me. That was really important.”
“I wanted to experience something new. I wanted to travel. As a young person, you don’t often get the opportunity to go somewhere. College is that opportunity, and I took it.”
Balbuena had a rigorous academic experience, packing a bachelor’s degree in graphic design in three years.
“I continued to freelance [in graphic design]. By the time I graduated, my freelance business was doing a lot better. It kept me occupied, but I wanted to work at a firm,” Balbuena said.
At this stage, he attributed his networking skills to AFH. “The ability to build relationships and sustain them — I think that’s probably the most important trait to have,” Balbuena mused.
“AFH also taught me about keeping a great attitude. It really goes a long way. I feel like I’ve gained so many mentors. They taught me a lot and always willing to open up to me.”
Above all, AFH jump started Balbuena’s professional career.
“AFH posted a job opportunity on its Facebook page. I applied, but it wasn’t a design job. It was in production. I was just really fortunate that the creative director was also the production manager at the time.”
“I built a relationship with him — I always asked him questions. I was kind, curious, and hardworking. I think he took note of that, and when he founded Proportion Design, he took me with him.”
At Proportion Design, Balbuena created advertisements, shopping center brandings, social media campaigns, and wayfinding for areas in the Seaport District, Legacy Place, and more.
“I’m always having new adventures. Work is relaxing, fun, enjoyable — very AFH-like. I don’t really experience that corporate culture,” Balbuena added.
“[At AFH], we got paid to do art. It lets you know that you could do this for a living, and it also puts money in your pocket for lunch.”
“There were so many good memories. My first day, the live painting was awesome. Our field trips — we had so many good field trips.”
“My absolute favorite?” Balbuena laughed. “I’m gonna need some time to think about that one.”
Written by Grace Yuh and Jane Elmets. Additional edits by Casey Chiang and Simran Patel.