Monica Canilao

Artist, Oakland // November 2011
I use found materials because I believe that older stuff is already deeply imbued with spirit, story, and memory. I pick up remnants and little scraps of things every place I go and archive them in my studio, or hang them on walls, or place them in make shift alters for later use…. my walls are a scrap book.

Monica’s studio is in a huge space in Oakland shared by other artists, performers, and musicians that together have created quite a vibrant, enterprising community. In order to get to her studio we had to go up a set of stairs and climb through an entryway draped with layers of fabric, which then opens up into an attic-like room where Monica works. Crawling through that entryway was like moving through a space-time portal and getting dropped into a fantasy world that can only be described as a mash-up of my glamorous grandmother’s closet and the treasure trove of those renegade dwarves in the movie Time Bandits. I was a bit dumbstruck, to be honest. It took me a minute to gather my wits and to begin speaking in full sentences again, instead of just “oohing” and “aahing” and pointing at things. As we settled in, Monica made us delicious “cowboy coffee” in her makeshift kitchen, and then we got to talking. Essentially, Monica is a doer and not much of a talker— don’t get me wrong, she likes to chat it up, but she doesn’t seem that comfortable discussing ideas head-on, instead she expresses herself anecdotally, weaving stories in and out of conversation, letting you read what may or may not be between the lines. She likes to keep her hands busy and her body moving; she’s definitely action-oriented and is all about joining forces with other artists. When we visited Monica she was busy installing work for her collaborative show with her good friend and fellow artist Bunnie Reiss at Lopo Gallery, and so we visited her at the gallery, too. The work there was truly collaborative, and spoke to what Monica is all about— shared experiences, the re-telling and re-shaping of stories, found materials, and the power of visual terminology.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I am an artist, it’s all I know, it’s all I do. If other things are realized through my art such as community building, activism or teaching… that’s awesome. First and foremost, I have to create and there is no limit to the things I will use or where I will find materials to create with. Just to list some things I’m about: used found and recycled things, painting, drawing, collage, building installations, stick and poke tattoos, hair cutting, boat building, abandoned building and animal touching, jewelry making, clothing making, and etc, etc.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I’ve been sustaining myself on my art alone for the past six years or so. It used to be that I would happily take any art related gig to pay the bills. Lately, however I’ve needed to pick and choose more carefully and am booked solidly with as much as I can handle.

I do teach a costume and textiles class once a week but it really doesn’t pay much. I do it cause I enjoy it, and for the wee children, who are in kindergarten through the second grade. It’s incredible to work with them, because they are not yet limited or inhibited by what other people think— they don’t care about what’s considered cool or appropriate or acceptable, they just do what they want. It’s nice to be able to encourage that and be inspired by such an unhindered perspective, and they’ve got great ideas that often surprise me because their imaginations are so un-tethered. I’m also currently doing a workshop series as part of a collaborative program between the Berkeley Art Museum and Girls Inc., and it’s been awesome. I’m interested in being able to teach as much as possible because it seems to be the most obviously influential way to affect people, get ‘em while they’re young. I strongly dislike when people get stuck on the notion that they can’t do something… especially if they have never tried their hand at it. Or that gender should restrict you from any particular type of work or skill. I definitely want to pass on how important it is to recycle materials, to use what already exists, to not be wasteful, and to be as “green” as possible.

Sometimes I make record covers for friends or illustrations for things like the New York Times or books. Sometimes it’s for pay and sometimes it’s for fun. None of it feels like a job. It all just prevents me from ever getting bored.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I don’t limit myself material-wise. My work and installations are comprised of all found and recycled materials. Installations are site specific and are localized in that I draw from what is around to build with, so it just depends on what city I’m in has to offer. I use found materials because I believe that older stuff is already deeply imbued with spirit, story, and memory. I pick up remnants and little scraps of things every place I go and archive them in my studio, or hang them on walls, or place them in make shift alters for later use…. my walls are a scrap book. I sew these pieces into clothing and make jewelry and collages from them, and in turn the objects exist for me as a literal portrayal of where I have been and how I have come to be where I am currently. I don’t like to buy new stuff when all kinds of useful materials are available for next to nothing, or free. To be honest, I first started using found materials because I never really had any money to buy anything, and people gave me art supplies because all I did was draw… but it’s just become the way I work and now it’s all I know. Nowadays things are made poorly on purpose, and it makes me sad to think of all the things that are currently fabricated, bought and then so easily thrown out. I often think that things aren’t ready to be thrown out, that there is still so much life left in discarded objects. I’ve been working a lot with wood lately and have always had a sort of doily and lace fetish, but I’ve also been known to use a melted bottle or two as well. I’m into doilies and lace because it still gets me that all of those millions of pieces just took so long to make by hand and no one really cares much for them. I’ve also kind of got a little mermaid complex… every shiny little thing. In my studio my preferred paint is gouache and liquid acrylic and there’s a lot of sequins and hair weave. I love old paper and anything made in an old fashioned way— these days everything seems to be digital and unfortunately real labor intensive practices that used to be the norm and were done by hand, have now been replaced by machines. And you can feel it— there is no soul. Re-occurring themes in my work are feelings of home and community… connection, decay, hand made and mark making. I do not really have one solid idea that I am working to portray, or at least not intentionally. I draw the image of a girl wearing a house that is too small for her, and her moving from place to place with it on her back. I carry so many things with me at all times, just in case, and so maybe that girl is me.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m consistently, and mostly inspired by my community— each person is a never ending well of inspiration. I listen to a lot of old skool jams, from Bessie Smith to the Shirelles. Sometimes I’ll get stuck on a particular album or music, like during my show ‘What’s Lost Is Safe’ I was listening to Exuma nonstop and I think it’s sort of reflected in the work. Although I have been known to get down to newer stuff like Kanye and the Weeknd at times. I like looking at and am turned on by the natural decay of buildings and the textures that they make when they’re crumbling to pieces.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
I get overwhelmed at times because I often have a hard time saying ‘no’ to a good project. Even if I know it means I’ll have to stay up for days on end and break my body I do it time and time again. I’m trying to get better at being choosy but it’s hard when I see a good opportunity for a fun project, not to take it… especially if it involves working with my loved ones. I also tend to work well under crazy pressure so even if my body hates me for it, good things tend to come about from overwork. I also try to avoid the business part of the art world as much as possible. I try to not let the whims of others influence any of the decisions I make or let it decide which projects I do. I am guided by what seems fun or challenging, what new places I might get to see, and I keep my distance from shady people as best I can. It’s awesome to get my friends paid and eat good food etc., so it is necessary to sustain, but right now I’m just living and creating and am confident that it will continue to work out. I kind of hide from the world of names and dollar signs and fake smiles as best I can.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It’d be impossible for me to not have my studio at this point, and a place to archive my work and materials. I spend more time in my studio then I do at my house. I have to do these sort of intense work storms that I lovingly refer to as ‘art jail’ where I stay and work non-stop no matter what the outside world has going on. I think that’s just the nature of my work, lots of labor-intensive periods and then when there is room for it, time in between for adventures. The adventures are still part of my work though, in that they rejuvenate and re-fuel my process. I invite people over constantly for work-dates and always have good food and music on hand. I love my studio and most of my people now know that if they wanna see me or hang out, they have to come there and be productive in some way too. There’s always room and materials for my friends and being in the space I am now means I’m always surrounded by artists and musicians in an environment that is very alive. My studio is an insane museum cave of wonders that I have set up so I never have to leave… it is an art jail resort.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
In the last few years I have become more invested in building out crazy installations, collecting abandoned fragments of buildings and making new worlds with them. I have built wonderful relationships with other artists while collaborating, and each project changes the way I work with the next new partnership. I’ve learned new things and skills and grown new passions, and I’m constantly changing because of the people in my life. I have often described my work as a living narrative— an ever-changing story in which the places I have been are reflected in the use of literal physical remnants I pick up and then use in the pieces I am making. My massive collection of fabric and paper and wooden bits is all just a strange journal library of memories that I can rearrange into what I wish.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Right now I am working on a show with my good friend Bunnie Reiss. It’s our first time collaborating and we have been working non-stop making a huge body of new work, and we just begun to start building out our three-room installation. As soon as our show opens I will be driving out to Columbia, Missouri to do a crazy art project with a bunch of friends in an old Regency hotel that is about to be demolished. The whole process and the demolition will be shot and made into a short film. Afterward, I will be riding trains to Mexico. I am also excited to start making collaborations for the show I am doing in Milan in April of next year with Swoon, Dennis McNett, and Harrison Bartlett. There are many projects in between, but those are the few sticking out in my mind and heart at the moment. I’m constantly cycling through different kinds of work, there always seems to be at least 10 different projects and collaborations happening at any given moment. I work within a community where sharing, collaborating, giving back, helping out and being in it together is really important, so there’s always a lot happening and always an opportunity to get involved in something interesting or fun.

What are you most proud of? That I can make a living doing what I love and in doing so have found ways to collaborate intimately with so many amazing people and communities. Also, that I get to be a teacher on a regular basis.

What do you want your work to do?
I want what I make to activate the idea in people that there is use and beauty in old tired things and abandoned places. That everyone is capable of creation and can and should subject themselves to new things and experiences, and to things that scare them, so that they can overcome their fears and grow. To inspire people to want to create and collect. As well as to cherish what and who they have.

What advice has influenced you?
Share what you got.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I won’t ever arrive because I will never stop moving.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Current Shows:
“Paper Quilt Project” at The Berkeley Art Center. Berkeley, CA.
“In The Moment” Benefit at The Luggage Store Gallery. San Francisco, CA.
“Little Old One” collaborative show with Bunnie Reiss at Lopo Gallery. San Francisco, CA.

Upcoming Poject:
Nov 25, 2011- Regency Hotel transformation installation/film project. Columbia, Missouri.

To see more of Monica’s work:
To see Bunnie Reiss’s work: