Artist Profile: Isaac Pelayo is Not His Dad

by Abel M. Salas

It is not unbelievable or surprising that Isaac Pelayo, still in his early 20s, is opening his first solo exhibition as a fine artist this week at Paul Stewart’s Over the Edge art gallery in South Central LA. He has been drawing since he was in diapers.

His father, an event producer, a curator, a self-taught illustrator and an accomplished, internationally recognized graphite artist with a day job at Disney, keeps the earliest evidence of his son’s artistic promise in his collection. The drawing, says the University of Nevada-Las Vegas art student, is proof enough that he came to art on his own.

As toddler, Pelayo observes in retrospect, he couldn't know his father was pursuing a career as an artist. The impulse to create, he honestly believes, came from within. As a result, he does not count the biological father he saw only when occasion allowed during his childhood, as a primary influence.

“My dad (artist Antonio Pelayo) has a drawing of a big smiley face I did when I was two,” he says. Before his mother’s marriage to the military serviceman who became his step-father, Isaac was often left in the care of his maternal grandmother. She discouraged him, for obvious reasons, from venturing out into the working-class Norwalk neighborhood where they lived.

“I stayed with my grandma, so all I had were a bunch of No. 2 pencils and Disney movies,” Pelayo recalls. “I drew the covers, trying to copy every line and detail. I was alone a lot, because my Grammy was super-protective.” After leaving his grandmother’s nest, he continues, he lived in a slew of homes across the U.S. Southwest, moving each time new orders from the government were issued.

The hand-drawn Disney VHS sleeve reproductions were eventually good enough to earn him a little spending money. “I use to sell them to friends at school and to my relatives. It wasn't much, maybe a dollar or two,” he says with chuckle over the phone from the Vegas apartment he shares with his girlfriend.

“My dad never had the time to sit there and teach me, so it was really like trial and error,” Pelayo says. “If I wanted to make a rock look rigid, I had to figure out things like contrast and value and shading or shadow on my own.” He found his earliest inspiration, he says, in comic books and nature. Later, he would seek out books to underscore what he had already grasped with practice.

“I knew how to do it but I didn’t know what it was called until I read about it,” he says of things like perspective and specific techniques such as cross-hatch or stipple.

Learning to adapt and make friends quickly as a by-product of the frequent moves around the country, he continued to draw, always intent on making his subjects look as realistic as possible. At 11, while living in Norco, California, Pelayo was encouraged by a grade school art teacher to submit his work to the 12th Annual Western Art Show. “I won First Place with a drawing of a woman side-saddling a horse. I was in 6th grade,” says Pelayo.

The award ceremony was held at Norco Hall. More than just a validation of a hereditary disposition and talent, it was the natural culmination of his own relentless efforts to build upon his innate abilities.

“I think everyone in my family, especially my dad, was surprised,” Pelayo says. “That drawing, believe it or not, actually sold,” he adds. His winning entry, he is pleased to add, was chosen from among over 200 works submitted.

On another level, it was a practical way of showing his father Antonio, by then already beginning to earn recognition himself outside of his hard-earned day-job as an illustrator, that he was ready for more serious mentoring and instruction.

Unable to provide direct lessons in art or bring his newfound art world contacts to a son he lived apart from, the elder Pelayo encouraged him as as much as he could, nonetheless. Fortunately, Isaac was taken under wing just a few years later by the high school art teacher who would become his chief ally, friend, instructor and booster.

“I never talked bad about my dad,” he says. “Of course, I kept up with him a little and kind of knew what he was doing,” Pelayo says with respect to his increasingly well-known father. “Don’t get me wrong, I was always proud and figured that if there was anyone who could get me, it would be him.”
It was, however, a fortuitous move back to California from Texas that put the younger Pelayo on a path to an unexpected apprenticeship under art teacher Stephen Tolley.

“We wound up in San Jacinto, California for my junior year,” Pelayo explains. Tolley, he says “sat with us every month to help us get started on a new project.” Pelayo explains that Tolley was the first person to ever tell him he needed to start building a portfolio. Each of Tolley’s assignments, he adds, was calculated to improve upon and expand the portfolios he encouraged his students to begin assembling.

“He was a phenomenal artist. Even my parents took a liking to him,” Pelayo says. “Because of him, I entered a national art contest sponsored by our local congressman. The first year, I didn’t win, but the next year, I won second place.”

The drawing, Pelayo announces proudly, was eventually exhibited in Washington D.C.  “He never really judged our work,” Pelayo says of Tolley. “He inspired me and gave me great advice. He helped me get involved in the community. He was the best teacher I ever had. But then he passed away.” It was a loss he still feels today. “I'll never forget him,” he says quietly.

His connection to the legendary producer, music supervisor and vanguard cultural promoter Paul Stewart, he admits, was something that happened because of his father. “He and my dad are friends. I’d been telling my father for years that I wanted to have a solo show,” Isaac Pelayo confesses, “But I think he just wanted to make sure I was ready, and that I had something to say. He told me I needed to work on a series.”

Antonio Pelayo has only recently begun exhibiting his son’s work at Plaza de Raza as part of his efforts to create opportunities for community artists with the annual El Velorio, Tatuaje and Lowrider art shows. Careful not to give his son undue praise or demonstrate favoritism, he chooses not to go on record about Isaac’s art.

“I think his work should speak for itself,” says Antonio. “Sure, I’m proud of him, but it’s because I admire how hard he works. That's why I agreed to help curate the show. It’s not my place to say whether his work is good or not.”

Broken Beauty, the title of his recent series, is a reference to the media-fueled standard of beauty that makes people feel flawed and imperfect. “I like to remind people that the best curve on a woman is her smile,” Isaac explains.

His most lasting inspiration has been the street, he adds. Recently featured in a viral post from Inked Magazine because of his exhibit, Isaac Pelayo has side-lighted as a serious tattoo artist for several years and insists that hip-hop and the urban culture his grandmother wanted to keep him away from are, ultimately, the foundation of his identity as an artist. “It’s the edge. It’s what I grew up with, and I think I wouldn’t be who I am without it.”

The new Broken Beauty series, he stresses, is his effort to help shape a world that prizes difference and diversity. “I think we should learn to accept ourselves the way we are because what’s natural is always more beautiful than anything else.”

Over the Edge Gallery is located at 5413 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90016


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