Astoria Characters: The Artist in Training

In the spare bedroom of his apartment, Jose Mota is standing at a monumental work table, using an oil-paint marker to create the black, undulating lines that define his latest work.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose is from the Dominican Republic.

The mixed-media abstract painting, Related Formation, is part of a series of 20 large pieces titled From A Distance that, when viewed together, form a complete picture.

The works consume most of the space in Jose’s makeshift studio.

And all of his free time.

Of which there is not very much.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose looks through some sketches.

Jose, who makes his living as a personal trainer, paints between clients and long into the night after he finishes his stints at the gym.

Sometimes he’s up until midnight or even one or two in the morning canvassing each canvas.

He doesn’t notice the passage of time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose was raised in an orphanage.

His solitude is broken only by the soothing sound of classical music, which plays softly in the background like a mantra, and the satisfaction that things are progressing.

“For me, this is not a hobby,” he says. “It’s a dream.”

Andi it’s been a long time coming – Jose is 43 years old, and he’s been filling in the lines of his life with drawings ever since he could hold a pencil.

Jose, who is from Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, might never had found his artistic spirit had tragedy not changed the course of his life almost before it began.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
International Cooperation, one of Jose’s recent paintings.

His mother died when he was 3, and a hurricane ravaged the island.

“We went from poverty to extreme poverty,” he says. “Our relatives tried to help out, but they couldn’t afford to keep doing it.”

Jose and his three siblings were sent to an orphanage run by SOS Children’s Villages, the world’s largest independent, non-governmental, nonprofit international development organization.

Their father eventually remarried; he and his five new children lived 16 miles away in San Cristobal.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Denying The Existent Correlation is part of Jose’s From A Distance series.

“My dad was allowed to visit every Sunday, and we took summer vacations to his house,” Jose says. “And we also had contact with my mom’s side of the family regularly.”

Jose concedes that although it may not have been the ideal childhood, there were many positive aspects.

“Because of SOS, all of us got an education, which would not have happened otherwise,” he says. “SOS allowed us to do things that no regular family in the Dominican Republic at that time could afford to do. I got exposed to art and sports through SOS, and I fell in love with opera after seeing one. I hid the fact because it was not a cool thing to like — the other kids would have laughed at me.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He spends all his free time painting.

The institution supported Jose all through school, including his years at the Universidad Católica Santo Domingo, where he majored in hospitality.

“I had wanted to be a chef, but the Dominican Republic is so dependent on tourism that I figured hotel management would be a better choice for advancement,” he says.

It was a seasonal job that brought him to Florida and that helped him hone his English-language skills.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Sometimes Jose works far into the night.

“While I was there, they told me that if I were a trainer, they would pay me more money,” he says. “So I got certified.”

In 2006, after two years in Florida, Jose moved to New York City. He lived and worked in the Bronx, where he had friends, before getting a job in Manhattan. Since 2009, he has worked for the New York Health & Racquet Club.

That same year, he moved to Astoria to live with the woman who eventually became his wife.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose adds details to Related Formation.

“We met at the gym,” he says. “She was one of my clients.”

They rented a two-bedroom apartment so Jose would have space to create his paintings, and when they divorced in 2016, Jose started painting larger works.

Aside from a couple of printing workshops at the School of Visual Arts, Jose has no formal training in art.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose is working hard to make art his full-time career.

“I drew all the way through middle school and high school as a distraction,” he says. “In college, I copied art from books.”

The first completed pieces of the From A Distance series — Localized and Out of Coordinates are on exhibit in Jose’s living room; the two large canvases are showcased on a wooden easel that stands as tall as the door into his studio.

The series features what Jose calls “elevations” – 3-D elements that are meant to suggest a geographic topography.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Localized and Out of Coordinates on display in Jose’s living room.

“The idea is that everything in this planet is connected,” he says. “I view this piece as an aerial view – an eye from the sky.”

Jose has found making art so transformative that he’s decided to do it full time. Recently, he started cutting back his hours at his gym job.

“I had to push myself and make a sacrifice financially,” he says. “Otherwise, I would never do it. I hope that in one year from now —  or even less – I’ll be a full-time artist.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A 3-D detail from Out of Coordinates.

He’s also begun to think about getting a show at a gallery and renting a separate art studio.

Actually, he doesn’t have a choice – the new pieces he wants to create are too large to fit into his apartment.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling