Photography by Blake Bonillas

The Fortoul Brothers

Written by Mike Meyer Category: Spotlight Issue: July 2018

The muralist siblings put a Phoenician spin on cubism.

Sibling Wall-Scapers

Even if you haven’t heard of the Fortoul Brothers, you’d likely recognize their work – from their giant canvases gracing the main stages at last year’s inaugural Lost Lake Festival to their graphic hoodies for sale at Phoenix General, their work feels like a modern, Latin spin on the oeuvre of cubist Fernand Léger. Brothers Gabriel, 42, and Isaac, 38, say that their work has evolved in the 17 years since they first arrived in Phoenix from their hometown of Union City, New Jersey. In a word, it’s simplified. “[It's] about the essentials of life, the elements,” Gabriel says. In order to connect with the most people, he says the pair uses simple lines and little color to create impactful symbolism and messaging (like the woman whose cascading black hair becomes a river watering a garden oasis on the side of Garfield Elementary School). “The mission has always been to spread the seeds around the world and create universal messages.” See their latest mural – in partnership with the Heard Museum – on the side of the radio studio on Roosevelt and Central and look for their sculpture for Valley Metro’s light rail extension in South Phoenix in the next year.

You were so close to the artistic mecca of NYC growing up in New Jersey. What brought you out West in 2001?
Isaac: I was on a cross-country train ride and took a nap in a park and had a dream about it. [Laughs] It was more like a feeling of something calling me to come and start something new here, like a fresh start. It was more of an energy thing, a calling – the desert is a very magical place. But, more importantly, it was something where we needed to get out of the place where we’d spent most of our life and start something new.
Gabriel: Like my brother said, it was about leaving the comforts of where you grew up and uprooting and the idea that once you did, you could move anywhere… [In Phoenix] it’s very inviting and it’s very friendly. To us the most attractive part of it was it was very new and fresh and just beginning when we first came here. So we had the opportunity to really steer the direction of the community and arts movement.

You weren’t always planning to be artists?
Gabriel: We’ve always been surrounded by art, like with our parents. If you look back now, I feel like we always knew we’d be doing this… Our parents [are] producing a documentary right now, they also sculpt and build and woodwork, [practice] a little philosophy.

So your parents helped instill in you a love of art?
Gabriel: We grew up in an urban environment with a majority of Latino people. But I was just telling somebody recently, it was like we came on a comet and crash-landed. We looked like everyone else, we shared a lot of similarities in where we came from, but we were totally different than everyone else… Our family would have crystals and feathers and buddha sculptures because they were interested in all different philosophies and ways of life. I feel like that’s why our work is the way it is now, you know – you take a little bit of inspiration from everything to create this universal language where anyone can look at it and they can find a story that resonates with them.

How has your style evolved over the years you’ve been painting?
Isaac: Naturally, as you grow as a person, you have clearer ideas about who you are and the voice you have and the ideas you want to share… so over time, you refine and refine and refine until you get a clearer vision with less lines and less colors. And when you can say more with less, then I feel like you can begin walking on the path of a master.

If you could capture the essence of Phoenix in a mural, what three symbols would you include?
Isaac: Rejuvenation, that cycle of rebirth, something that rises [like a phoenix]… the magic of the land, desert and mountains… [and] the intermingling of different [types] of people creating this metropolis.