One of Valdez’s finished pieces, in th foreground, laying next to a piece of brushed metal on which he’ll soon paint.

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News

Moses “Sonny” Valdez can’t fully describe what he first loved about Denver’s lowrider car culture; it was something in his DNA back in the 80s, when he had a few custom cars himself,  “just cruisin’” as part of the scene.

Moses “Sonny” Valdez.

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News

“Back then, we used to cruise down 38th,” the Denver-based artist says. “When I was a kid, I saw the older guys fixin’ up their cars. You just felt it and you felt like you belonged, and when you [got] older you wanted to build something or be a part of the scene.”

Then the scene, and his obsession with Kandy brand automotive paints, took him on an unexpected route -- to fine art.

In his 20s, Valdez started working at an automotive shop, doing custom painting. He’d always been good with his hands, painting cars felt like a natural fit, and he was good enough to get featured in the national publication Lowrider.

He ran his own shop for more than a decade before getting burnt out. When he called it quits on custom painting, Valdez got his real estate license. But the urge to paint remained. About 10 years into his real estate career, he gave in.

“Every time I’d run into my old buddies, they would remind everybody who I was, what I did… it would kind of pump up my ego,” Valdez says. “I still had all my tools and my equipment. I don’t know, something kind of got me going.”

He started painting cars again, but then ran into health problems. That was around 2011.

“I got sick one day, went to the hospital and they told me my kidneys had failed and I had to go on dialysis,” Valdez says. “That was probably one of my saddest days ever.”

In 2013, Valdez needed a new kidney and had a transplant, coped with a slew of other health problem and went through a divorce. His entire outlook on life -- and painting -- started to shift. Prior to falling ill, Valdez had already started experimenting with using automotive paints on scraps of brushed metal. But as his health improved following the transplant, he found great satisfaction in his new creative venture.

“There were no rules,” Valdez says of the contrast to doing custom painting. “I could do whatever I wanted. If nobody like it, that was fine” -- in short, he got to express his own ideas.

He says he became fascinated with how brushed metal looks under layers of automotive paints, resin and other assorted materials he may use: “I like how the metal moves… I think that’s really cool and there’s just a lot that can be done with it that I haven’t done yet.”

He also enjoys how the paints can literally shape the art. He says they do their “own thing after I let it sit overnight.”

“The thing I like about it is I can never duplicate [a work] if I wanted to,” Valdez says. “What I lay down ain’t always what remains the next morning… you get a lot of surprises.”

His artwork often reminds people of a popular Hershey’s candy.

“People say it looks like I melted a bunch of Jolly Ranchers and put them together,” he says.

The comparison feels apt when you gaze at Valdez’s metal art. The sheen of the automotive paints and the vibrancy of the colors Valdez tends to work with definitely shares some similarities with the colorful hard candies. He’s even started putting out a bowl of Jolly Ranchers at every art show he does.

Valdez, now 53, had another kidney transplant just four years after his first, replacing the same kidney. He says his art has helped him get through some of these rough patches.

“Art helps remind me who I am and what I’m capable of,” he says.