It’s a tough gig to make a career as an artist. Even in the Hudson Valley, where creativity runs rampant at craft festivals and along city streets, only a select few can stand out from the crowd. To do so requires not just a commitment — we’re talking about living and breathing art here — but also forging an identity that people don’t just recognize but seek out as well. After all, in a sea of jewelry designers and portrait painters, how does one differentiate between the two? What distinguishes an artisan between being “talented” and “unforgettable?”
Joe Pimentel is unforgettable. A muralist by trade, the Hudson Valley artist spends his days coloring beyond the lines in schools and neighborhoods throughout the region. Here’s how the local talent made his dream a reality and built a career out of an ever-evolving, lifelong passion.
Pimentel has been sketching as soon as he could hold a pencil. At only five years old, the Hudson Valleyite scribbled on anything and everything, looping squiggles and shapes in a way that only the youngest creatives can do. At school in Newburgh, he covered his notebooks with cartoons and copies of his favorite comic book depictions.
For the most part, he was content to replicate images that caught his eye, although he began to slowly venture into freeform designs as well.
It wasn’t until 11th grade that Pimentel realized his passion for doodling was more than a way to pass the time. Two years prior, in ninth grade, he began to move away from copying comic books and rely more and more upon his imagination.
“I was becoming very involved in dreams and surrealism,” he says, citing Salvador Dali as his main source of inspiration during the time. “I was working on basic shapes and morphing them together. I enjoyed the mystery of not knowing where the drawings would lead.”
Realizing that the journey of art-making had already become such a significant part of his life, he knew the only thing to do was to pursue it further. So he went to school.
After getting his basic education at community college, Pimentel finished his degree at Parsons School of Design in New York City. It was there that he received the instruction that made him more confident than ever that art was the thing he wanted to do for the rest of the days. At Parsons, his professors let nothing slide, but instead pushed him to question everything, challenge routine, and ultimately become a better artist.
“They gave me a lot of discipline putting in those hours,” he says. During that time, he improved his understanding of basic structures and his ability to draw from life and reality instead of from the surreal plane. The lessons proved to be essential, since nowadays his style blends elements from both techniques.
Upon graduating from Parsons with a degree in Fine Art Illustration in 2005, Pimentel tapped into his talents first at print shops and later at Dia:Beacon, where he worked in one capacity or another for eight years.
“When I worked at Dia, I was a gallery attendant, art handler, you name it,” he says. Around that time, he also took up substitute teaching as a way to supplement his still-developing artistic endeavors. For four years, he learned the ins and outs of working with Hudson Valley students, mainly in the Newburgh district. The experience was a challenge for Pimentel, who had to find ways to relay artistic concepts that were familiar to him onto his youthful, rambunctious groups of learners.
“Working with children was a totally different task,” he admits. Although the role came with a steep learning curve, he relished the moments when he glimpsed that same spark of creativity that he experienced as a child. They might have been creating different things, but they all shared a common passion.
Pimentel’s life-changing moment arrived in 2010. He was working part-time as a security guard at Dia:Beacon at the time when an artist who was familiar with his work suggested he submit his designs for a residency program in Indonesia. Hesitant at first, Pimentel nevertheless entered his portfolio into the nomination pool, not thinking anything would ever come from it.
A few weeks later, he received word that he was one of nine accepted artists from a pool of international applicants.
“I didn’t believe it until I was on the actual plane,” he jokes. Assigned to a residency in Bali, Indonesia, he spent the next three months under the tutelage of Dewa Nyoman Batuan, an artist who specialized in mandala paintings. Coincidentally, mandalas were symbols to which Pimentel long felt drawn, although he didn’t necessarily know why.
“[Batuan] focused on mandalas as a circle of life,” he reveals. Beginning with that as his foundation, Pimentel absorbed themes of voyages and progressive journeying into his own works. At the same time, he also evolved his understanding of what it means to be an artist. Far from a cut-and-dry definition, the role took on a kaleidoscope of meaning in Bali, where it extended to kitchens and small-town streets just as much as it did to studios and workshops.
Upon returning home, Pimentel was a changed man. With his newfound mandala work in hand, he began to consider art on a larger scale and push the bounds of the sketchbook that was never more than an arm’s reach away.
And then the murals came. Pimentel’s first foray into mural composition came in 2013 when Rick Price, a Hudson Valley artist who often teaches at The Art Effect in Poughkeepsie, asked if he’d be willing to collaborate on a large-scale piece for Tito Santana in Beacon. Having never completed a work of that scale before, Pimentel was intrigued, albeit somewhat daunted, by the prospect of putting together such a grand, prominent design.
Together, the two creatives worked to compose a vibrant mural of sugar skulls, swirls, and energy. It was a learning process just as much as it was a job for Pimentel, who got a taste for scaling sketches, painting, and remaining true to the original design all at once.
After that, Pimentel was hooked on murals. When he collaborated with Beekman Elementary School on a student-led mural shortly after the Beacon project, he knew he found his true beat.
Yet in 2015, he pressed pause on his career as a muralist to take a position as a graphic artist in New Jersey. For a year and a half, he spent five hours a day commuting back and forth to the job. The work was right in his wheelhouse, but the toll of the drive and of days spent away from the Hudson Valley tore at his stamina. Finally at a breaking point, he left that position in June 2016. From then on out, it was all murals, all the time.
Committed to his decision to pursue murals full-time, Pimentel reached out to as many schools in the Hudson Valley as possible. His first job was a collaboration mural with Mill Street Loft in Poughkeepsie. It was a success, and he began sharing his work on social media — where his reputation spread like wildfire.
Nowadays, Pimentel is a leading muralist in the Hudson Valley. His paintings pop up throughout the region, appearing everywhere from right outside Main Printing in Poughkeepsie to Titusville Intermediate School, Taft Elementary School, and Rombout Middle School, to name only a few. Last summer, he teamed up with the O+ Festival to collaborate with three artists on a large serpent mural in front of The Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie.
Most recently, Pimentel put the finishing touches on a week-long mural at Poughkeepsie High School. An abstract, multicolored work, the project diverges from his two previous compositions at the school, which featured giant wings and words, respectively.
“I’m removing the literal and just using shapes,” he observes. “[The mural] takes the shape of itself and becomes part of the space where you just saw a gray wall.”
Although he is the one who assembles the designs, a process that often involves collaboration with a school’s art teacher or principal, he looks to the kids to bring it all to life. The kids love it, since it gives them the chance to create a lasting thing in a space they pass every day. Pimentel loves it, too, for the opportunity it gives him to let go and allow the mural to become a thing of its own.
“As much as I’m telling [the students] to be patient, I’m being patient myself,” he says. “They can do it, I just have to let them do it.”
If his track record is any indication, Pimentel did the right thing when he decided to trust his gut and pursue his passion. He’s returned to Beekman Elementary six times, colored corners and hallways across Poughkeepsie, and given back to his Newburgh community all within the few short years he’s been in business. As long as he can spend his days making the world a little brighter, he’s happy to keep scribbling, sketching, and painting away.
Looking ahead to the next generation of creatives, Pimentel’s advice is simple and to the point.
“Just love what you do and put in the hours, not because you feel like you have to but because you want to,” he notes. “For me, it’s just the beginning. I want to see where this will go next.”