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Balancing Act

Author: Rebecca Rhoades
Issue: June, 2017, Page 72
Photos by Paul Markow
With a Distinct Style That Defies Category, Brothers Isaac and Gabriel Fortoul Blur the Line Between Art and Life

Isaac Fortoul looks back on his first visit to Phoenix. Newly graduated from the prestigious University of the Arts in Philadelphia and having recently witnessed the horrors of 9/11, the Union City, New Jersey, native who had dreamed of making it to the top of a major New York City graphic design firm had an epiphany. “The attacks on September 11 changed my whole mentality. It was a sign telling me to try something different,” he recalls.

Graphic shapes and bold lines, often rendered in simple black and white, are signatures of the Fortouls’ work. Epitomizing the style is “Two as One,” acrylic on canvas, 64"H by 78"W, which complements its collector’s clean, contemporary home decor.
Searching for a new beginning, he took a train cross-country, sojourning in large metropolitan centers, such as Chicago and Denver, with a destination goal of Los Angeles. During a stopover in Phoenix, he decided to take a break from exploring and enjoy a quick snooze in downtown’s Civic Space Park. “When I woke up, I felt as though something had told me to come here, that this is where I need to be,” he says.

Isaac immediately called his older brother, Gabriel, who was working as a stockbroker on Wall Street. “Within two weeks, we had packed up and moved to Arizona, with the intent of starting a clothing line. We had planned on staying here for a year and then moving to L.A.,” the younger sibling notes. Fifteen years later, the pair not only are still here, but they’ve also become deeply ingrained in the Valley’s art scene, helping advance the creative community while building their own brand into a growing phenomenon.

Working together as the Fortoul Brothers, Isaac and Gabriel have become known for their distinctive and expressive large-scale paintings that feature bold lines, pops of vivid color and deceptively simple yet meticulously conceived imagery. Their works’ flattened perspective evokes comparisons to everything from ancient indigenous art to the Fauvist,
Cubist and Modernist movements, but it refuses to be pinpointed. It reflects a lifetime of memories and experiences while looking positively toward the future. It is instantly identifiable yet it defies monotony. And it is as individual as its creators.

In 2015, Isaac and Gabriel returned to their hometown of Union City, New Jersey, to paint a 12-panel mural on the side of the former Department of Public Works building. “It was really significant for us,” says Gabriel. “We wanted to do something for the community that inspired us to become artists.”
“You can see some resemblance to other styles in their work, but I don’t try to typecast them into one box,” says Phoenix-based designer and avid collector Daniel Germani. “They’re their own art.”

Hailing from the densely populated working-class town just outside the Lincoln Tunnel from New York City, the soft-spoken brothers were raised in a family environment that fostered imagination. “Our parents are both very creative, and they really fueled that spark,” says Gabriel.

Even as young children, they were encouraged to develop their artistic skills. “I was always drawing and working on little projects,” Isaac notes. “Our father was in architecture school when I was very young. I remember sitting next to him while he would build models, and I would make pyramids out of cardboard or create different shapes. And my brother and I were always doing art together, whether it was drawing, painting, coloring or creating crazy outfits.”

“State of Grace,” acrylic on canvas, 84"H by 104"W, is part of a private collection.
Their decision to move to Phoenix brought about a return of that childhood camaraderie and imaginative vision. Within a few years, they had made a name for themselves, curating lively exhibits under the label “Fortoul Presents” that featured works by local artists as well as solo paintings by Isaac; Gabriel would manage the events. “We really enjoyed the process, and we had a lot of friends who we wanted to work with,” he says. “But we also had all of these ideas. We just weren’t ready to develop them yet. We couldn’t take them from inside us and put them out for people to see.” 

For Isaac, joining forces on canvas was a natural progression. “In the beginning, I was the only one painting; however, we were already talking about how each piece was going to look—the colors, the mood, the meaning. That’s where the art happens. It’s in the vision,” he notes. “We realized that it was a collaborative thing, and once we went there, everything just took off. And working on the art opened up Gabriel’s mind. He had so many more ideas, and we were bouncing them off of each other.”

Photos - Clockwise from top left: The brothers outline each design on paper before committing it to canvas. Stacks of  sketches and idea books are found in their downtown Phoenix studio.

“Of Angels #1,” acrylic on canvas, 14'H by 6'W, was painted to be displayed horizontally, but when the brothers saw this large wall, they decided to hang it vertically and continue the figure’s hair off the canvas and onto the wall. “It becomes almost like an installation mural,” notes Gabriel.

Isaac and Gabriel look over sketchbooks while surrounded by their paintings, sculptures and papier-mâché creations in their studio. The large painting is “I Have Your Back,” acrylic on canvas, 78"H by 103"W.

The Fortouls donated their time and creativity to paint the colorful “For the Seeds: Mural for the Youth” as part of the renovations of the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Roanoke House in Central Phoenix. “It was such a serious project, so we knew that we had to put our hearts and love into it,” says Isaac. “I’m hoping that when the children walk in, it will bring them a little smile.”

While their artistry flows naturally these days, it took a lot of hard work, dedication and constant refining to find their signature look. “It was always about simplifying,” says Gabriel. Earlier works by Isaac were more free-form, mysterious and deeply personal, with fluid figures, dark hues and pronounced symbolism. “As with any other profession, when you start off, you’re kind of finding yourself,” explains the younger artist. “Over time, you refine your work. I went from using maybe a million lines to 500,000 lines, and then to 100,000 lines. Then I said, ‘wait, I don’t need all that.’ I can say the same thing and offer the same message with three or four lines. I think that’s way more powerful.

“Genesis,” acrylic on canvas, 78"H by 96"W dominates the home office of designer Daniel Germani and his husband, Bobby Costa. “The scale of it is beautiful,” says Germani. A smaller piece, “Hands of Destiny,” is seen in the adjacent hallway. The Panton chair is one of a pair decorated by the Fortouls and auctioned off at a special exhibit of their art.
“It also has to do with maturing as a person and finding peace and confidence in your life,” he continues. “I feel like everything I’ve done so far has been about me learning and teaching myself how to get to this point. Now, no matter what I want to express, I can do it confidently. I know that I can execute any idea that comes into my head.”

Working together in their studio—a small bungalow in Phoenix’s historic Garfield District; they live in the house next door—the prolific pair sketch out each painting first on paper. Isaac then draws the image in pencil onto the canvas, and the two fill in the colors. Often, they forgo bright shades in favor of strong black-and-white imagery. “I love when they do black and white, and they do it really well,” says Germani. “It is so powerful because the message really needs to be there. It’s easier to convey a thought when you start adding colors in.”

Simple in design, the Fortouls’ work often addresses serious issues, such as the environment. In “Bring on the Rain,” a large-scale mural in downtown Los Angeles, they tackle drought. Mother Earth is calling the rain. A single droplet is coming down, and in return she’s giving back 10 drops to continue the cycle.
Large canvases line the studio walls, some measuring upwards of 6 feet high by 8 feet long—or bigger. “Arizona inspired us to work large,” Gabriel notes. Life in Phoenix also inspires many of the themes woven throughout much of their art: nature, family, fertility, balance. Droplets represent water, the essence of life. Mother’s milk or rain, they flow both down and up—a cycle; you take, and you give back. Flowers are symbolic of the loins and reproduction, as well as prosperity. Knives are not weapons but tools, a design element inspired by the pair’s father, who was always building something, while plants pay homage to their mother, who studied horticulture and is interested in homeopathic medicine. “One is building the shelter, and the other is nurturing the family,” explains Gabriel. “But they can also switch roles, which is the balance.” Infinity symbols signify cyclicality, progression and renewal—the connectivity of all things and the belief that you can begin again.

“There are many, many layers behind each painting and much more meaning—if you want to see it,” he points out. “You can appreciate it simply for the art, or if you want to delve a little deeper, you can find the symbolism. It’s all about what you see, not what we want you to take away from it.”

One of Isaac’s earlier works “Many,” acrylic on canvas, 36"H by 36"W, hangs in Germani and Costa’s dining room. The Panton chair was also decorated by the brothers.
While the imagery’s final interpretation is up to the viewer, one thing is certain: Its look is all-inclusive. “It was important for our work to be universal and timeless. If you can speak to everyone from all cultures and age groups, that is a magical and powerful thing,” notes Isaac. “It is also important for us to have a positive message. We choose not to focus on negativity.” Adds Gabriel, “If everyone did that, we’d be a better planet, a better humanity.”

As more and more collectors, as well as the general public—thanks to murals in New Jersey, Chicago and L.A, as well as a new one currently in development in downtown Phoenix—covet their art, the brothers find themselves poised for international acclaim. “It’s surreal,” says Isaac. “It didn’t happen overnight, so it’s kind of like a child with whom you spend every day. You don’t notice how fast it grows.” A glimpse of his future prompts him to recall another memory—this time of a former professor in Philadelphia, who in 1999 told the shy, uncertain student that his work could one day hang in a museum.

“She planted this little seed inside of me that made me believe,” he says. “I know that Gabriel and I are going to do great shows and travel. I know that our paintings are going to be in a major museum one day. I feel confident about that. It may have taken almost 20 years to get to this point, but that’s what makes life so exciting.”

Seeds of Hope
When local designer Daniel Germani was tapped to helm a $500,000 renovation of Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Roanoke House in Central Phoenix, he knew that he wanted Isaac and Gabriel Fortoul to add some of their eye-catching art to the project. “I thought it made perfect sense, given the brothers’ message of family, togetherness and hope,” says Germani.

Funded by Phoenix International Raceway, the face-lift included a new kitchen, a PIR-themed lounge area and updated hallways and communal spaces. Isaac and Gabriel decorated the walls with a floor-to-ceiling mural that features their distinctive figures, plants and flowers, all in vivid shades designed to bring a moment of brightness to families coping with serious medical issues. It is titled “For the Seeds: Mural for the Youth.

“It’s been such a gift for us,” says Nancy Roach, RMHC executive director. “We knew we were getting a new kitchen, but it was so fun to see that we were getting this big piece of artwork. It’s supposed to represent the families that we serve and be something that makes them feel good. I think the brothers certainly accomplished that. The families love it.”
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