Last week, I met with Monique Motil. Motil is from Southern California. However, after attending San Francisco State University and living in the city for a number of years, she now considers San Francisco her home. She is an obscenely talented costumer and sculptor, and has a permanent residency at Paxton Gate in San Francisco’s Mission District. Currently, Motil is working on two ongoing projects—one in which she uses animal parts to make miniature figurative sculpture, and the other, a personal project in which she creates mandalas using found objects.
Rachel Hurd (RH): How would you describe your artwork?
Monique Motil (MM): Currently my artworks are small sculptures. They have little costumes and animal parts built on a doll’s scale—animal skulls, animal feet and claws, and things like that.
RH: I know you went to San Francisco State University to study sculpture. In what ways has your practice evolved since then?
MM: Well, I believe at SF State, I had so much room to explore; room as in space and things that were accessible to me. So I think my current artwork has a lot to do with the space I’m in because I started working in a smaller scale than I was when I was in school. So taking that small scale even smaller, … being a professional costumer [and] … taking it into my artwork … with sometimes untraditional materials, is more [the] kind of the direction I’ve gone at this point.
RH: Who are some of your artistic influences?
MM: I’ve always been really inspired by art that moves, so especially when I was in school, Sha Sha Higby was a huge influence. I worked with her for a while and learned a lot of great techniques. She’s a performance artist, and I did a lot of performance art shortly after I was out of school and liked the idea that the body was this sort of site-specific art space. We would actually build onto ourselves and incorporate performances, so she was definitely a big influence. Some of my other influences are kind of wacky—like Jim Henson was just my hero, with his puppets, and Maurice Sendak, the illustrator, or Edward Gorey, also an illustrator. I’ve always been inspired by humor in art and a lot less of the idea that “this is art because it’s in a gallery, and these are the concepts that you have to know before you can recognize and love an art piece.”
RH: What other media do you work in?
MM: Well, I could say that I work in mixed media or collage. Really, what I love is to collect small bits of things and use them to create an art piece. My pieces that aren’t the small sculptures are mostly mandalas of non-traditional materials. It’s a lot of circular patterns and repetitive numbers and small reliquary-type shaped things. That’s the stuff that I really love doing. I love doing all of it, but that’s the stuff that gets me in my happy place, getting a bunch of un-alike objects and sorting them into some sort of order, or making order out of some sort chaos.
RH: So then would you consider yourself concept or process driven?
MM: Totally process. I don’t even know what I’m doing until I have my elbows deep into it. I’m inspired by the materials, and then I just sit back and things happen. Then I’m done. I don’t really baby my work. I know I have to get it out, and then I get it out. Then I go on to the next thing.
RH: Are there other areas in your life that inform or inspire your art?
MM: Pretty much everything. I’m surrounded by materials—materials that are actually materials but also nature inspires a lot of my work—like collecting in the mixed media work or in the skulls, the animal parts, or in the rocks and twigs and teeth or whatever I find that has multiples in it. Basically, I’m always going around looking to see what captures that pattern-making part of my brain. It makes me a big hoarder of objects.
RH: How did you get started working with the animal parts?
MM: I always had the love of making costumes and wearing costumes, and I was working professionally doing larger scale costumes. When I stopped doing that, I just kept having ideas so I started making them small, and dolls really are not my thing. I find that whole world terrifying, but I had all these beautiful parts; like a skull is just this feminine, beautiful, delicate-looking thing and it inspires this look. I was so inspired by the skulls and the parts so I thought, “Wow, I could just dress them up!” which was the biggest compliment I could do to anything—to make them a costume. These sculptures started as a side project, and then they hit a chord with people. I guess they just really liked them. It inspired me to make more and from that point I got a lot of recognition—from a little pond, but people kept encouraging me to make more.
RH: Will you tell me about the projects with Christopher Moore and how that whole thing came about?
MM: That was an odd thing because my first show with my creatures, as I call them, was at Paxton Gate in the mission, and that was about 15 years ago. They’ve kept my work there steadily throughout the years, and I’ve had two more shows there that were all new works though I am constantly cycling my pieces out. So Christopher Moore’s girlfriend had gone to the show and told him, “You have to see these creatures. They’re really funny,” and when he saw them, it inspired him to make them characters in his book. So I get contacted by email where he asks to use my characters in my book, and I said okay even though I had never read anything he ever wrote. He then sent me a package with all of his work. I realized that I had read his books so I said okay, and a year later, he sent me the actual book. My little pieces were characters in the book, and it was really fun! He’s really good at acknowledging people so he acknowledged me in the back of the book and mentioned some of my performance work I was doing. I started getting fan-mail and people writing me great little emails about how they liked my pieces. It was a great boost for a while, and now he is coming out with the sequel to that book. He recently contacted me and wanted one of the characters I created to be one of the main characters in this next book.
RH: How did your family receive your wanting to pursue the arts? Have their views changed at all?
MM: My parents are both educators and both artistically inclined in their own way. They both have their artistic talents, and all of us (there were four of us) were all very much encouraged in the arts. We were given every kind of art supply we wanted. They were so good about encouraging us in that way that it wasn’t a surprise to them when I wanted to pursue art. They were really supportive. My older sister is an amazing mural painter, my brother does all sorts of graphic and computer art, and my little sister is a writer so I think that my family has a really strong art pride. My mom’s mother was an obsessive crafter and material hoarder, and my father’s father was amazingly creative in the material hoarding sort of way. So from both sides I feel like this was just going to happen. There’s no way I feel I can ever stop doing art. It’s a definite. The few times that I have not been able to do anything artistic has just been bad—I’d go into horrible depressions, and its always easy to find a way out with art.
RH: What have some of the challenges you’ve faced as an artist?
MM: I feel like sometimes I get dismissed at a “craftist,” or because I don’t always work with traditional techniques that it’s kind of lessened because it’s “crafty.” It’s creating an item instead of a conceptual piece. It’s also harder to hang on the wall so sometimes it’s difficult to show. Sometimes pieces have been stolen, and that’s always hard to deal with. Someone stealing art, especially from a small artist is just—part of me thinks ‘Wow! They wanted it that bad that they’re going to do that,’ and part of me thinks it’s just so not cool. I think finding a placed for it at Paxton Gate has been good because the pieces were taken in, and I’ve had shows at different places where the work just doesn’t sit very well. Your work needs to be with the right audience.
RH: What is one of your most proud moments as an artist?
MM: I would have to say—and I’m going back to my first show, just setting up, everybody helping me set up, and all the little plastic cups of cheap wine—just standing there in front of my art. That feeling just made me feel like ‘Wow! This is it! I’m an artist!’ And then cashing the checks (laughs). It sounds awful, but an art check is like the best thing ever because I didn’t do it to make the check, and I didn’t do it to make money. So I did this thing that I already got my gratification for, and then somebody wants to give me money. So they’re happy, and I’m happy. It doesn’t feel like work for money.
RH: What advice would give to others who are starting out as artists?
MM: Consistency. Just keep working at it and being more bold as far as taking more opportunities that turn to opportunities—not being so scared of the “art scene.” There are a lot of art communities that are inclusive,and smaller galleries that still get your work out there in a way that feels good. Just keep doing it.