Artist El Moisés started his long-running art career as a schoolboy in Yuma. After illustrating a heart and with a meticulous hand scrawling in stylized font “Maria and Jose” for a friend circa third grade, she handed him three dollars. He took those dollar bills straight to the neighborhood store and bought a whole stack of folders. “I didn't do my homework from school, but all night I sat there and drew different art work on all the folders with empty banners and hearts,” he described. “The next day I went and got my hustle on.” He filled in the names and started collecting his cash. It was a natural step for the artist, who learned what an artist was in kindergarten, simultaneously realizing, “that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Today the Baja, Mexico-born and Arizona raised artist makes his home in Albuquerque's North Valley. The week we spoke he was working on a four by seven foot canvas painting of Zozobra and a lowrider commissioned for a Christmas present, a custom design on bicycle for a friend, a motorcycle, an upcoming solo show and his own lowrider—a ’56 Hudson Hollywood. All this on the heels of a mural recently completed in Phoenix and a the newly published children's book, Owl in a Straw Hat or El Tecolote del Sombrero de Paja, a children's book penned by Rudolfo Anaya and illustrated by Moisés.
At times called “The Chicano Picasso,” El Moisés' style is still distinctly his own—though the vibrant colors he employs may remind some of the Spanish master. Flowing compositions full of motion are punctuated by dark outlines and an unmistakable crosshatching technique that he engineered himself early-on in his career. The content and expression of Moisés' work is also unmistakable—here is a visual magic realism that blends ancient symbolism with modern imagery and a sly humor that makes the work relatable. “I'm a narrative artist mixing folk art with contemporary art,” he detailed, describing what he does as “arte chingón” or sometimes as “badass mother folk art.”
“I'm taking the old world and mixing it with the new world,” he continued. “It's a reflection of the world I grew up in.” Moisés described growing up in Arizona's barrios and in Mexico, where his love and appreciation for folk art flourished. In sixth grade, an art teacher gave him a bit of advice: Don't go to art school. That art school would make him paint like everyone else. Instead, she gave him books as instruction—books that contained graffiti, and works by the likes of Willem De Kooning, Keith Haring, and yes, Picasso. “The style I came upon was just because I copied the masters and came up with my own thing along the way,” he said. “And being from both sides of the border, I have that Chicano twist to it.” That he met with success seems almost incidental to the artist—he simply continued painting what and how he loved, and the money and notoriety eventually came. “That my work became marketable, that was all by accident. I wasn't trying to find a niche,” he said. “What I found out was that I have a lot of things in common with people, and they have a lot in common with me.”
Around the same time that Moisés discovered the works of artistic greats, he also sat down with Anaya's classic, Bless Me, Última. “I've been an admirer of his since I was a youngster,” he said of Anaya. “I thought when I moved here I might meet him at a book signing or something, then, lo and behold, I was blessed to work on this book with him.”
Owl in a Straw Hat is the story of Ollie the Owl. Like many of us, Ollie is struggling to find his place in the world, and he is easily swayed by the influence of his friends, some wayward crows. Setting out from his home in an apple orchard near Española, Ollie doesn't head to school, instead he raids Sister Squirrel's stash and steals cigarettes from the mayordomo. As the result of all this philandering, Ollie never learned to read, so his parents send him to his Grandma's, a teacher at Wisdom School up State Road 76. When Ollie heads out into the world, he begins to learn all kinds of things from the characters he meets.
El Moisés illustrates these characters in such a way as to deepen the text. In the story Lobo is more than just a predator, he is decked out in sunglasses, slicked back black hair and a shiny gold accessories. You see, he's that kind of wolf too. Randy Roadrunner pulls up in a brilliantly colored red lowrider that sparkles at every curve—roses curling around the wheel wells, and Randy himself displaying a sacred heart tattoo on his wing. This kind of nuance gives Owl in a Straw Hat a significant amount of character, and that undiminished character is evident in the entire body of El Moisés' portfolio. “When I do something, I don't cut any corners, I make it 100 percent or I just don't do it at all,” he said. That kind of conviction, carried with him all the way from elementary school, means that El Moisés brings his world-class style, unique vision and focused attention to everything he touches—whether a book or a lowrider or a canvas.
“What I'm doing is very personal, it's a part of me,” he said. And because of the care he takes with his work, whole worlds take shape in fullness, as is the case in Owl in a Straw Hat. “There's that saying,” he laughed, “don't judge a book by its cover—but this one, you truly can.”