I had the classic comment from my figure drawing professor, he told me that I drew like a man. What did that mean? I wasn’t aware enough then to realize it was meant as a compliment….but what in the world does that mean?
In your mind’s eye, bring a Mona K. Monroe painting into focus. Now imagine that painting is three dimensional, and you’re entering its spinning, maze-like interior.
You’d carefully navigate Monroe’s painted and etched marks, letters and threads to reveal something previously unseen. What you discover might be a symbol, a remnant of a life, a directive from another soul or a hint about an other-world labyrinth of imperceptible connections.
A character in Richard Powers’ best selling novel, The Overstory, loses a university professorship over her controversial theory that trees can, and do, communicate with each other. Over time her theories become globally accepted botany science.
And though redwood trees are not at the forefront of Monroe’s mind as she paints, the notion that armies of unseen threads tie man and nature together, is.
Hidden connections lie at the heart of Monroe’s Fall Arts Festival exhibition “Invisible Threads,” on view at Jackson’s Center for the Arts on August 14 – September 25, 2020. An opening reception takes place Thursday, August 20th, 5-7:00 pm at the Center (in conjunction with that evening’s opening of the Art Association’s Covid Art exhibition). Masks and social distancing required.
Created in the last two years, these paintings reflect Monroe’s personal histories, memories and identity.
“I’ve been getting into things that involve alchemy and magic,” acknowledges Monroe as we sit in her garden for a talk on a recent summer afternoon. “It wasn’t necessarily something I was aware of, but many people have seen both of those in my work. Mystery has always interested me, but it’s all appearing a lot more these days. There’s so much going on in our world, yet everything is stalled. We’re present, but not present. With this exhibition, I am able to offer objects in the flesh, but with global perceptions turned so upside down, how can I know how anyone will experience these paintings? I see the idea of physical threads as exactly what’s going on in the world today.”
Monroe’s paintings and assemblages are a “visual language” working to fill physical and emotional voids. They also tell stories about loss, memory and hope. Around her home, installation assemblages sewn from bits of clothing and all manner of materials hang in the woods, telling their histories to the earth and receiving stories in return. Examining work from the past few years, Monroe sees a big change in her creative style.
It was difficult to know where I fit in here, because my work isn’t like anyone else’s.
“When I look at artists like Hilma af Klint, I see obvious connections. Especially when it comes to collecting things and my attraction to religious objects. I’m not religious, but I value the sacred and our eternal search for meaning. Assembled altars are everywhere in my home.
Originally from Oregon, Monroe has lived in Alta, Wyoming for ten years. Her practice and career came to life long before she moved to the state, and she’s wary of labeling herself a “Wyoming artist.”
“I’m an artist living and practicing in Wyoming. When I first arrived I’d left a job, had remarried after losing my first husband to a nationally covered climbing accident and was trying to find myself again. When I first arrived here I was doing a lot of mixed media types of pieces, printing, a lot of assemblages. I spent my time very locally and gradually realized Jackson was over the Pass. It was difficult to know where I fit in here because my work isn’t like anyone else’s. I gradually discovered Wyoming through attending a Wyoming Arts Council conference and met artists from all around the state doing really interesting work. I began discovering Wyoming residencies, and not only were there residencies, there were GOOD residencies—-respected opportunities.”
Monroe’s profile is now very visible in Wyoming and in Teton Valley, Idaho. Her non-traditional book, “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” was created early in the pandemic and is on display at the Laramie County Library in Cheyenne. Her painting “Careful Disorderliness” is on exhibition at the Governor’s Capital Art Exhibit in Cheyenne. She often exhibits at the Driggs City Center and at the Art Association in Jackson; alongside this show, Monroe’s artwork is included the Art Association’s “Art in the Time of Covid.”
Monroe went to college intending to be a painting major. During student critiques it was typical for students to be given a seat situated far below their professor’s–a diminishing arrangement. On top of that Monroe was told that perhaps she should consider becoming a printmaker instead of a painter. As a younger, more insecure artist, she bought that evaluation for a time.
“I had the classic comment from my figure drawing professor, he told me that I drew like a man. What did that mean? I wasn’t aware enough then to realize it was meant as a compliment….but what in the world does that mean? I realized it was a compliment, but it was also a little bit of a slight.”
What she’s confident of is that her markings are free, uninhibited and bold. Struggling with printing’s meticulous, prescribed steps turned her away from that particular pursuit. A lightbulb went on, and Monroe returned to her first love: painting.
Digging, exploring, scraping, writing—-a painting’s life is immediate, shifting this way and that at any moment. Oil paintings are mingled with cold wax, which has a Crisco-like consistency, and allows Monroe to slice through a painting’s strata. In her hands, cold wax acts and looks like melted Crayola crayons. In another artist’s hands using specific words in a painting might detract from a work’s subtlety, but Monroe uses writing that “doesn’t look like anything.”
“I build words and phrases up in layers, and in the time we’re experiencing, how can we not be affected? I’m trying to pick out something small, a thought, that has to do with whatever lies at the heart of a painting. Our words are layers sent into space. I see them as part of our spirituality.”
Pleased even to the point of deep satisfaction with her current work, a touch of artistic insecurity never completely leaves Monroe.
“In the traditional sense? I’m not sure I’m totally connected with Wyoming yet, but I’m getting there,” she muses. “When I was in Oregon my work didn’t necessarily reflect Oregon. But in Wyoming, it does. It seems important. Getting this show in Jackson is a big deal, and I’m so pleased, I’m very fortunate. Showing “Invisible Threads” at this time is good, because people have the chance to truly visit the art. There’s space.”