As a 12-year-old in Morocco, Mostapha Beya was called Picasso because everyone thought he was crazy and no one understood his art.
Beya was just happy to see his paintings hung on the wall of his school in Rabat, the nation's capital on the northwest tip of the African continent.
Now 31, Beya has a 9-month-old son, he's joining the U.S. Army next month as an Arabic translator aide and he calls Alaska - 3,000 miles from his desert country - home. He still considers himself crazy, but people seem to understand his art.
Beya is just happy to have an outlet - a place to hang his spontaneity.
His first solo show, "Lost Between Fire and Ice," connects his time between Morocco and Juneau. The exhibit opens Friday, Sept. 5, at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council gallery as part of the First Friday art walk. Beya's acrylics will share the space with Lea Vose's "Color, Embodied."
"When you put fire with ice, you hear that scratching, that voice," Beya said. "That's what happened to me when I moved to Juneau."
"This experience, to be in Alaska, makes me paint," he said. "They paint me. I didn't paint them. They come when I'm sleeping. They come with the coffee, when I'm having my naps. For me, this experience is the bridge between the surrealist and the impossible."
Beya's parents grew up in Ouarzazate, a lush, mountainous region of Morocco 60 miles southeast of Marrakech and often called "The Gateway to the Desert." He was raised in Rabat - an open city that embraces modern and old Muslim ways. His grandparents lived in the countryside, giving him a lifelong appreciation of nature.
Beya left Morocco when he was 18 and began traveling. He lived in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, Spain, London, New York and Washington, D.C., but he grew tired of big cities and longed for the countryside. He wrote "Hawaii" and "Alaska" on scraps of paper and asked three friends to select a scrap at random. They all picked Alaska.
Beya moved to Juneau in August 2001 and has worked as an overnight food manager, a personal care attendant and a manager at Kmart. He paints at a rented storage area.
"It was a very tough life for me in Morocco," Beya said. "I'm a revolutionary. I tried to change everything. I didn't want to live my life, go to war, have kids and die. I tried to discover other worlds. But all those places didn't give me that much. When I came to Alaska, it's snow, it's white, it's cool. I feel like I want to do something, and I can do something."
Beya paints with acrylic, oil and traces of crayon. His colors are bright, red, hot, cooked - like Morocco itself. He calls Picasso, particularly during his Blue Period, "the strongest god of his time," but his own paintings are not always abstract. He paints his old village, carpets and representational snapshots of his life in Alaska and abroad.
"Mostapha is definitely one of those painters that paints from the heart and only from the heart," fellow artist Vose said.
"I'm just going to put myself out there as a human, to try to show something about what's going on around me," Beya said. "My experience is just a revelation from a poor man. I'm not very big, or very strong. But I can be strong with my heart. I didn't choose to be Moroccan, but it happens to be me. All these colors came from my country, from how I've been raised."
Beya joined the U.S. Army to save money for college, where he plans to study art. He will train in Oklahoma and North Carolina before being shipped out.
"I don't care about money anymore," Beya said. "What I care about is my son, my revolutionary sense and my painting. I want to stay here. My future is here. One day, I will have my own gallery in Juneau. Just watch for me."