Beauty Amid the Ruins: The Art of Monica Canilao
The mixed media artist talks art practice as adventure, Detroit, and spying a beauty in the broken.
Lead photo courtesy of the artist
Monica Canilao and Detroit are kindred spirits. The city is a manifestation-as-metropolis of the same spirit inherent in the artist’s work: transforming the abandoned into the beautiful. Across a myriad of medium, whether printing, painting or stitching, Canilao spies a vitality and a-what-could-be in the haunted spaces and refuse of what once was. Her explorer’s heart and creative approach are less an art practice and more a devoted manner of living. She is perpetually making and purposefully—joyfully—lost upon her way.
Over the last several years, as Detroit fights to emerge from decades of blight, Canilao has found synergy amongst its built-from-the-ground-up creative community. Currently, she is of the more than 40 different artists—both home-grown and international—that are participating in Murals in the Market, Detroit’s maiden all-mural festival in its historic Eastern Market. We caught up with the Oakland native between her nightly painting sessions to discuss specifics. Canilao talked the alchemy of history and decay, materials as memento and playing hard, true, and free.
Photo courtesy of 1xRun and Murals in the Market, shot by Sal Rodriguez
Mass Appeal: Is Detroit absolutely a second creative home for you?
Monica Canilao: Ever since I started coming to Detroit, almost six years ago now, it has continued to touch me in a way unlike any other city. As an artist who uses primarily found and recycled materials, from the beginning, Detroit really felt like a place that I was meant to end up. The amount of exploring and discovering I have done in this one place has brought me back to my days of drifting around the country and traveling with the intent of discovering new people and places—being excited about the worlds I’d get to experience by merely having no set direction. It’s provided a platform which has nourished the possibilities of my practice and bonded me within a community of makers with large dreams and the raw base to pull from.
You don’t come to Detroit looking to live easy. Everyone here is building their dreams from scratch, with their own blood sweat and tears. You can do a lot here but you need to put in a lot. I appreciate the way people that do cool things here are building the roof above their heads while they sleep under it.
The city is dying and being reborn all in the same breath. The same can be said of your work in which there is a fusion of history and past lives with the present tense.
The city has always fed my work and imagination because there feels to be no limit of what is possible here. Rise and collapse and transformation and impermanence are depicted so vividly here. The ruins that are so prevalent here, that burn down each night, that are bulldozed and rot more with each winter are a resource that I salvage from and do my best to transform back into useful things. I am drawn to the history of places, the rise and the fall and decay…the in-between time of when a thing is made, what life it had and when it returns back to dust. Once people live in a place, their imprint stays behind, and this city has left an imprint on me.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
Everything I make has a story because of the materials I choose to use have seen age and have a history. The media I use is collected on my journeys and act as mementos of the places I have been and how those places have shaped me into who I am now. I know where every little bit has come from and every little piece has some meaning or at least a feeling that gets trapped and is carried along with it. I also have a ridiculous amount of outlandish stories I recount that create a narrative for what I make and why.
Have you always spied beauty in the broken? You’ve always had a big heart for the strays and those counted out?
I have always been an odd one out, and so I am attracted to my kind. I have always been an explorer with a hunger for ruined things and places where I might find treasure where others see waste. Since I was a kid, I have always had a habit of picking up, catching, and saving wounded animals. And for a time, when I had a house and did not travel quite so often, I kept a pretty ragtag collection of wayward animals that I’d found abandoned or hurt or needed homes. The same went—and will always be—with friends who are traveling through or lost on purpose, in and out of town. All the houses I’ve had have tended to stay pretty stocked with visitors. I get a lot of joy from taking care of people.
I actually don’t paint murals too often, but having a chance to work with the lovely folks from 1xRun and Inner State again sounded great and I decided to keep the ball rolling. So yes, great timing.
Are you traveling to Detroit with a concept already in mind for your mural? Will that morph and bend once you start painting?
My original idea was to arrive early so that I could run around and scavenge materials to build out a façade as part of my mural. Install a kind of a flat alter made of found wood and other elements that I could install that would pop off the wall a bit and then paint in and around it. But that is not going to work out because of the wall I ended up with. Instead because it is quite huge (99’ wide x 18’ tall) I decided to invite some friends to collaborate on it with me—Louise Chen, Pat Perry, and Nick Mann. With all collaborations, I prefer to stay fluid and just start with a vague idea and work organically. I am kind of excited to see what will come of it. I have a few loose sketches and in the next few days we will, all together, work out where to go with it. The media we are likely to use is bucket paint, spray paint, and possibly some wheatpasting I brought some paper stuff and tea bags that might get incorporated.
Photo courtesy of 1xRun and Murals in the Market, shot by Sal Rodriguez
I get the sense that there is no barrier between your art practice and your life. Is there a line of demarcation between two? Are you in a perpetual state of making?
At all times I am multitasking between at the least five to 10 projects. I have always existed that way. It is a weird workaholic habit to be feel more natural overly busy versus stagnant. The types of work I take on are constantly in flux. I never truly know what or where my art practice will lead to each month. Some projects are taken on and happen in the moment. Some are planned years in advance. Many are alone. Many become collaborations. Some will span over a long term, with no set end date, but there is an idea that grows and changes organically with time as to what the finish will be.
I seem to be incapable of keeping my hands still for very long and tend to stay working on something at all times—even if it is just sewing buttons on a jacket while watching a film. It never shuts off. Not ever. And I never get bored because all of the things I have on my plate at any one time are completely different. Some work I make is for gallery shows, which involves working with a deadline. Sometimes I curate large projects and many people. I make costumes, clothing, headdresses and jewelry. I trade things in exchange for hand-done tattoos. I build installations out of found wood and sewn fabric. I sometimes teach and hold workshops. I do illustration, paint murals, bind books, play with print making. I mend broken things and spend a good amount of time scavenging.
The things I bring home from my travels, from abandoned buildings and the flea market end up in my shrines and collections that cover my cave of a studio. These remnants make up an evolving, breathing, changing décor that act as a living journal of where I have been and the mementos I pick up along the way. I pluck from my archives of found paper and ceiling of strung up fiber scraps and those are the elements that become the base for what I make pieces out of. There is no difference between my art practice and my life. It is one in the same. I sleep under the desk that I draw on and cook food on the giant paper chopping block in the middle of my studio that I live and work in. I repair things on the same table I make jewelry, bind books and sew clothing on. I often get distracted walking across the room to find something and start an entirely different project pretty regularly because everything I use is contained in one room. And so I am never still and never bored. And when I go out and play… I play hard and as true and free as I can. I have said once that my art practice is about making living sacred. And I really do think it is as simple as that.
You give the same meticulousness and care to both the histories of high art and handcrafts. Can you talk about that symbiotic relationship?
I don’t particularly relate to the term ‘fine art’. I draw inspiration from all sorts of history and media. In my mind, there is little difference between ‘high art’ and ‘handy craft’. They both take effort that require skills an artisan masters makes a trade of. At the base of any sort of art that attracts my gaze is the detail to craftsmanship and care a person has put into it, whatever the object or image may be. I feel that the same weight can be given to a beautiful hand crafted instrument, to the person who can master playing it or an elaborate hand lace crochet trim on a garment, to a fancy oil painting in a museum. I revel in combing media in untraditional ways and pushing the boundaries of what people consider art can be and how it can function.
Do you have any trepidations or concerns as to your public work being used as bees to honey for real estate development and gentrification in Detroit?
I feel like Eastern Market has already planted its roots as a platform for both visitors and people in the community to come together, as a market place, art destination, and an environment that is used for events and gatherings. The area is already covered in a wealth of amazing murals by artists from all over the world. It’s hard to imagine the addition of artwork to this already mixed setting will affect the area in any way other than to bring more visitors in a positive way. Art projects can be a pretty effective tool to bring people together, and I have always appreciated murals for the fact that they are free, inclusive and accessible to anyone. There is no barrier or stuffiness that art in a gallery setting will often air as exclusive.
I think that Detroit, as a whole, is a city that is in a constant state of change and in the last few years has been drawing in more people and attention. I do see a lot of people moving in, purchasing properties and new businesses popping up. Art that beautifies cities will draw people in, but I don’t think that if developers come that it should not be on the head of the artists making the work. And they will come eventually, none the less. But, unlike a lot of other cites that are overloaded with people fighting for space and living on top of each other, Detroit actually has the space to expand and grow. Every city that I have deeps roots in – Oakland/The Bay Area, New Orleans, and New York are all being heavily over-developed. Very important, old cultural mainstays are being bought out and paved over and their artists and residents are being priced out. It has been frustrating and sad to watch. It effects everyone. In Detroit, I have noticed more of a focus to restore and revitalize for the most part, a city that has a lot of abandoned spaces. But as someone who doesn’t live here full-time, it’s difficult to know all the positive and negative effects of it all. My hopes and intentions for painting here is to add to the beauty of the city because it’s given me so much.
How do you come to your practice anew every day?
Each day, I wake up and remind myself that anything can and will happen and that all things change. I am never doing the same thing throughout a day. With each day and new experience so changes my perception and direction.
We are beings made up of moments and to never fully know where or what you will end up doing in a week or a month, and never being able to explain or pin down what you do exactly I feel is a gift. I work very hard and am so fortunate to be able to choose what I am going to do every day, unconfined by a regular job. I make a point to collaborate with many kinds of people so I am always rediscovering what I am capable of and make an effort to skill share and seek out knowledge so that I can grow – never knowing when you start, how something will be resolved. I get inspired by going out in the world and having adventures, on boats and in buildings and in all the secret places I am always going to be in search of. Beautiful friends and places keep me sane in a world that is constantly throwing me for a loop.
Murals in the Market runs through Thursday, September 25, 2015.