There was a racket outside; you couldn’t miss it.
The cacophony led artist Stephen Moscowitz outside of his Bluffton, South Carolina, home where he found a sight he’ll never forget. Perched in a massive oak tree were hundreds of White Ibis in a chorus, their feathers juxtaposed against the greens and browns of the tree.
This was definitely not something he was used to seeing in New York. Moscowitz started taking photos of the birds and was inspired to paint them on a canvas, leading to years of Lowcountry inspirations that have been hung in the homes of countless art collectors.
“My favorite birds to paint are the Great Blue Herons, because their uniforms are interesting to look at,” he says.
At 86, he has lived in Mount Pleasant for four years and is represented at Perspective Gallery. But his brushstrokes tell sometimes whimsical stories of other animals as well, from wolves on a motorcycle to a duck sitting in a bowl of soup.
Moscowitz’s introduction to art was watching his father prop up an illustration board against a straight-back chair after dinner, where he worked on pastel portraits. Seeing his interest, his father gave him pieces of cardboard from the dry cleaner and broken pieces of chalk to work on his own artwork. Moscowitz spent most of his life around New York state, raising a family of four and working as an illustrator and art director for various companies. While it wasn’t fine art like he had studied at Rochester Institute of Technology, he says, “at least I was drawing.” During one of his jobs, a retoucher taught him how to use an airbrush, which changed his artistic style forever.
“I started working with the airbrush, and that was when a whole new world of illustration got involved around me,” he says.
Other people noticed his talents, too. He took on freelance projects for a number of advertising agencies. One day he was painting a duck in a bowl of soup, another a pig with a ring in its nose for a local theater poster. With the help of three agents, he did work for a major supermarket chain, illustrated book covers and created a 60-foot ad on the side of a building in Manhattan.
Moscowitz’s art shifted when one of his sons asked if he could paint a design on his motorcycle. It was a new canvas for him, a piece of metal with curves. But he figured it out, and with his airbrush machine he painted an eagle flanked by a snake and a lion, with flames added to the front and back fender. An advertisement on wheels, his son’s motorcycle got the attention of other bikers in the area, and they came to Moscowitz in droves.
“I got to know these people,” he says. “I went to lunch with them, went to drinks with them, went to shows with them, and got to know a lot of people and a lot of what people wanted on their bikes. I found out I could create art, not just do it as an illustrator.”
He became the go-to for motorcycle art and was working on a bike once or twice a week for a decade. He started his own company, called Gnarly Graphics, and a “Gnarly Davidson” tattoo on his arm is a reminder of his days working with bikers. At that time, his studio was in an old factory converted into artist lofts. In a windowless room, Moscowitz was working on airbrush work and breathing in fumes for hours—doctors believe 30 years of working with airbrushes led to his COPD diagnosis.
While he was mainly working on motorcycles, Moscowitz went back to his roots and toyed with fine art. He did drawings, or he would take a photograph and make a painting based on it. Little by little, he was setting aside the airbrush for the paintbrush—he would airbrush the background and then paint over it for detail work. Even after years of using the airbrush, he was frustrated with how unforgiving the tool was, how any mistake or paint clot could force him to start over.
“I remember coming home from my studio one time and saying, ‘I’m getting to hate the airbrush,’” he recalls.
Today, Moscowitz has transitioned to using all acrylic paints. The Mount Pleasant condo he shares with his partner is filled with his artwork, a mix of old airbrush pieces and newer acrylic paintings of wetland birds, portraits and scenes around the greater Charleston area. Shortly after the day he was introduced to Bluffton by the choir of Ibis, Moscowitz remembers being entranced by the impressive wingspan of a Great Egret taking off into the sky.
Even after years of living in South Carolina, the wildlife still provides inspiration for this seasoned artist. *
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.