2 Alyssa Monks
“My intention is to transfer the intimacy and vulnerability of my human experience into a painted surface. I like mine to be as intimate as possible, each brush stroke like a fossil, recording every gesture and decision.”
“I strive to create a moment in a painting where the viewer can see or feel themselves, identify with the subject, even be the subject, connect with it as though it is about them, for them.”
“. . . if you reveal your own vulnerability and humility, there is great power in connecting to others. This works in relationships, and it works in art.”
Alyssa Monks is a phenomenal painter from Brooklyn, New York. Graphic Design Degree Hub named her the 16th most influential woman artist alive today (I would put her in first). Her work has been featured in many publications such as American Art Collector, American Artist, Artist's Magazine, Fine Art Connoisseur, Southwest Art, Juxtapoz, Beautiful Bizarre, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper's, Wall Street Journal, CNN, NBC, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Slate, as well as season six of the show The Americans and the 2012 film What Maisie Knew. She was an artist in residence at Fullerton College in California. Since then she has lectured worldwide, and has a wide selection of quality instructional videos for sale, streaming on Vimeo. Alyssa gave a TED Talk in 2015 at Indiana U. where she discussed her work, and how it related to the death of her mother, from cancer:
Alyssa Monks was born in New Jersey, the youngest of eight children. She began painting in oils at eight years old. Alyssa says in her TED talk:
"I grew up the youngest of eight - yes eight kids in my family. I have six older brothers and a sister. To give you a sense of what that's like, when my family went on vacation we had a bus. My supermom would drive us all over town to our various after-school activities - not in the bus. We had a regular car too. But, she would take me to art classes, and not just one or two. She took me to every available art class from when I was eight to sixteen, because that's all I wanted to do. She even took a class with me in New York City.
'Now, being the youngest of eight, I learned a few survival skills. Rule number one, don't let your big brothers see you do anything stupid. So, I learned to be quiet and neat, and careful to follow the rules and stay in line. But, painting was where I made the rules, that was my private world. By fourteen I knew I really wanted to be an artist. My big plan was to be a waitress to support my painting. So, I continued honing my skills."
Alyssa studied at the New School in New York, Montclair State U., and Boston College where she earned her BA. She spent her final year abroad at the Lorenzo De' Medici International Institute in Florence. Two years later she earned her MFA from the New York Academy of Art. Alyssa talks about her first solo show in her TED talk:
"I went to graduate school, and I got an MFA. And, at my first solo show my brother asked me, 'What do all these red dots mean next to the paintings?' Nobody was more surprised than me. The red dots meant that the paintings were sold, and that I'd be able to pay my rent - with painting. Now, my apartment had four electrical outlets, and I couldn't use a microwave and a toaster at the same time. But still, I could pay my rent, so I was very happy."
Alyssa says in her TED Talk:
"I've made a career of painting people in water. Bathtubs and showers are the perfect enclosed environment. It was intimate and private, and water was this complicated challenge that kept me busy for a decade. I made about 200 of these paintings, some of them six to eight feet. . . . I mixed flour in with the bathwater to make it cloudy and I floated cooking oil on the surface. And, stuck a girl in it, and when I lit it up, it was so beautiful I couldn't wait to paint it. I was driven by this kind of impulsive curiosity, always looking for something new to add vinyl, steam, glass. I once put all this Vaseline in my head and hair just to see what that would look like... Don't do that."
Alyssa talks about her mother's positive influence in her life, in this interview with Paulina Kamińska (Artophelia, 2015):
"My mother, her life and her passing, have been a great source of influence on my work. She lived in a very creative way, and everything she did, she brought her own creative attitude and experimental technique to. Being so close to her was a constant lesson on how to live creatively, be willing to try new things, be willing for them to not always work out and enjoy it anyway. She knew how to enjoy life and love whatever she was doing. This is very important for an artist, we have to love what we do, even when it isn’t delivering the satisfaction we’d hoped. We have to keep finding ways to get inspired, excited, curious, challenged. Artists who do this always inspire me."
"It’s never about the artist, but a specific piece or even moment in a piece that shows daring unpredictability that makes me excited. I love art that I can’t quite walk by easily, not sure if I like it or not immediately, and am drawn to look as closely as possible to try and decode the material, the energy behind it, the process, the choices. This can happen in music and film as well as painting and photography. It can happen in cooking, dancing, conversation and most things that allow space for new thoughts."
Alyssa talks about what it was like to try and paint after the death of her mother (TED, 2015):
"After the funeral, it was time for me to go back to my studio. So, I packed up my car and I drove back to Brooklyn. And, painting's what I've always done, so that's what I did. And here's what happened. It was like a release of everything that was unraveling in me - that safe, very, very carefully rendered safe place that I had created in all my other paintings was a myth. It didn't work. And I was afraid because I didn't want to paint anymore."
"So I went into the woods. I thought, I'll try that, going outside. I got my paints, and I wasn't a landscape painter, but I wasn't really much of any kind of painter at all. So, I had no attachment, no expectation, which allowed me to be reckless and free. And, I actually left one of these wet paintings outside overnight next to a light in the woods. By the morning it was lacquered with bugs, but I didn't care. It didn't matter. I took all these paintings back to my studio, and scraped them, and carved into them, poured paint thinner on 'em, put more paint on top, drew on 'em. I had no plan, but I was watching what was happening. . . . I wasn't trying to represent a real space, it was the chaos and imperfections that were fascinating me, and something started to happen. I started to get curious again."
'Blue' (the one with the bugs)
"There was a caveat now, though. I couldn't be controlling the paint like I used to. It had to be about implying and suggesting, not explaining or describing. And that imperfect, chaotic, turbulent surface is what told the story. I started to be as curious as I was when I was a student. So, the next thing was I wanted to put figures in these paintings - people. And, I loved this new environment, so I wanted to have both, people and this atmosphere. When the idea hit me of how to do this, I got kind of nauseous and dizzy, which is really just adrenaline, probably, but for me it's a really good sign. . . . Expansive space, instead of the isolated bathtub, going outside instead of inside, loosening control, savoring the imperfections, allowing the imperfections. And, in that imperfection you can find a vulnerability. I could feel my deepest intention, what matters most to me, that human connection, that can happen in a space where there's no resisting or controlling. I want to make paintings about that."
"So, here's what I learned. We're all going to have big losses in our lives, maybe a job or a career. Relationships, love, our youth, we're gonna lose our health, people we love. These kinds of losses are out of our control, they're unpredictable, and they bring us to our knees. And so, I say let them. Fall to your knees, be humbled. Let go of trying to change it, or even wanting it to be different. It just is. And then there's space, and in that space feel your vulnerability, what matters most to you, your deepest intention. And be curious to connect to what and who is really here, awake, and alive. It's what we all want. Let's take the opportunity to find something beautiful in the unknown, the unpredictable, and even in the awful."
Alyssa gives a comprehensive definition of art (Kamińska, 2015):
"Art is a means of communication that goes beyond words, time, social context, beliefs, language. It speaks directly to our human experience, in a way that can be very powerful as a means of understanding ourselves, each other, connecting to one another, and learning from the past. It is a primal need. Children create things instinctively. As adults often times our greatest enjoyments are in being whimsically creative, lost in the process and exploring and seeing something new and different, peaking our curiosity."
"We connect to that which we are painting and to our deeper sense of being. We can go beyond our egoic ideas and beliefs about who we are, or what should be, and into a meditative state of just being, accepting what is, and making space to welcome in whatever is here. This is true connection. In this space it is very possible for us to reach empathy for another person, or our subject, or the whole or humanity. I think this may be why a painting from 500 years ago painted by someone you couldn’t ever know or speak to can still break your heart."
Alyssa also tells Kamińska about her process, and why she loves oil paint:
"It’s so uncontrollable and unpredictable. There seems to be endless ways to use it even after 30 years experience. It’s permanent, smells wonderful, is sensual and gorgeous. There is just so much possibility with this medium, richness, versatility, complexity. Thick, thin, transparent, impasto, warm, cool, scraping, pulling, stretching, layering…"
"I try to use as many different techniques in one painting as I know. This kind of approach can create a feeling of turmoil or stress or weathering or delicate fragility in the paint. I love it. I try not to be predictable or formulaic, i think this adds a human touch to the work. The result is a history of decisions and choices made by the human being, not an algorithm or machine. I try to embrace this and push this as far as possible."
Alyssa has this to say about talent (Kamińska, 2015):
"I suggest you work as hard as you can. I didn’t emerge from the womb with the skill I have today, I was terrible at painting. But I loved it. I think it’s about Love and attention and curiosity and a certain kind of humility and respect for the medium. But you have to love it a lot, and pay a lot of attention."
"And, [don't] put expectation on it so heavily that you can get discouraged, disappointed, or feel entitled or even victimised by the medium or the art world. Learning how to love what you do is really the task at hand. Find ways to keep is exciting, inspiring, motivating. I think that is where gratitude comes in. Find your gratitude and it leads to humility, curiosity, then practice, attention, hard work, and ultimately creativity. The real success to me is in the studio. somewhere about half-way through to the near end of the painting process. i’m alone and every once in awhile, I see something no one has ever seen before. This is my favourite moment. This is what keeps me painting."
'Lansing Commission II'
'Morning After II'
NOTE: some quotes and notes taken from Jenny Zhang's article for My Modern MET, 2015.