NORWALK — Rene Soto opened his eponymously named gallery on Wall Street less than a year ago with a dream of supporting other artists and establishing a creative community space.

Now, those efforts are being honored. This week, Soto was named as one of nine 2019 Connecticut Arts Heroes — the only honoree from Fairfield County — by the Connecticut Office of the Arts. The honorees are being recognized for their work in, for and through the arts.

“I’ve always been in the arts because I’m an artist and I want to support other artists, too,” Soto said. “I can’t ask for more, I’m so happy.”

Soto emigrated from Guatemala, where he was a gym teacher, eight years ago after the death of his mother and brothers and settled in Fairfield County. Since his childhood, he harbored a love for the arts but lacked an outlet. For much of his life, he had no access to art supplies. When he arrived in Connecticut, art became a way of dealing with the trauma of his past.

“Art has saved my life in many ways,” Soto said in a 2018 interview. “When I have nightmares sometimes, I go to paint and I make horrible things through the painting. It’s the best way to show things you can’t say. All the stress goes away.”

Soto also used art to build connections in the community, especially linking creative people who have come to the area from Central and South American countries. He created a bilingual magazine, called Latin Colors, and in May 2018 opened up the Rene Soto Gallery. He’s hosted art exhibitions, dance classes, poetry readings and live music, as well as educational classes to expose children to art. Soto has donated his work to organizations like the Ronald McDonald House, the Stamford Senior Center, Caring with Grace and the Domestic Violence Crisis Center. He’s also helped coordinate efforts to beautify the Wall Street neighborhood, commissioning an artist last fall to paint a utility box outside of the Wall Street Theater.

“What I love about him is that he sees the neighborhood as a canvas and he wants to see it beautified in whatever way he can contribute to that,” said Marc Alan, a member of the Wall Street Neighborhood Association and the Arts Commission and director of marketing and publicity at Factory Underground. “He’s a great team player. He really comes ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work and that’s what I really admire about him.”

Soto was nominated for the award by Angelica Gorrio, who heads the Peruvian dance academy Marinera Connecticut, whose classes are sometimes taught at the gallery.

“I met him about three years ago and I’ve seen him grow and (I’ve seen) his struggles. It hasn’t been easy,” Gorrio said. “Art is a language itself. Art is a way to relieve. He has been through it and he also helps people through art.”

Gorrio found out about the awards and filled out the short application in March. In response to a question about Soto’s “relevance,” the theme of this year’s awards, Gorrio wrote: “Today’s culture is divided politically, but at the Rene Soto Gallery, those barriers are broken with the global language of arts. Rene is a true example of what unity, hard work and dedication to the community really means.”

All recipients of the award will meet May 1 at Infinity Hall in Hartford for a reception, at which Gorrio will present Soto with his award.

In the meantime, Soto plans to continue his work community building. He’s currently showing the work of the Santiago Cabrera, who came to America from Guatemala in 1999. At the end of the month, he’ll grace the cover of Latin Colors Magazine. On May 2, he will be one of two honorees at Lives Blossom — A Celebration of the Stamford Senior Center. And later in May, he’ll take part in a fundraising effort to make Stepping Stones Museum for Children bilingual.

“I’m thankful for everything that’s happened in my life right now,” Soto said. “This is something that I would like to tell people: fight for your dreams, work hard for them and believe in whatever you think is correct and try to share things with others and do something in the community for arts and culture.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586