Even on a cloudy afternoon, with rain pounding down on the tarp protecting him and few shoppers stopping to check out his paintings, Moses Hamilton remains busy and upbeat at his work.
“It’s a beautiful day,” he said. “I’m out and alive in Hanalei. I can’t complain.”
Often, the man behind “Mo’s Art” has the end of a paintbrush between his lips as he guides the brush. On this day, a green sea turtle is coming to life on the canvas, blue water and coral in the background.
It is here at the Ching Young Village shopping center, generally on weekends, that Moses showcases his talents and promotes his work.
“Once I’m here, I’m locked in,” he said.
The 38-year-old doesn’t have a studio. But he figures he doesn’t need one.
This setting on the North Shore, he says, is a great place to set up shop.
“The best office in the world,” he said.
It’s here he chats with visitors. He smiles and laughs and makes small talk about what it’s like to be an artist on Kauai. For a gregarious type like Moses, it’s a social outlet. It’s something he’s been doing more than a decade. People have noticed. Through Mosart business, many of his paintings have been sold around the world.
Inevitably, someone will ask what’s likely on the minds of many who see Moses as he paints the afternoon away: Why are you in a wheelchair?
It’s no secret. Nothing he’s not OK talking about. A sign set on a nearby table with his paintings offers an explanation: he was injured in a car accident in October 2002. He figures his artwork is a chance to connect with strangers. They shouldn’t be afraid to stop and speak with him about his painting, about his wheelchair, about his life, even. It’s why he often initiates the conversation. It’s easier that way.
“I get all kinds of questions,” he said. “Some are shy. I let them know it’s all right to ask me questions.”
“When I’m painting, it seems to help break down the barriers,” he said. “I’m a social person. This is an outlet in life and the community.”
He hopes people see past a disability and see instead an artist willing to share his life, his hopes, his dreams.
His paintings depict his world and his imagination. The Hanalei Pier, morning and night. The Na Pali Coast. Palm trees. Waves. Sunsets. Moonlight. Roosters. And people. People playing guitars. Dancing. Smiling. Then there are the tight portraits in which the artist offers a look into deep, soulful eyes.
Moses, paralyzed from the chest down, with only limited use of his hands, his lips painstakingly guiding a small brush by using a mouthpiece, has created all of these images.
“It’s almost like a podium for me to spread my love of life,” he said. “I get to do my art, and show that no matter how hard the obstacles in life, strength of will and perseverance, you can do almost anything.”
Moses grew up in Hawaii. The son of Hawk and Cherry Hamilton was a child of Taylor Camp, an open community on Kauai’s North Shore in the 1960s and ’70s, where people lived naturally — clothing was optional — in makeshift houses and huts.
He grew up fast, big and strong, enjoyed surfing and swimming and loved the water. He was fearless and was willing to take a stand when necessary.
“He was always a leader,” his dad said. “He always stuck up for the weaker person being bullied.”
While Moses loved the water and the outdoors, there was a creative spirit within. He sketched, usually with pencils, in the margins of notebooks and on blank sheets of paper. He loved to doodle. And he was good.
“I could draw well and had an aptitude for art, a love for art,” he said.
But it wasn’t his passion.
“He never pushed it until this happened,” Hawk said.
What happened was a car accident, just over 12 years ago, on a rainy night while driving to the family’s Kilauea home. Injuries from the crash, a high break in the cervical spine, left Moses paralyzed. He recalls doctors telling him he wouldn’t be able to move much below his chest, there was a good chance he could spend life in a care home and he might never breathe on his own.
Moses, considered a high-level quadriplegic, fought for his life.
He went home and mentally prepared himself for his new life. He battled depression as he tried to survive, to establish a stronger state of mind.
“I pushed myself hard,” he said. “I proved them wrong. You can’t always listen. You gotta move forward and stay strong. You gotta keep on going, don’t take no for an answer.”
It wasn’t easy.
About a year and a half after the accident, he decided to paint. It didn’t go well. He didn’t have the control he wanted. The colors, the scene, the depth, nothing worked. He was so disappointed and discouraged that he did something he never did before. He gave up.
“I didn’t paint for almost a year after that,” he said.
But from within, there was that creative spirit still crying to get out. He tried again. Slowly. A little bit at a time. Just a hobby. See what he could do. He discovered the more he practiced, the better he got and the more he wanted to paint. It was less daunting and more appealing. Momentum was building, his confidence growing, the joy increasing. He found he could earn a living at doing something he loved and it was amazing.
“It’s the fun, painting is great, a fun thing to do,” he said.
Today, he has limited use of his arms and lives with his parents, who help feed and dress their son. They take turns driving Moses to Hanalei on weekends and help set up a table to display their son’s prints. They set up his paints and brushes and easel so he can work.
Hawk calls his son a “great, colorful artist. Moses keeps a positive attitude, works hard and rarely complains.”
“He’s a helluva guy. He’s my hero,” Hawk said. “He’s a great kid.”
Moses, who had a great-great-great-grandfather by the same name, loves his parents.
“I’ve got some really soulful parents. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them. They’re my heroes and my angles. They keep me afloat.”
Moses paints at home and at his outdoor Hanalei office. Sales, as with most artists, can be good one day, bad the next.
“Sometimes it’s great, sometimes, it can be really slow. It’s up and down,” he said. “It’s kind of like surfing. Some days you’re catching a wave, sometimes you aren’t.”
He visualizes each scene before putting brush to canvas. He spends time pondering ideas, noting the ones he likes in a book of ideas so he can come back when it’s time to work.
“The ideas aren’t the hard part. For me, it’s just finding the time to get it all done,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I still want to paint I haven’t got to.”
He spends hours guiding various brush sizes attached to a mouthstick used by disabled artists. He would paint more, but his jaw gets sore. Still, even when it hurts, he practices. It’s the only way to improve, he says. Perseverance and grit are staples of his attitude.
“You can’t let things stop you,” he said. “Just like life. Keep on moving forward. That’s how I look at it.”
Sure, he makes mistakes. Some paintings just don’t look right, don’t feel right, don’t come out right. So he starts again. He’ll leave a painting and come back to it later. Some, he knows what will look like before he starts. Others come together as he goes along.
Moses has fond memories of the North Shore, which is why many of his paintings depict the Na Pali Coast and the Hanalei Pier.
It takes him, on average, about 25 hours to complete an 11-by-14 painting.
“It’s always good to have a blueprint to build upon,” he said.
Believe it or not, there’s geometry involved in art. The rule of thirds. Math, too.
“Everything is made of shapes,” he said.
Strong influences on his work include van Gogh, Monet and Gustav Klimt. He’s inspired by Mariam Pare, another artist who paints with her mouth, and he loves the work of Kauai’s Patrick Ching.
“We forget how deep art goes back,” he said. “It’s more than just art. It’s part of our foundation and culture.”
Moses is planning a winter art show at Ching Young Village on Dec. 21 from 1 to 6 p.m. His laser prints, copies of originals, start at $15.
Higher-quality prints are available and are more expensive. He also sells some originals.
It’s the matted laser prints that are most popular.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Hawk said.
His art has been sold to people all over the world. Residents of Japan, China, France, Russia, Canada and South America have purchased it on Kauai or online at www.mosesart.org. Moses takes pride knowing his art has reached a worldwide audience. He loves knowing his art is out there, on the walls of homes, bringing happiness to people. Every day, when those people wake up, they’ll see his painting and he hopes they sense its joy and beauty.
“If it makes them feel good, that’s awesome,” he said.
He considers his paintings, in a way, his children. Each one is something special he created.
“Every time you do a painting, you’re putting a little bit of what’s inside you out there,” he said. “You’re sharing your soul with the world.”
His hobbies includes gardening and shaping bonsai in the family yard. He likes to read and is a lover of all cuisines. The exotic food here is one of the things he loves about Kauai. And he finds joy in most music.
“It has life,” he said.
Some day, he hopes to visit New York, California and Alaska. He wants to feel, smell, see and hear what goes on there. While long distance travel will be difficult for him, it’s something he wants to do, and he believes he can, despite the challenges that come with being paralyzed.
“My situation is all about adapting. I’m constantly finding new ways to do things,” he said.
Meantime, he paints on Kauai, often wearing his lucky hat.
“Ever since my wreck I can’t comb my hair, so I just keep it bald. It gives me a little style,” he said.
Even on those slow sales days, even on those gloomy, cloudy, rainy North Shore days, Moses smiles, because there’s no guarantee about tomorrow. Be happy for today.
“Love life while you got it,” he said.
Moses, sitting in his wheelchair while taking a break from painting that sea turtle, pauses for a moment. Then he speaks of life being like a garden. Each day on its own takes work. Each day is a chance to enjoy the gifts that are given, to create beauty, and discard what we don’t need.
“You gotta go out and pull the weeds every day to promote the growth of the good stuff. By pulling the weeds, I mean pulling out the negativity inside you, grooming yourself, grooming your strength, being a better person, takes work. We forget sometimes we need to work to be our best. You can’t just rest on your laurels and expect life to do it for you. You’ve got to go out and make life happen for yourself.
“I believe in luck, but I believe we make our luck,” he added.
His artwork, though, has little to do with luck. It’s a skill, finely honed over thousands of hours and years at his craft, that gives Moses direction. It is like natural medication, he said. It gives him focus. It gives him peace. It takes away worries, stress and pain, that sometimes comes with life. It is, as his business card says, “art that soothes the soul.”
“I’ve lost a lot, but this one door of art reopened my life,” he said. “In a way, painting sets me free to fly and walk again.”