José Reyes Meza progressed modern Mexican culture through painting, costume and set design, and by acting as a patron to a number of art institutions. Reyes Meza was born in Tampico, Mexico in 1924, and spent his adolescence with his mother in Altamira, a rural area on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Growing up in the Huesteca region, he immersed himself in native music, learning to play the guitar. He also periodically traveled with his uncles on a barge, selling supplies to the local ranchers. Reyes Meza’s childhood memories would become critical influences on his work.
In 1933, Reyes Meza went to live with his father, who introduced him to bullfighting and the theater. He began working in the dining hall of the local oil refinery at age 11, and drew sketches for the other workers in his spare time. In recognition of his promise as an artist, the staff in the payroll department organized a stipend to allow Reyes Meza to attend the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, where he enrolled from 1938 to 1948. He also supplemented his artistic studies with academia, enrolling in classes at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. In addition to all of this, Reyes Meza began his career as a bullfighter.
While a student, Reyes Meza also began working in the theatre, helping found the Teatro Estudiantil Autónoma with a group of students from Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. His career in the theater would go on to span twenty-five years. He designed sets and costumes for numerous organizations, including the Ballet de la Academia de la Danza Mexicana from 1952–1956, Teatro Clásico de México from 1952–1960, Locura Santa Theater Company from 1955–1959 and the CAN-CAN Theaters from 1958–1968. Although Reyes Meza remained active in the theater for many years, painting began to take precedence over his other activities in the 1970s.
In 1958, Reyes Meza solidified his reputation as one of Mexico’s most prominent artists with three critically acclaimed solo-exhibitions at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City. He went on to hold other major exhibitions at the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana (1961), the Instituto Internacional de Cultura de Relaciones Exteriores in San Antonio, USA (1963), ISSSTE in Mexico City (1999), Centro Internacional de Acapulco in Acapulco, Mexico (1999), ISSSTE in Tepic, Mexico (2000) and the Festival Internacional Tamaulipas in Tamaulipas, Mexico (2009). The construction of Mexican identity is a key theme throughout his body of work, which takes its shape through the lens of working class realities and social values. Reyes Mesa’s inclusion in the Mexican muralist movement has been greatly debated over the years, however, he dedicated much practice to creating murals, including pieces for Pan American National Bank in Los Angeles, USA, the Museo Nacional de Historia in Mexico City, Registro Público de la Propiedad y el Comercio in Tlalnepantla, Comisión de Fruticultura in Mexico City and Centro de Investigaciones Agropecuarios of the State of Mexico, among others.
Reyes Meza became involved with diverse creative projects in his later years. He spent some time as an illustrator, providing cartoons for the El Día newspaper (1963–1973) and creating illustrations for the books La Cocina Regional de México in 1988 and Animales del Mundo en los Proverbios in 1999. Moreover, he published his own book Signos Sagrados in 1988 that covered the aesthetics and mathematics of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Reyes Meza often lent his talents to the church as well, creating stained glass windows for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Madrid, Spain in 1965, a mural and decorative items for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mexico City in 1980, paintings for the crypts at the San Antonio de Padua Church in Mexico City in 1986 and glass windows, an altar and tapestries for La Lupita Church in Colonia Coyoacán, Mexico in 1987.
Reyes Meza died at the age of 87 in Mexico City, from complications relating to stomach cancer.