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.

Home Sweet Home

Domicilio, at home

It’s always exciting to see where your creations end up! I just received this photo from a new collector. He told me that the painting greets him and his wife whenever they come home; it’s the first thing they see when they come through the door. For a painting called Domicilio (“home” in Italian), that’s beautiful to me.

Arrival!

My painting!

My painting arrived safely, and one day early! Washington state to Brooklyn!

I didn’t realize how much I was on pins and needles until now.

My understanding is that the drill is charging, and the painting will be hung tomorrow….more anticipation!

Real Art in Real Places: The Bye & Bye, Portland

Real art from The Bye & Bye – bathroom mural!

I absolutely love discovering REAL ART out and about in the world…not poster prints, and not “featured artist” stuff at local bars and coffeehouses, but real art made by a real artist. Something that has been purchased, framed, and is clearly loved.

The Bye & Bye in Portland, OR was exciting because they have real art all over the walls! Every room has several pieces that are framed and/or featured in a special nook that complements the piece, including a large showpiece that defines the entire bar area. All of it is well done, and well, cool.

Real art from The Bye & Bye – permanent and framed!
Real art from The Bye & Bye – permanent and framed!

Painting Goats?!

But what does that mean?!

Driving along the Long Beach Peninsula in our beautiful state of Washington, I saw the above roadside sign, and had to pull an immediate U-turn. “Painting Goats” raises more questions than it answers.

Yes, there really are goats who paint with real art materials on this art studio/working farm. We took a tour with one of the owners. While I would have loved to have seen a painting goat in action, we did see various artworks, and learned about individual painting habits…apparently, some goats are more invested in painting than others. They generally like to imitate their humans, which is how this talent came to light in the first place, but some persist in painting, while some are very quickly ready to move on. We met some of the goats too.

We bought a small painting for a Christmas tree ornament.

Another first-time experience: we dug up our own potatoes, onions and carrots!

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.

Power of Art

Roadblock, 24 x 24, Acrylic and mixed media on panel

I’ve been thinking about the power of art recently. As in, the real power and energy it contains.

This piece, for example, I made with my father-in-law in mind while I was working through some ideas on marriage. The stylized diagram of an engine part or process (it was Greek to me, but he would know) came through my hands as if I knew it inside and out. The road reflector and red plastic – both broken – that I found on the side of the road. Even the last bit of blue lace from the roll, too small to really do anything with. All these things, destined for the garbage, but I saw something else for them. The self-proclaimed “junkyard dog” would understand that.

After I sent Frank a photo of the painting, he asked me about each component, how I made it, how big it was, and so on. He kept repeating variations on his astonishment and pleasure: “No one ever did anything like that for me before”.

I’m fairly certain he never had any use for abstract (or any) art, and never had the desire to think about communicating visually. But he was genuinely moved by this painting, and the act of my making it.

Frank and I both worked with our hands. Sometimes what I do doesn’t appear to be very important; I’ve never fixed anyone’s car to get them to work, for example, built a house for my family, or even converted an old cooler into a shelter for rescue cats – that’s all Frank. But when I get a reaction like his, I realize the power I do have in my own hands.

I can make people slow down, and I can make them feel. In this day and age, that’s plenty.

For you, Frank.

Debut – Isolier as Knight

Isolier as Knight, Acrylic on wood, 8″ x 10″

This painting is inspired by the character Isolier in the opera Count Ory by Rossini (the recent production by Seattle Opera was called The Wicked Adventures of County Ory).

Isolier is what is known as a “trouser role”, meaning that the conventions of opera dictate that the audience is supposed to assume that the character is a young man, when it is in fact played by a woman. [Back in the day, the roles were played by castrati – yes, young men who were castrated before puberty to retain their higher vocal range. That practice thankfully became illegal, and the roles then went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos (not too high in the vocal range)].

In 1828, when Rossini wrote this opera, Isolier would have been understood, absolutely, as a young male. But, to our 21st century understanding, the role can perhaps best be described as “gender fluid”.

Recent productions have used costumes to suggest a rabble-rousing – and dare we say *butch* – side to the character, dressing Isolier in clothing inspired by 1970s rock androgyny (think Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones), as well as punk, and female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. The costumes use tight-hugging leather and popped collars, mixed with tall boots and well-placed spikes. Isolier sports an enormous codpiece, yet the tight costumes show off female curves. Isolier’s hair is long, tending toward the layered and shaggy. In short, there is something bad-ass and butch about Isolier that is worn right there on the sleeve.

Isolier is in love with a woman, Countess Adele, and in fact ends up in bed with her. Shortly after, Isolier ends up in the same bed with both Adele and Isolier’s own boss, Count Ory. (This scene is played for comedy, and in the opera, no one cares one way or another).

This work was also inspired by my recent trip to the Met…and someone asked me if my currently bald head had anything to do with this depiction…am I Isolier???

I don’t know where this work is going…all I can say right now is that this character intrigues me.

Debut – Offering

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x 12”

This painting is perhaps best seen in person, because of its sculptural quality, and because I’ll encourage you to touch this one!

It’s made entirely of found objects, one being the “shelf” which I found on a walk near my house, and the others being pieces of tile flooring, which I found during a swim in Messina, Sicily. They are worn down, like sea glass, and in fact have been in the water since 1908, when an earthquake felled all of the buildings at Messina’s shore. I found a whole bag of this tiles, and didn’t even need to search for them; they’re just there at your feet. Whole hotels’ and buildings’ worth of these artifacts, tumbled into the sea.

That sounds poetic and awful enough for my romantic imagination. But I was thinking about marriage and the sacrifices we all make to keep relationships going. This one starts with a small, yet beautiful, offering. Somehow, that’s not seen or appreciated, or enough. And when that’s the case, there’s another, bigger item that will be offered up next. And then another, that’s more intricate, more beautiful, and bigger, so much so that it’s crowding the edge of the shelf it’s displayed on.

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x12”

For those who know that my wife is living in Italy for a year, this piece might seem like a direct and angry reflection of that “sacrifice”. In fact, this was created earlier, maybe even before we began talking about that particular adventure. For sure, there is some hopelessness and frustration that inspired this piece, but it came from a different time and place. I’m actually enjoying many aspects of being alone this year (and despairing at others, naturally) so please don’t worry about me.

Debut at Art Attack

Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom, Acrylic on wood, 9″ x 12″

This painting made its debut at the last Georgetown Art Attack. Inspired by a story on the tiled floor of the cathedral in Siena which shows Fortuna trying to balance between a shipwreck and a round globe. Yikes.

Met Faves That Wouldn’t Let Go

Gertrude Stein, by Pablo Picasso, 1905 – 1906

The standouts for me, the ones I just stood in front of, and stood, and stood. Where crowds come, and you wait it out, and then you can be alone, just you and the painting. Then the crowd again, because everyone feels something special in front of these works; they’re famous for a reason.

Is Gertrude Stein my favorite portrait of a woman, done by a man? Maybe. Picasso really understands her. She looks cultured, and wise, and capable of taking on anything (managing artist salons, the War, living as a lesbian). Those hands are simple yet beautiful. The slight Cubism of the eyes also feels just right.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1660-1662

I stood in front of this painting for a very long time. I felt like this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. (And of course, the photo doesn’t do it justice). I was in a room with four other Vermeers…in a world where only 34 are known to exist, this felt like heaven. What a privilege.

Met Faves – Paintings

Max Beckmann, The Old Actress, 1926

OK, now it’s time to get to the meat of it…you know I gravitate toward the paintings.

My goal: maximize my time at the Met, my old stomping grounds, just down the street from my apartment, see as much as I could, revisit some old favorites, but also discover something new.

As an abstract painter, it was surprising to me how affected I was by figurative work. My favorites were all figure paintings. My advisor in grad school always said that figurative painters should be looking at abstract work, and abstract painters should be looking at figurative work!

Max Beckmann’s Old Actress…
That nose. And the light coming from above, highlighting her eyelids. Was acting her profession, or did she act her way through her life? For such a caricature, Beckmann has captured something deeply sad.

Walt Kuhn, Clown with a Black Wig, 1930

This made me think of masks that queer folks often wear…by choice, or by necessity.

Chaim Soutine, Portrait of Madeleine Castaing, c. 1929

Loving her twisted-up, yet ultimately straight, posture. And her face, pursed lips. Very wry. This portrait feels juicy, colorful, and fully-formed, more so than many Soutines. I love it.

Attributed to Hans Memling, Woman with a Pink, 1494

High visual drama here, just as caricatured as Beckmann’s actress, yet in its very quiet way. Also, I’ve always loved the nomenclature of the “pink”.

Barthel Beham, Chancellor Leonhard von Eck, 1527

That red cap grabs you from 50 paces.