Let’s Review! The playful art of La Jollan Gabriel Rayes is sure to make you smile


By Will Bowen

There are a great many artists in the La Jolla area, most focused on the mastery of materials or technique, or working within similar stylistic parameters, such as plein air, portraiture or conventional abstraction. So when an artist emerges with a new vision of what art can be, especially if it is self-taught, it’s an occasion worth celebrating.

Gabriel Rayes is one such emerging creative who has chosen to go his own way. Rayes’ work is much like opening a window to let fresh air into a room gone musty and stale. It is simple, accessible, colorful, distorted, playful and delightful. It makes you feel like you’re taking a walk through a Middle Eastern bazaar filled with marvelous buildings, places, balloons, animals and masks — or like you’re shuffling through a deck of Tarot cards, each of which captures the essence of an object or experience.

“I’ve only been painting for about five years,” Rayes said. “I started as a way to stop playing slot machines, which is what I was doing with my retirement time. I really didn’t think that I could be any good. My only experience with art was the pencil drawings of Italian landscapes I did years ago in college. But people kept encouraging me, so I kept on with it.”

Rayes has a knack for branding. He calls it his signature. You will see it often — the moon with a halo around it; the night skies with yellow, red and white stars; the distorted shapes of famous buildings; the flower petal windmills and wind generators; the red square post wall of the Grand Canyon.

In his paintings you see the essence, the energy, the clue to places, such as the Eiffel Tower, Red Square, the Pyramids, Arc de Triomphe, Moulin Rouge, Hotel Del Coronado, or the Mormon Temple in La Jolla. You look, finally recognize, and then shout out the realization.

His wife, Mary, says his work captures the “duende” of an object; that’s Spanish for hobgoblin.

Rayes was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1946, the son of an Italian mother and a Lebanese father. His mother was in charge of housekeeping at the Cairo Hilton and his father worked as a teacher and translated the

Al Ahram

newspaper into French.

As fortune would have it, his mother made friends with the wife of 20th Century Fox’s president, Spyros Skouras, who was there filming the movie “Cleopatra,” which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Mrs. Skouras wanted Rayes’ mother to oversee her house staff in America, so the couple sponsored his mother, father, himself and four siblings to come to the United States and live on the Skouras’ estate in upper New York.

As a member of the household staff, Rayes remembers serving dinner to visiting movie stars like Taylor, Burton, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemon and Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, Rayes father passed away from a heart attack after six months in the United States, leading Rayes to join the Navy where he served as a boatswain’s mate during the Vietnam War.

After his service, Rayes and his family moved to Southern California. He soon married and enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona where he earned a degree in architecture. However, it was too difficult to find a job in that field, so Rayes took a position in commercial real estate with the Bank of America. After a divorce from his first wife, Rayes met and married, Mary, who was raised in a Scotch-Irish family in Mobile, Ala.

In 1989, Gabriel and Mary moved to La Jolla where he went into business for himself in commercial real estate development.

Five years ago, he retired and began to pursue his interest in art. Today, he paints 8-10 hours a day in the little studio he built for himself on the back deck, which overlooks the canyon down Nautilus Street to WindanSea Beach.

“Painting for me is like a meditation,” Rayes said. “I get into the zone. Anything could fall apart right behind me and I could care less! I guess it’s like an escape. … I like to use bright colors because they are happy and I want to give people happiness. I am a fan of emotional expressiveness. I guess that’s the Italian in me. I want people to be happy and loose. … I try to keep it simple in order to capture the pure essence or the feeling of what I paint.

“I am an architect at heart. I love buildings. My wife and I went to Europe recently. She would go into the art museums, but I would sit outside and look at the buildings and the people.”