It's late afternoon on a crisp December day, and the natural light illuminating Ruben Chato Hinojosa Jr.'s Point Loma studio is waning. No matter. He's doing what he does most of the time, any day of the week: making art.
Chato, as he is best known, is working on a commissioned painting of a dog, a white Lab or Golden Retriever, that's breaking the surface of the water, its eyes bright and excited.
The same could be said for Chato's eyes. He's doing what he loves.
"Art is my life," says Chato, an understatement when you take a quick look around his studio.
Paintings are everywhere: some, of the hawks and eagles Chato favors, hang on the wall; others are stacked on the floor against a wall, ether un-hung or in various stages of completion. On tables or shelves are sculptures by Chato, including those fashioned into trophies for honorees of the San Diego Film Festival, one of the artist's regular and highest-profile commissions.
From the next room, recorded music plays: often San Diego's Switchfoot, Chato's "go-to music," or it might be Def Leppard. But Chato will crank up classical music, too, if the mood strikes him and melds with whatever he's working on. "Music," he says, "can uplift you when you're not feeling it."
His brush adds a wisp of color (Chato works primarily in acrylics) to the base of the sporting dog's eyes. "When I paint an animal," Chato says, "I want to reflect the animal's spirit."
Fittingly, Chato's "Nalwodi" artist series is inspired by his love for nature and its creatures.
"I've always been painting wildlife," says Chato, turning away from his canvas. "My father had us out on boats, so I fell in love with the ocean. I would paint fish. That's where it started. I feel a connection to nature. Always have."
Chato, a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and an honored military veteran, recalls a trip to a zoo when he was about 8 years old, and the impact it would have on his artistic focus: "I came up to this cage that had all these eagles and hawks, and I saw a bald eagle at the far end of the cage. Next thing I know, I'm doodling or something, I look up, and he's right there. I wasn't even scared. It's almost like he was talking to me in his own way as another part of this world. He just kept looking at me, and he started squawking like eagles do. Ever since, I've been painting them."
A painting titled "Eagle Vision" is the one that launched Chato's "Nalwodi" series, and he's best-known for his eagle sculptures, like the more than 120 he has created for the film festival (recipients of the trophies include Annette Bening, Keith Carradine, Heather Graham and Patrick Stewart).
Still working on the canine portrait, Chato explains why he paints on wood instead of canvas.
"I feel one with the wood," he says. "I feel a connection to it. I can be very 'pushy' with the brush or whatever it is I'm using to paint. With wood I can push and get what I want with it. If I don't like something, I can scrape it off the wood. You can't do that with a canvas. It might bow or tear."
Chato's artistic roots run deep. His father is an artist and is still painting. (Chato recounts with pride that his dad phoned him recently with the news that he'd sold one of his works for $500.)
"I was always drawing on everything," he says. "My grandfather bought me pencils and paper; he wouldn't buy me paints back then. Everyone in my family has some sort of creative gene in them. Definitely the drive and the ambition to never give up has been instilled in us since childhood."
This drive is also in Chato's Apache blood. "My heart is an Apache," he says, looking away from his work. "I was born an Apache. I will always be an Apache. I will fight and never give up." He pauses. "I will never quit on you, so don't quit on me."
Determination has bolstered Chato not only throughout his career, but during his 10 years in the Navy and through some challenging health problems. When he's not vowing to fight and never give up, he's saying that "Every day is a blessing."
"I live very positive-minded," he says.
Chato considers artist and former Major League Baseball player (including with the San Diego Padres) Gene Locklear his mentor.
"He took me under his wing," Chato says. "He's my life coach. I still go and collaborate with Gene on a lot of projects. I still ask him advice on a lot of things." Then Chato smiles. "This year, for the first time in 25 years, he said 'I'm proud of you.' " (The compliment had to do with a major project Chato had done for the State of California.) "He always says, 'I taught you everything you know, right boy?' "
What Chato knows (and Locklear may not have anything to do with all of this) is not only how to paint, but to sculpt, to make furniture, jewelry and his limited edition Apache Warrior bone knives. And when he's not immersed in art, Chato is writing or playing the flute. He's even got a film career on his resume.
"I knew my whole life," he says, "I was going to do something creative."
More than one thing, it turns out.
Through it all, Chato has never forgotten the grandfather who bought him those pencils and paper, and he honors him in his daily life.
"The last thing my grandfather told me was: 'You will be living proof that I existed.' You want to know what fires me up? That's it."