“Pull on a single thread in nature, and you will find it
attached to everything in the universe,” says the naturalist John Muir. These words came to mind when I recently discovered the cinematic artwork of mouth painter, Moses Hamilton, 37, who lives in Kauai, Hawaii.
Capturing subjects ranging from the mundane to the transcendent, Hamilton’s paintings draw the viewer into the breathtaking landscapes of Hawaii and tell a moving visual story of the island’s people.
Eleven years ago, on Oct 18, 2002, on the drive home from an uneventful day of work, Hamilton’s car crashed, leaving him with a spinal cord injury. That life-changing moment sent Hamilton onto a challenging road, propelling him from moment-to-moment survival to an arduous rehabilitation. During his recovery, he was introduced to mouth painting. “I saw others paint, and go on even in worse situations than me, and it gave me the encouragement to try.”
This experiment opened a door from the past, “I always loved art growing up; I am a very visual person,” and also door to a future, “I made something with my own physical power, and I reinvented the world for myself through painting.”
To date, Hamilton’s collection includes 200 paintings, 50 of which are reproduced and sold through Mosart. “I think each painting captures a moment in my journey. I’ll mention an early one, called Brotherhood. It was simple, sort of a face, but it was a moment of realization for me of that art is
going to be in my life forever and help my life be easier and sooth my soul.”
Hamilton paints solely with his mouth; he has minimal movement in his neck, shoulders, and right hand. He relies on family to assist with setting up his paints, moving his brush, and adjusting both the canvas and the lighting. What may seem like a technical limitation with his painting does not inhibit the wide range of his emotional self-expression. “I can manipulate the natural environment with this paintbrush, and that is big for me,” he says.
Hamilton paints from both live sittings and photographs, with acrylics as his primary medium. Each piece can take from weeks to months to complete, but by bringing a compassionate presence to his work, Hamilton has forged a bold, dramatic, distinctive style. What is it that is most striking? Hamilton’s use of color. "I’m a feeling artist," he says. "I'm about expression. There's so much emotion in color.”
Inspired by the impressionists, Monet, Van Gogh, and the abstract flavors of Seurat, Hamilton says that color and exaggeration are his tools. “I don't want to be shy about my color. I like to position colors that you don't think would fit well together. I do use color for drama, that first impact. I like bright reds for the feeling of explosive sun, or cool blues at night, for example.”
The landscape paintings, such as Valley Moon are alive, full of movement and motion. “The water here in Hawaii it's not still, It's full of surf and swell. I spent a lot of my childhood surfing, fishing, and diving.
The water was a second home for me. I even joke with the kids, I no longer surf with a surfboard, I surf with a paintbrush these days…it's an adventure.”
The Hanging Ohi’a also caught my eye--it depicts a distinctive Island tree painted with intricate detail. In Hawaiian mythology, Ōhi’a and Lehua were two ill-fated young lovers. Pele, the volcano goddess, jealous of them, turned Ohi’a into a tree, breaking Lehua’s heart forever. The gods, learning of the tragedy, took pity on Lehua and transformed her into a flower and placed her on the Ohi’a tree. The legend continues that when a Lehua flower is plucked from an Ohi’a tree, the sky fills with rain, symbolizing the lover’s tears. “I try to incorporate the folklore of the island into my paintings,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton’s people portraits are intimate and reminded me of Diego Rivera. He comments,“My situation has made me develop my own unique style; with Diego, it is big chunky, blocky fingers. That is because his work is finer. I realized I wasn’t able to do that. It made me let go of preconceived ideas of what my art should look like and I learned to be more flexible, to break out of what I thought I wanted my art to look like, leading me in a different direction.”
Grand Pas Mele is a portrait of a taro farmer, notable for its depth and presence. “The Hawaiians are a people who have lost a lot; they got by with so little, did a lot with the land, and live in a simple way. It is a sad story to see, with their losses and how they struggle in the modern world.”
Hamilton shared that his early efforts at painting were frustrating— his figures lacked form. But with effort, using color as his muse, a personal style of rounded, expressive figures emerged, depicting the journey of the native people living, loving, and being.
“I like to portray day-to-day life,” says Hamilton. In Pineapple Jam, there is a moment of being off from work, [a man] playing the ukulele, enjoying his free time and doing something he loves. There is a lot of the good old blues and rock and roll in Hawaii; it affects me in so many ways. I love the feeling to be able to express someone singing a song and portray the story of what they're singing about. Music is a big influence in my art.”
Art is meditation, says Hamilton, “You're so focused on the art that it helps take your mind off the other distraction and the angst of life. I paint, and I forget about the bigger stresses. My mind is involved in imagination; it’s like letting myself lose out of a box, I am free.”
Creativity is also renewing, says Hamilton, “I almost lost my life, and know that each moment I have is real blessing. I may have lost my physical world, but it has given me time to journey into the mental world in a spiritual way. Enjoy your breath, and enjoy having a bed at night. A lot of people in the world have so much less; be appreciative in attitude and gratitude”
Hamilton’s paintings invite one to into a mindful stillness—a gift he finds when he paints—and that gift extends to anyone who stumbles upon his vibrant, memorable body of work.