‘I’ve always stuck my neck out for someone to chop it off.’
Jesús Moroles is internationally renowned as one of the greatest sculptors working with granite today. Through a process called ‘tearing’ Moroles transforms each block of hard stone into a delicately refined expression of the interaction between man and nature. He typically leaves fifty percent of the stone in its natural state when carving and from the other half he extracts the stone’s hidden aspects such as transparency, movement or sound. Many of Moroles’ pieces are interactive, and some can even be played as musical instruments.
Moroles was born into poverty during 1950 in Corpus Christi, Texas and raised in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. With the strong work ethic taught to him by his father, Moroles earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fine Arts from the University of North Texas in 1978, where he was later honored as a Distinguished Alumnus. After college he apprenticed for one year with the famous sculptor Luis Jiménez. During that year Moroles exhibited at the Shidoni Gallery in Tesuque, New Mexico and through the sale of his first piece he financed the dream of working for one year in Pietrasantra, Italy. When Moroles returned to the United States in 1980 he took up residency at a stone carving factory. There he produced work for his first one person museum show at the Amarillo Art Center in Amarillo, Texas.
Today, Moroles employs over 20 assistants in his factory-studio on the Texas Gulf Coast. Thousands of his sculptures have been installed worldwide, including in New York’s E.F. Hutton CBS Plaza, the First Lady’s Sculpture Garden at the U.S. White House, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Osaka, Japan.
From the meager beginnings of a cotton picker, Moroles created a career spanning over thirty-years. He is owner and manager of the Moroles Cultural Center, which provides studio spaces and housing for artists in residence from around the world and has garnered such honors as an appointment to the Board of Commissioners of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art.
Jesús Moroles: My father was an immigrant from Mexico and my mother was from a border town in Texas. We came from very humble beginnings working as cotton pickers. We were very, very poor when I was young. When my parents eloped they were working in the fields. The only shade in a cotton field is under the wagon where you weigh the cotton and that is where I would stay while my parents were working. I was the token baby of the cotton field and anyone coming in to weigh the cotton would check on me. So the cotton pickers basically raised me. I grew up learning how to fix things and learning how to manage with what we had. When something broke, we never ran out to buy a new one. In a way our poverty was an asset for me. I had to work a lot of different jobs and it helped me to develop a strong work ethic at a very young age. I tried to be like my father. He is my greatest role model. He had to quit school in the 3rd grade to earn money because his father had died. He taught himself how to read from the comics in the newspapers and he taught himself how to write. He became literate with computers and went on to become an efficiency expert at the largest optical company in the world. My father was really able to move himself up.
Art Interview: Were you aware of the art world as a child?
Jesús Moroles: I was encouraged very early in the arts. I can remember loving art in the 3rd grade and I even began in elementary school having one-man shows of my watercolors, which would sell out. By the time I was 11 I was getting commissions to do paintings for people’s homes. At the age of 13 I received a commission to do two 45-foot murals in a public space in Dallas, Texas.
Art Interview: How did you manage to get a public commission at the age of 13?
Jesús Moroles: My parents sent me to the YMCA community center during the summer where a teacher was donating her time and offered art classes for a dollar a lesson. After two weeks the teacher asked me if I would be interested in taking private classes with her. But we couldn’t afford it because she charged $15 an hour instead of $1 a day. But she said just don’t tell the other kids and you can still pay $1 a day. She took me under her wing and after I’d learned about painting she said I needed to learn about design and fashion and other areas of the arts. She started encouraging me to work toward doing larger things. When a public commission came up she said I know just the person who can do this for you. On her recommendation I was able to get a commission for 2 large murals in a public space in Dallas.
Art Interview: Was it a paid contract?
Jesús Moroles: Yes, yes it was. Afterwards I was advised by my elementary art teacher Ms. Barkley to attend one of the only high schools in Dallas that offered art courses. I received permission to go out of my school district so I could go to a technical high school downtown, which offered commercial art. I took art and design classes from a teacher who later taught art at the university level after I had graduated and the school had closed. He was a very capable teacher. One of the first things we learned at school was silk-screening. I was fascinated that you could swipe ink and it would duplicate an image. So I started a small business silk-screening banners. I redesigned the school’s mascot and made pennant banners for people to wave at the football games. I sold them to the key club, the cheerleaders and I began making them for the other schools. I used the money to go on field trips.
The day I graduated from high school I received a draft notice and had to go to Vietnam War. I was very athletic during high school. By my sophomore year I was already the captain of the varsity basketball team. So I grew up as a leader of kids that were older than myself and I watched them go off to war and come back in boxes. We were all minorities and the government sent us directly to the front lines. I knew what was in store for me.
Art Interview: What were your responsibilities while you were in Vietnam and did your experiences there have a long-lasting effect on your artwork?
Jesús Moroles: I placed very high in mathematics on my military examinations thanks to a high school teacher who was once a Captain in the Navy working as a navigations officer. He made math very visual so we tried to take every college prep course that he offered such as trigonometry, analytical geometry and calculus. Because of my test results I managed to get out of the Army and was fortunate enough to be put into the Air Force working as a computer repairman. I had to do four years in the service instead of two but I wasn’t on the ground getting shot at. I was still sent off to South East Asia though.
Art Interview: When you were discharged from the Air Force you went directly into the university. Did the military finance your higher education?
Jesús Moroles: Yes. I enrolled in college from overseas while I was in Thailand. The Air Force released me 3 months early so I could start the fall semester at the University of North Texas. They didn’t give me a counselor because I came from overseas. I didn’t know any better so I took 12 hours of art classes in my first semester. The next semester I took another 12 hours of art classes. I went a whole year doing nothing but college art classes. The next year the school realized what I was doing and it was payback time. I had to do a whole year of academic courses to catch up. But by then I was so hooked on art that I struggled through the academics just to get back into art.
Art Interview: When did you begin focusing on making sculptures?
Jesús Moroles: It wasn’t until the end of college that I took my first sculpture class. Up to that point I had received straight A’s in all of my art classes. But I received my first B in sculpture and I thought oh my gosh I’m weak in this area, I need to take it again to try and get it right. So I did. Then I found out that the teacher never gave A’s and it wasn’t that I was really lacking in any way. As a result I found myself investigating sculpture on a deeper level.
At the time no one was teaching stone carving because it was not considered contemporary art. I began carving limestone and then marble and I wanted to try granite. I rented a trailer and drove to another state to get a nice sized block of granite stone. But when I started carving on it, the tools I was using broke in half because they were meant for carving marble.
Art Interview: How were you able to afford a large block of granite?
Jesús Moroles: Raw granite is not that expensive. That block cost me maybe $50 although as a student $50 was a lot of money for me. I was on the G.I. Bill and was getting only $200 a month. So it was an effort for me and after getting the block I had to buy new tools because my tools didn’t work.
When you work on granite you have to wear a mask, goggles and earplugs. I had a “Martillo” – an air hammer – and it got hot so I had to wear gloves. You have to wear a coat and a hat to keep all the dirt off of you. I had to wear a scarf because I always had long hair. So you are just like in a cocoon.
After 25 minutes of working on the stone I stopped because I got so tired. When the dust settled I realized there was a whole circle of about 25 people within 5 feet watching me. It dawned on me then that I had been so involved with the stone that I wasn’t aware of anything that was going on just 5 feet away from me. I remember that there was kind of a connection between the stone and me. It was kind of a struggle. The stone was pushing me, instead of me pushing it and I liked that resilience it had. I still feel it’s beating me, instead of me beating it.
Art Interview: Were the professors at the university able to teach you stone carving?
Jesús Moroles: No, no. I’m self-taught. No one knew anything about it.
That piece and some steel works I had done were in an undergraduate exhibition. Some people from The Shidoni Gallery saw them and they asked me to show all of my work in their big outdoor space just north of Santa Fe. I told them I only liked my stone piece. So we took just that one piece to install. They put me up on the hill overlooking the opera. It was as if I had died and gone to heaven, looking out over Mount Olympus. It was so beautiful there that I got the idea that I would be back. I bought my home in Santa Fe early on when I was still struggling 20 years ago. I bought a big high school complex from the 1880s and that’s where I live now.
After college I apprenticed with a famous sculptor by the name of Luis Jiménez. He does 45-foot figurative pop art sculpture, in fiberglass with political statements.
When I had just started college I had gone to a lecture of an artist who had just returned from Pietrasantra in Italy, where Michelangelo lived and worked. He said if you are a stone carver you have to make the journey to Pietrasantra and work there. It didn’t mean anything to me at the time but when I finished college the last piece I did was this granite and marble piece. So I had this fantasy of going over there but I realized I didn’t have enough money.
At that time Luis Jiménez had come to the university and was doing a workshop. Those workshops and lectures were one of the main sources of inspiration for me. I could relate to the working artists who came and lectured about their work. I got a lot of my theories about art from them, I think even more than from the actual teachers.
I helped Luis Jiménez out installing a piece in a museum. Then he said “You should come down and help me after you graduate.” but I said “No I’m going to Italy when I graduate”. But when I graduated I realized I didn’t have enough money to stayin Italy for any length of time. I wanted to stay there a couple of years. So I showed up at Luis Jiménez’s doorstep and his wife saw me at the door and said “Oh, he found you.” and I said “What?”. He was in Dallas looking for me and I was at his place, which was 500 miles away. We agreed that I would work for a year so I could raise some money to go to Italy. I was working for him for maybe $1.35 or $2.35 an hour, which is pennies. All of the overtime I would work was still paid at the same rate. But since I worked day and night there was no chance to spend the money so I did save something. (Laugh) It was kind of comical because here I was working for almost nothing when my piece at Shidoni gallery got sold and I received a check for thousands of dollars. That really helped me start my fund for Italy.
Nonetheless, the apprenticeship with him was real important for my career. The value was really in working with him. He was doing museum shows and he was doing museum lectures. The same galleries that I had hoped would eventually show my work were already showing his. So for me it was like being an artist without having the responsibilities of an artist. I was an extension of his little finger and whenever he needed help I was there to help. I try to tell people that a full apprenticeship is not when you are working for somebody and doing your work; it’s when you are just doing their work and paying attention.
I think that that one-year with him between 1978 and 1979 was one of the most valuable things that I did. Not only did I learn from him what to do but also what not to do. There were also certain things he did that I thought I would do differently. So it was a learning process without having to be responsible. When I started doing my art in my first year I passed people up by 5 years because I had all of this knowledge I’d acquired during my apprenticeship. After 2 years I was 10 years ahead of those people. I think my apprenticeship really gave me a jump-start.
In 1979 I went to Pietrasantra in Italy and I was there for a year.
Art Interview: What was your experience like there?
Jesús Moroles: Unfortunately I went there in summer when everybody goes there to do their commissions in their favorite studios. So all of the famous artists came in and Isamu Noguchi was one of them. I had good recommendations and I got an offer to work in Noguchi’s studio. But because of the time of year it was so full that they told me as soon as everybody starts leaving I could move in. So I decided to find a private studio instead. I ended up finding one with another artist who never showed up. So basically I was by myself and it turned out to be a good thing because I was really there to figure out what direction my work was going to go in. I had just spent a year with a figurative artist and my last piece was abstract. All of the studios in Italy are big barns and every ten feet there is another artist. So everybody is looking at everyone else’s work. I guess you can learn that way. The studios there are meant to help you make your work, whatever you need; if you need a helper or need to turn a sculpture around. I really didn’t want to see other people’s work. I wanted to see what I was going to do. I didn’t want to be influenced by them. So it turned out I was working on stone and again doing it by myself without a teacher. A lot of times I tell people if my work looks different than other people’s it is because I don’t know any better since I am self-taught.
The Italian stone carving tradition has pretty much died out. Italian kids don’t take up stone carving because it is too dirty for them. All of the stone carvers now are the foreign artists who came there to learn from the original Italian stone carvers. So unfortunately the skills and traditions are not being passed on to the succeeding Italian generations.
Right across from my studio was the studio of a fellow named Artegoni and his son. I would go over there to say hello and watch him carve. In general the Italian people love Mexicans so we had a connection there. He loved Mexican art and his paintings were very much like the works of José Clemente Orozco or David Alfaro Siqueiros. He actually carved one of the reproductions of Michelangelo’s sculpture David. To make the David you have to start with a huge block of pure white marble. After I’d been watching him for 3 or 4 months, one day he met me at the gate and he gave me this pure white block of marble. He said: This came off the David that I carved. I was so excited I took it across the alley and started to work on it. By the afternoon I’d brought it back to him as a finished sculpture. I had made a fountain out of it. All of the pieces that I made when I was in Italy I took out into nature and put them under waterfalls. I left them there because it was more valuable for me to bring back tools than stone.
Art Interview: While you were there were you able to learn carving techniques?
Jesús Moroles: No, not really. One tragic thing happened to me while I was there and I almost died. Everyone knew that I loved Noguchi’s work so my friends arranged a surprise for me to have dinner with him. That afternoon while we were getting ready and driving to the neighboring town to get wine we got in a car accident. A car ran through the intersection and hit our car right in the back where I was sitting. It broke my nose but worse it broke an artery in my head and every time my heart would pound it shot blood across the room. It was life threatening for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, I could be moved from the Italian hospital to an American hospital where they were able to fix me up. I wasn’t looking very good at the Italian hospital.
After that accident I couldn’t work. I couldn’t pick up things because it might bust the artery. So that gave me time to travel around Italy. I had never been to Florence, Venice or Rome because I went directly to Pietrasantra. So it was an eye-opener for me to see the historical artwork and the architecture of Italy. The accident forced me to make a pilgrimage that I probably wouldn’t have made time for if I had been working.
As I was preparing to leave Italy a friend of mine asked if I had been to Monte Altissimo, where Michelangelo use to hide from the Pope. Michelangelo designed the roads there to get the pure white marble. So we got up early one morning and drove to the edge of the mountain. We started walking up and by daybreak we were almost at the top. There were cables to get to a viewpoint on the other side of the mountain but they had fallen down this treacherous little cliff. My friend had already been over there and said he didn’t need to go. But I decided to try and reach it because it was only 30 feet or so away, even though it was very dangerous. When I was about halfway there, there was an explosion but I continued on and I came back OK. When we walked down the mountain we realized that the worker village had thrown some dynamite over the cliff to signify the opening of the Day of the Carvers and we ended up celebrating with the quarrymen later that day.
Daybreak came when we were walking down the mountain and I realized that the steps in the mountainside had been carved by the feet of the people who had been making pilgrimages there for hundreds of years. The white mountain made an impression on me with it’s little round footholds surrounded by grass. The marble was wet from the dew so it had taken on a translucent quality. At that moment I realized that this was what I wanted to create: man and nature working together. I wanted my work to be just like this step where man had touched the mountain and made this spot by being part of nature rather than overwhelming it. So my time on Monte Altissimo was an enlightening experience for me.
I wanted to live and work in Italy but while the word mañana in Spanish means tomorrow, in Italian it means never. In Italy if you tried to build a studio, if you tried to get electricity, if you tried to buy property, it was very difficult. I was very Americanized. I wanted the trains to work, the banks to open, the post office and phones to be reliable. I wanted Federal Express. I was at the beginning of my career and I needed to get things done so I came back to the States in 1980 to get my career started.