Behind the Scenes with Coco Montoya

Introducing Coco Montoya – isn’t she lovely?

Have you ever wondered how the art gets made? Let’s lift up the hood for a second as I introduce you to Coco Montoya. Yes, that’s Coco there.

We met through OfferUp, after my old tabouret/storage system ended up leaning like the Tower of Pisa. I knew that perching my palette on a hastily arranged mash-up of chairs and file cabinets (like I was doing) was eventually going to lead to some kind of studio disaster. I decided to get a rolling cart to use as a palette and storage, but you know… champagne taste and Miller Lite budget. I turned to OfferUp, and realized I needed to be patient for this one.

Usually a great way to get very good stuff, I met more than the usual number of cranks and/or missed opportunities during this search: a guy who tried to start a bidding war by doubling the price on me, a very nice but flaky former mechanic who wouldn’t provide measurements for her utility cart (I really wanted to buy from her because I was charmed by her profile pic which showed her smooching her girlfriend in front of DIY garage projects), at least ten people who never replied…(I had big plans for the retro bar cart that featured folding panels to double the surface area, would’ve looked so good in the studio *and* converted into a martini bar for openings…but it was not to be).

Even Coco and I were star-crossed at first. The offer was made and accepted, but the overeager seller forced an immediate meeting by loading up his truck and getting on the road, when I was 40 miles away at the time. I almost backed out because I didn’t want the pressure, and I prefer inspecting these items in daylight.

But everything looked good, and he made the delivery for $5.00 (unbeatable!). We had a nice chat about my late father-in-law, who would have enjoyed that Coco used to help paint cars. He expressed condolences, which I genuinely appreciated. He also thought I was crazy when I said I was on foot. I paid him and proceeded to push Coco up the hill to my house, whistling in the dark.

She had to live in my entryway for about a week, until I could make arrangements to get her to the studio. I sucked in my stomach and inched past her every time I went up or down the stairs, or in and out the front door. She was a shoe/mail/purse holder during that time, because there was no room to reach around her.

When I brought her to Seattle, we had to tackle a short flight of stairs. I wasn’t worried (but maybe I should have been). Coco isn’t heavy, just a little long and awkward, but I decided to take the shelves off to make it a little easier on myself. One step at a time, and just two steps from the top, Coco turned on me. I don’t even know what happened but she was falling and I was falling, and she was on top of me and we both fell down the whole flight of stairs. She fell on her side while I landed on my feet, unbelievably.

I pushed past the bruises and adrenaline and finally got her in the studio, to find that she was now leaning noticeably to one side. I couldn’t fit the shelves back in because she was out of square. Poor Coco! Down, but not out. Fast forward to acquiring a rubber mallet named Marge, and slamming Coco back into shape (that hurt me more than it hurt you, Coco). In minutes (or two weeks, but who’s counting) she was ready to go. She’s only been part of my studio practice for one evening, but we’ve got a long history.

She might seem high-maintenance, but she paid me back that very first night when I finished TWO paintings that I really like. This is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

The Alphabet Ends at Y…

Sue Grafton

While in Venice with jet lag, awake all night, I learned that Sue Grafton had died. This hit me rather hard. She was an author whom I almost felt like I knew, in the way that you sometimes feel you “know” a celebrity you’ve never met. I introduced myself to her books one day as a fourteen-year-old when I stopped by the library to get a book to read on my lunch hour during a summer job. It was A is for Alibi, recently published. I’ve always been a mystery fan; this one was about a young, female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone who is sassy, street-smart, intelligent, and independent to the point of being almost neurotic. A next-generation Nancy Drew and Miss Marple, living in a parallel universe to Jessica Fletcher, and a soul mother to Veronica Mars, who wasn’t even an apple in anyone’s eye yet. Like me, I’m sure lots of women and girls saw something of themselves in her – as did Ms. Grafton, who admitted that Kinsey was her alter ego. I read somewhere that Ms. Grafton’s inspiration was her divorce – unable to sleep, dreaming up ways to get away with murdering her awful husband after something else he’d done.

I loved all of this, and went back for more. At that time, the alphabet only went to C, so I had to wait a year for each further installment. As the alphabet played out, Kinsey continued to be a feminist role model and pioneer for this new type of female detective. Meanwhile, the books expanded their scope a bit to discuss social issues; in one, Ms. Grafton tries to plausibly recreate and solve a real-life cold case from Santa Barbara, California (the real-life setting for the fictional Santa Teresa). That book’s appendix lays out the facts of the real case, and a plea for information that could bring Jane Doe home to her family, and her killer to justice.

The books became a traditional, yearly Christmas present, a constant way to mark time over the years. Right up through grad school, I was reading the then-current novel (R is for Ricochet) in a hospital waiting room.

Around this time, due to work and school, I fell off from reading the new book as soon as it came out and then pining for a year or more while waiting for the next (the precursor to binge watching Netflix!). Just a month or two ago, I read that Ms. Grafton had published Y, the planned second-to-last book. I made mental plans to catch up with the last 5 or 6 books that I’d missed, and to reread the entire series in the lead-up to the publication of Z.

Then I heard about her death, and I’m sadder than I can say.

After this summer’s publication of Y, she hadn’t yet fleshed out, let alone written, Z. Her daughter said that, given her mom’s (well-known) hatred of adaptations, there would be no ghostwriter or posthumous additions to the series. There is no Z. As the family statement read: “As far as we’re concerned, the alphabet ends at Y”.

I once read that Ms. Grafton called this series of books “my life’s work”, and that struck something in me. As a fellow artist, I feel an ache for an unfinished body of work that was so, so close to being complete. I wonder how Ms. Grafton made peace with it.

Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.

Ginevra

Tess Martin, Ginevra

This fantastic, animated cut-paper film at Bellevue Arts Museum has very neatly intersected two trains of thought that have occupied my mind recently.

One is the issue of domestic and other violence against women. #MeToo; Harvey Weinstein and all the others who were unmasked after him, not to mention before him.

The other is, very simply: what happens after death? I’ve been thinking about the energy and physics of life quite a bit recently. As an off-and-on atheist/agnostic, I have been fairly certain (and then again, not certain at all) that nothing happens after you die. I’ve begun to change my mind recently, to consider other, energetic, possibilities. Where does the energy go? What does physics say about energy? And then with the recent death of my father-in-law, this question has recently shifted from a philosophical to a personal one.

This film by Tess Martin is based on an unfinished Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (which was based on a legend of an Italian woman of the Middle Ages, who allegedly woke up a day after she died).

I had to arrive at the end before I truly appreciated the film. At first, I was overly critical of the animation, thinking it too primitive (South Park viewers would see similarities in production values), but by the end, I came to believe that the simplicity actually enhanced the magic and feeling of the story. (Later, when I saw the set, which was approximately 18 inches square, I found myself amazed by how expansive the film actually felt. Beyond impressive).

Tess Martin, Ginevra

The action unfolds slowly, detail by quiet detail. We see a woman murdered in her bedroom, presumably by her husband, and then watch her mother pacing the quiet house with grief. These scenes aren’t played for drama, but with maximum feeling. The mother mourns with the body, which lays in state on a canopy bed, near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a balcony, and then, the countryside. The mother is surprised to see the body rise, cross the room, climb the balcony railing, and surprisingly, sprout feathers with which to fly away. Which she does, with a sense of utmost grace and freedom. The last we see of Ginevra, she has joined a community of owls and other large birds who slowly circle the countryside, alternately flapping their wings and resting in the draft.

A beautiful ode to mystery, and freedom.

Cullercoats Women

Winslow Homer, Looking out to Sea, Cullercoats, 1882

My dad, who is fond of writing notes and memos, has recently sent two cards in a row from Winslow Homer’s Cullercoats series. We’re both fans of Homer, so maybe there’s nothing more to it. The theme is officially working women (fisherwomen and washerwomen of this British seaside town). But coupled with a recent public speech where he chose to highlight his relationship as Mia’s father-in-law – a proud father-in-law to a lesbian who is married to his daughter – instead of simply introducing himself as my father and leaving it at that, I think these scenes of women together mean a little more to both of us. This one is my favorite, with a dark- and light-haired woman (Mia and me?) in a close, intimate moment on top of the bluff, lost in contemplation, united in their mutual interest of what is happening below.

More Moby Dick

Moby Dick by Kiss My Shades

On this day in 1851, Moby Dick was published. I admit to having a fascination/obsession with this book.

I lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Herman Melville once also lived. (He also lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I was born). The parts of the novel that took place on land are set in New Bedford. Just like in the book, there really is a chapel, called the Seaman’s Bethel, with memorials on the wall to the sailors and fishermen lost at sea.

New Bedford hosts a Moby Dick Marathon every January, where the novel is read out loud in 25 hours, on-site at the Whaling Museum and Seaman’s Bethel. I attended three of them, stayed for the duration, and read a couple of chapters out loud. If you stay (a small crew, to be sure), you get your name in the paper, and a free book related to Moby Dick (one year the prize was actually an academic work about the marathon itself).

The holding power of this book astonishes me. The interest from people all over the country who travel for the marathon, the locals who stay up all night once a year to hear it read out loud, the artists who still make fresh artwork based on this story…

There’s another book I love, called On Beauty and Being Just that talks about this phenomenon of loving something beautiful, like a work of art, and replicating it with another work of art to put more beauty into the world.

The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

The Flying Dutchman, Man Ray

I think this one is my favorite of all from my latest trip to the Met.

What is it about sheets in the wind? I remember playing underneath the clothesline, or among the rows, as a kid – nothing better. And laying on the bed while my mom made it up on top of me…I asked her to lift up the top sheet again and again because I loved the sensation of the air billowing around me, and the breathtaking beauty of the sheet turning into a dome above me…suddenly I was in a huge space, which got increasingly cozy as the sheet settled delicately around me.

I have (used to have, until my computer was stolen) a gorgeous photo of sheets on a line, very similar to this painting, that I took in Erice, Sicily years ago. And I think I remember a Caillebotte painting of sheets on a line as well.

Why do we love sheets in the wind? Is it because they make the air visible? I enjoy watching the wind playing with flags, leaves, falling rain, people’s hair…but nothing comes close to sheets.

Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin-Frock

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

I love going into what I call “real places” and seeing “real art”. For example, there’s an editioned print (not a poster) in the bathroom at the mall, or a quality painting hanging permanently at a bar.

I was in the Philadelphia International Airport recently, and even though rotating art exhibitions are becoming more popular at airports, I was still struck by an exhibition called Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin Frock. Regrettably, I could spend just a few minutes perusing the work before I had to be on my way, but it was technically extremely well made (I’m becoming more and more insistent on that point), beautiful in every sense of the word, and conceptually fascinating.

Small round ceramic vessels transition into one another via a tumbling conglomeration of ceramic matchstick-like bridge structures. Others stand on their own while simultaneously sprouting and supporting an entire civilization of these matchsticks from their tops. Others tilt and bow to matchsticks sprouting from their sides and by their feet. They’re a combination of the lovely – imperfectly handmade, with fingermarks to prove it – and geometrically precise additions, which grow lives of their own as they multiply. The tension between two extremes is fascinating: organic and geometric, stable and unsteady, individual and proliferating multiples, vertical and horizontal.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

The source of inspiration is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, called “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”). I haven’t read this story, but have read Borges off and on; the last time I made a conscious effort was in grad school, and I feel it might be time again.

A synopsis of the story: a Chinese professor, Dr. Yu Tsun, living in Great Britain during World War I, is spying for the Germans and is about to be caught. He desperately needs to communicate an important bit of information – the location of a new armory – before his imminent capture. With British intelligence hot on his heels, he visits another professor, while pondering the thwarted creative life of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pên. Pên had been a respected government official but gave up this post in pursuit of two goals: to write an epic novel, and to create an epic labyrinth, “one in which all men would lose their way”. After his death, anyone who attempted to read what he wrote found it to be nonsense that circled back on itself, and no one ever found any labyrinth. So much for that. Tsun meets Dr. Stephen Albert, who has studied Pên’s seemingly meager output. Albert excitedly reveals that Pên was a genius, not a slacker after all; his life’s work was creating a novel that was a labyrinth in and of itself. The reason it read as nonsensical was because each step in the novel, each character’s decision, simultaneously led to every possible outcome of that step or decision. It was not a linear path, A to B to C, but an ever-expanding network of forking paths, each yielding a multitude of rich possibilities, which circled around each other and sometimes crisscrossed back to an earlier point. Albert illustrates his example by saying that in their current scenario, two possible circumstances are that Tsun visits his home as an enemy, yet from a different series of alternate decisions, also visits as a friend. All possibilities are simultaneously present. Tsun, extremely gratified to learn of his ancestor’s victory, sees his pursuer out the window, takes out a gun, claims he comes as a friend, and deliberately shoots Dr. Albert. He is subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But he also wins, because the Germans bomb the armory during his trial. He has successfully communicated the location of the armory to them – in a town called Albert – by murdering someone named Albert so that the Germans would read about the crime in the news and act on his planted clue.

Yeah, let that sink in.

So these invisible yet proliferating cities, with their contradictory yet completely harmonious natures take on a life of their own. What a beautiful homage to this story. And what a mindblower.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

Dore Ashton, In Memoriam

Dore Ashton, from Queens Economic Development Corp. website
Dore Ashton, from Queens Economic Development Corp. website

I always loved reading Dore Ashton’s writing. It’s clear, but elegant and beautiful. Her friendships with artists put her in the unique position of being able to reveal anecdotes that cast their work in a new, more personal light. In her hands, they were significant yet little-known accounts that further enlightened the artists’ work; they were never gossip, nor did they ever inflate her own role. Not many writers can pull that off.

It’s because of her writing that I am charmed by the thought of Joseph Cornell, the shyest of shy people, holding a small afternoon gathering at his house in Queens, at which he was uncharacteristically charming and voluble. At the end of the party, he gleefully whispered to Ashton about Octavio Paz, who was in attendance with his wife: “Was he really an ambassador?”

That childlike wonderment has informed my sense of his collage boxes ever since. What a new and delightful way of looking at them.

Another personal favorite is Ashton’s account of a visit to Mark Rothko’s studio in the late 1950s, when Rothko deliberately kept the lights off. Ashton compared the silence and dark to that of a cathedral, and as her eyes searched in the dark, she felt, more than saw, the presence of his paintings. At one point, a white cat walked into the middle of the room; the visual contrast was enough to startle her. For me, this story reinforces the two most important things about Rothko’s work: the theatricality of it all, and also the weightiness of his search for morality and truth in his paintings.

Thank you for some of the most graceful and captivating writing about art.

Pride Project #4 – Il Sodoma

Il Sodoma, Acrylic on board, 4" x 5"
Il Sodoma, Acrylic on board, 4″ x 5″

Il Sodoma was an Italian Renaissance painter who lived around 1500, and worked with Raphael and Pope Julius. He worked on both the Sistine Chapel and the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican (more commonly known as the Raphael Room). Unfortunately, he was fired from both of those projects, as were many other popular and talented painters of the day, because you know, it was Michelangelo and Raphael. Who can blame Pope Julius for zeroing in on those two?

Il Sodoma worked on many other projects too. At Monte Oliveto, the monks at the abbey where he painted frescoes called him “Il Mattaccio” (the maniac) because he kept a zoo of small animals (my favorite: badgers – who are included in the fresco with their red collars). His clothing leaned toward the flamboyant. He got his name (the Sodomite) from leering speculations about possible relationships with younger men and boys. Sodomy was in fact punishable by death in Rome at that time. Da Vinci and others were charged, but Il Sodoma never was.

Haters, look out, because he took that name away from you and started signing his paintings that way.

With This Printing Press, I Thee Wed

Elspeth Pope's "wedding ring"
Elspeth Pope’s “wedding ring”

To say Dr. Elspeth Pope was a lover of letterpress would be an understatement. She was a book artist, a maker of printed cards, and a printer of broadsides, and used letterpress freely in all of these media. She named all of her dogs and cats after typefaces. When her future husband proposed to her, he gave her the option of an engagement ring, or a printing press. Ever the enthusiastic printmaker, Elspeth chose the press.

After meeting Dr. Melissa Hardie, who had founded an artistic residency in Great Britain, Elspeth created an American chapter. Elspeth’s Hypatia-in-the-Woods, located in Shelton, WA was a residency for women in the arts, that recognized women’s need to separate their artistic selves from the special and intense demands of their home lives, and gave them a space to focus on their work.

I think of her as the Florence Griswold of the West. Like Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, CT, Elspeth’s residency attracted some famous names. One is Nikki McClure, who generously donated a lithographic plate from her residency to use in a recent event sponsored by Artist Trust. I was lucky enough to pull a print from Nikki’s plate on Elspeth’s “wedding ring” press.

Pulling prints is always exciting -that surprise of never quite knowing what you’re going to get – but it was extra exciting to be a part of this community, to feel on a tangible level the sensation of women, makers, and doers paying it forward for others. Even just for one night.

If Renoir Can Do It…

I watch this video of Renoir, painting with his curled-up arthritic hands. Then I think how dedicated he must have been to go at it, near the end of his life, with those painful claws. Then I wonder why I have a hard time getting in the studio, when I’m as healthy as they come.

Road Trip: Van Gogh’s Arles, Part 2

Garden of Hospital of Arles, 1888, Van Gogh; Photograph of Espace Van Gogh (formerly the hospital), 2015
Garden of Hospital of Arles, 1888, Van Gogh; Photograph of Espace Van Gogh (formerly the hospital), 2015

Arles has managed to keep the look and feel captured by Vincent van Gogh in 1888. Here is the hospital where he stayed after he cut off his ear. It’s been converted into an art center called Espace Van Gogh, with small souvenir shops (mostly related to art) on the ground level. The garden is maintained with plants like the ones that were there in Vincent’s day. For me, it was a very somber place, knowing that this was really the beginning of the end for Vincent

Road Trip: Van Gogh’s Arles

Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night; Van Gogh Cafe in Arles, 2015
Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night; Van Gogh Cafe in Arles, 2015

One of the most stunning places I’ve been to is Arles, in the south of France, specifically retracing some of Van Gogh’s steps. This is where Vincent van Gogh spent about a year – probably the most eventful year of his life. Arles is where he created many of his masterpieces (the painting of his bedroom, Cafe Terrace at Night, Night Cafe, his yellow sunflowers, and many more). It’s also where he was – briefly – roommates with Paul Gauguin, and where he cut off his ear. It was an artistic high point, and also the beginning of the end.

In Arles, the cafe where Vincent spent many evenings and immortalized in oil paint still stands. The yellow awning is still there, even the green of the neighboring shop down the way, and the blue-gray door jamb of the neighbor on the other side. It’s amazing to be able to see this little piece of history, practically unchanged after over 130 years, and to even walk into the painting, so to speak.

This left a huge impression on me, and made my eyes a little misty. When I came home, I put a reproduction of the Cafe Terrace at Night on my studio wall, to remind me about being hard-working, and sensitive, and how great things can happen from everyday moments.

365 Days of Art: December 31 – Brunelleschi Wins Competition to Top Duomo with Lantern

August 19-Duomo

December 31, 1436

Wardens for the Santa Maria Fiore cathedral meet in Florence to award the winner of a competition to top the Duomo with a lantern. There are five entries, and Brunelleschi wins. This is a like an Oscar-winner having to audition for a bit part, though: Brunelleschi has already built the duomo, inventing machinery to make it happen, engineering something many people think isn’t possible…and they didn’t trust him enough to put the cherry on top? That stings.