Dancing in the audience at a Monster Paws show is kind of like being trapped inside a disco ball
On Native Ground
Urban muralist Jaque Fragua
by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, August 2011
Jaque Fragua says he doesn’t like to talk about himself, or about anything, really. He likes to listen. That’s how he interacts with the world—listening, and listening some more, and then condensing all he’s heard and painting it somewhere, anywhere, quietly and like a prayer.
Yet Fragua lets his words tumble forth like a flood, as though he’s been holding them back too long and they’ve finally ripped through the dam. He hardly seems out of practice. The 24-year-old speaks quickly but intentionally, touching on the nature of art, self-identity and the history of his people with one broad stroke.
But first, he starts at the beginning. Fragua is from New Mexico, raised on the Jemez Pueblo, which still and always will serve as his center community. “Growing up there, it was like being transported to another world,” he says. Although Fragua has since traveled, and painted, all over the country and beyond, in cities like Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oaxaca, Vancouver and soon Paris, it’s the pueblo that remains his primary inspiration. He moved to Tucson about a month ago, and he’s lived in Seattle and Denver, but he always returns home for communal ceremonies. “I feel like it’s the reservation, and the rest of the world,” he says.
Fragua’s not even sure how many members of his community know he’s an artist, and a pretty successful one. This many be partially due to the fact that most of Fragua’s work is street art; sometimes it’s commissioned (or as he calls it, “legitimate”), and sometimes it’s not. The latter is always anonymous, and it isn’t something he goes bragging about. Another factor is the way his community thinks about art and work, he says. “You can’t be defined by a career,” Fragua says. “It’s a way of life.” He uses his parents as an example, both of whom are artists in the Westernized mindset. His mother works with textiles and his father is a painter, too, but “they don’t know it,” he adds. “In a Western context, it is art. In my understanding, it’s not art; it’s just a part of what I do.”
His parents support his work, though. He remembers his first painting—a watercolor of fish in the ocean, something he’d never seen in person. Red Rocks Community College picked up the piece for a show. “My dad bought it, but he didn’t tell me,” Fragua says, smiling. He was 10.
Despite the success of his first artistic foray, it didn’t occur to Fragua until much later in life that he wanted to be a painter. As a teenager, he was much more interested in dance (usually break-dancing) and music. Fragua’s a virtual one-man band, with experience playing guitar, drums, bass and piano in addition to knowing his way around turntables. He’s been in blues and jazz bands as well as punk, rock and roll, and hip-hop groups. Fragua hates the term “renaissance man,” but that’s probably because he hears it so darn often.
It was after finishing a degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe that he started to focus more on painting. Once he concentrated on it, the medium filled something inside him that had been waiting, vacant, his whole life. “I was lonely until I found art. Until I found spray paint, a paintbrush,” he says. “The thing about art is it stays there.” He acknowledges that music can be recorded, but spurts of improv on a guitar dissipate like vapor. It’s the improv that appeals to him the most. “It’s more spontaneous, paint on a wall,” he says. “It feels like I capture a sound on a wall—the rhythm in a line, the way it bounces, thickens, lightens. When I see that, I feel good, comforted.”
Yet permanency isn’t important to Fragua, who acknowledges that some of his most spur-of-the-moment work is painted over the next morning by graffiti cleanup teams. “It’s not immortality I’m concerned about,” he says. “It’s about living life with intention.”
Fragua doesn’t usually paint what many people think of when they hear the word “graffiti,” which he describes as “scrawls on walls.” He likes to focus on more tribalistic forms, what he refers to as “Native pop art,” patterns that represent protection and beginnings. Water designs and clouds, which represent life, are a big theme in his work. He like redesigning the humidity cycle that can be found in every middle school biology textbook, adding in Native American iconography. “Where are the people in those diagrams?” he asks. Fragua takes it upon himself to fill them in.
While Fragua makes a living off his commissioned work—such as the mural on the El Rey Theater he painted, titled “Contemporary Traditions,” with two other artists—as well as canvas works he sells in galleries, his favorite pieces are painted covertly and on the fly. His favorite pastime is wandering around deserted areas at night, often in the wild, with a couple cans of spray paint in his pocket and the sound of nothing but his thoughts. “No one will see it except for myself and God,” he says. “It’s the private collection.”
These moments are Fragua’s way of communicating with something larger, in terms of both understanding himself and sending a prayer to the creator. “When it’s just me, it feel like it’s untouchable,” he says. “Maybe someone will see it, get to that same space. I find that sacred.”
There are many pieces Fragua intends for people to see, though, and he has a message he wants to communicate through those works. “I like to share my story and other people’s stories, and the stories of my ancestors, my community, my friends, my family,” he says. Sometimes this takes a lighter or subversive form. Other times the subject matter is more difficult. “I have the courage to be able to speak up, and I have this outlet,” he says. “I want to speak out for others, for victims of abuse. ... Where I come from, a lot of people are still suffering from it.” Fragua hopes to unlock emotion through his work. “I want to engage people to look at their reflection,” he says. “And I want everyone to be healthy.”
Fragua recognizes that he lives a little on the edge, straddled between the law and his art. “I like to feel invincible,” he says. “Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not.” He’s talking about the time he went to jail for painting on a building that was then demolished one month later. “My whole understanding of the world is so skewed,” he says. “I got a taste of sovereignty, its own rules and laws. I want to be the same way.”
Still, at the heart of all he does, he says, are simple desires: to express, inspire and exist in a world of his own making. He tries to hang on to an element of his 10-year-old self, painting something he yearned for but had never seen. “I love my innocence,” he says. “It’s why I do what I do. I’m just a guy painting.”
Who is Marc Maron?
Comic returns to his hometown for one stand-up night
By Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, December 23, 2010
Marc Maron isn’t famous, but he should be. The stand-up comedian and ex-Albuquerquean has appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” three-dozen times and “The Late Show With David Letterman” four times, and he’s had two of his own half-hour specials on Comedy Central. He was one of the voices behind the now-defunct “Morning Sedition” radio show on Air America. Plus, he was the irate promoter in Almost Famous (an appropriate title for Maron) who orders his minions to “Lock the gates!” on the protagonists’ hurtling tour bus.
Maron, who lived in Albuquerque from third grade through high school, has been in the old-school comedy game for more than 15 years. Playing clubs across the country, he paid his dues long ago. But chances are you still haven’t heard of him, even though he went bankrupt and was divorced twice (events he makes bitterly public in his comedy). A year and a half ago, he was “down for the count,” he says, and arrived at the decision that he should start a podcast.
Recorded twice a week in his garage, “WTF With Marc Maron” is doing for the comedian what guest spots on prime-time late-night real estate seemingly could not—teaching people his name. The podcast, which features interviews with the likes of Robin Williams, Judd Apatow and Ira Glass, is taking in an average of 230,000 listeners a week and regularly reaches the No. 1 slot on the iTunes comedy charts. It’s reinvigorated Maron, who’s in the process of pitching a TV show to FOX and submitting a second book proposal (you can find his first book, The Jerusalem Syndrome: My Life as a Reluctant Messiah, on Amazon.com) after recording material for a fourth CD earlier this year. At 47, Maron just might be getting famous.
Unlike so many people who give up on possibly outlandish dreams at some point in their careers, Maron says he’s never had a Plan B. “There was never any other option for me,” he says. “I chose a career that sort of enables you to be kind a perpetual adolescent and live like a goddamn gypsy. Fortunately for me, because of my brain, there was no American Dream that I wasn’t achieving. I never set out to have a wife and kids, I never set out to have a good job. All that I ever wanted was to be a comedian with a point of view.”
Because Maron never considered doing anything else (“Maybe that’s some sort of retardation,” he muses), he just continued doing what he loved without hesitation. “Early on, fear—it just wasn’t there, there was just the persistence. It was never like, Ah, that’s it, I’m going to law school, time to get a job,” he says. “I would rather have no money living on a friend’s couch. That was my default.”
Although Maron’s never been faced with the dilemma of having to reinvent his image as he gets older, as stand-ups with shticks often are (think Carrot Top), he has found an evolution in his work through the podcast. “With me, the struggle really, as it turns out, was always to sort of become myself in some respect,” he says. “I was never a guy who had a broad persona. Early on, I was fairly angry and I did a certain type of comedy, which was very aggressive and in your face and a bit heavy-handed. And I grew weary of it, and it didn’t necessarily work for me, so I needed to go deeper into who I was. ... It’s always been sort of a personal evolution.”
Maron’s comedy dips into his personal life unflinchingly, and through the podcast that’s become even more pronounced. “What’s happened over the year, in me talking to my peers, and talking and expressing myself on the mic, is that I’ve started to sort of get through that, and kind of [talk] about a lot of the obstacles that I was in the middle of when I started and also just professionally and many other ways.”
Some of the feedback Maron’s gotten for the show has surprised him. Rather than people simply telling him, Thanks for the laugh, Maron says he’s heard from a number of fans who told him his honesty registered with them on a deeper level. Some even said they had been perched on the edge of suicide, but realizing they’re not alone brought them back. “It’s mind-blowing, the type of effect it’s having on certain people,” he says, “and it’s very humbling and gratifying in a way I never really imagined possible.”
Talking with street artist Chaz Bojórquez
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, September 30, 2010
Chaz Bojórquez has never been caught, but he has been chased.
He laughs when he admits it, because it seems slightly absurd: a world-renowned artist with work hanging permanently in the Smithsonian American Art Museum being pursued by cops for painting something on the side of a building. Such is the life of a graffiti artist.
Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’d probably recognize Bojórquez’ work. He’s most well-known for a skull he designed that’s referred to as Señor Suerte, which he stenciled all over Los Angeles in the ’70s and became a symbol of protection among street gangs. Bojórquez’ cholo-style-graffiti-meets-Asian-calligraphy has inspired generations of street artists and shown in galleries across the globe. It’s hard to imagine he got his start tagging a garage door.
Bojórquez was 19 (he’s 61 now). He says he was so poor, he lived off 14-cent cans of mackerel he’d somehow always end up splitting with a cat. He couldn’t afford a spray can, so his first tag was administered with a squeegee and ink he found.
He wrote his name.
“All graffiti kids write their name,” he says. “This me-me-me mentality.”
But his worldview gradually shifted. A few years later, he wrote about himself and his girlfriend, then it was his neighborhood, then the world.
That final shift was due in part to the year and a half Bojórquez spent visiting and living in 35 countries, where he learned about how the physical representations of alphabets influence cultures, along with the three months he spent studying calligraphy under Master Yun Chung Chiang (who in turn studied under Pu Ju, who was brothers with the last emperor of China).
In an age when graffiti-as-art is still censored, Bojórquez serves as a perfect spokesperson, although he doesn’t perch himself on his soapbox very often.
“If I spent all my time defending graffiti,” he says, “then I’d have no time to going forward with graffiti.”
He says people often ask him whether he’s setting a good example for youth, and his response is always that the best thing he can do is finish his work. He tells kids: “Do more graffiti.” By practicing more, he argues, kids will improve their skills and evolve out of the illegal graffiti world and into the artistic one.
“They’ll buy graffiti magazines, watch videos, go to galleries to meet the players,” he says. “People like me, there are only about three dozen of us over the world; we’re like superstars. Once kids want to be like that, they’re too busy making prints and paintings to do illegal stuff.” He says his job is to show them what they can become, to prove that “making a life with art is a beautiful thing.”
Most of Bojórquez’ work now takes place off the streets, although he says he’ll never stop tagging (hence the chasing). Within the last few years, he’s started designing products, such as some Vans shoes, menswear for Conart Clothing and wine labels for the Plata Wine Company.
“I want to be in culture,” he says.
It’s easy to see that culture and its effects on identity and personal freedom fascinates Bojórquez, who says graffiti is, like any other artistic method, ultimately about expression.
“It’s a need for self-expression, for self-identity, for personal growth,” he says. “Because it’s been a part of our culture since caveman times. It’s part of the human need to be identified, to leave your mark. We’re hardwired for it.”
Bojórquez says people should be able to leave their mark in some way—that if billboards promoting cigarettes and alcohol are legal just because they’re paid for, people should be allowed to leave a sign that they’d been somewhere, that they belong there.
“Who really owns the public space?” he asks. “In some ways, graffiti doesn’t ask permission. We don’t ask for permission; we don’t ask for forgiveness. It’s a passion.”
by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, July 2011
Dancing in the audience at a Monster Paws show is kind of like being trapped inside a disco ball—in a good way.
Ask the band members how they describe their music and the answers you’ll get will be borderline transcendental. “Songs that are fun to play,” says guitarist and singer Nate Santa Maria. On the band’s Facebook page, its genre is listed as “sounds like yer winning something.” Push a little harder and Santa Maria and singer/keyboardist Isaac Kappy will divulge adjectives like “electro” and “dance-pop.” But really, their first, more nebulous descriptions do a better job at pinning down their sound. It’s just plain fun. And yes, it sounds like you’re winning.
Shows often come with all the fireworks—multicolored laser lights, quirky hats (Santa Maria sometimes dons a fuzzy one that looks like a stuffed bear), techno beats that tickle your collarbone and even that aforementioned disco ball. This is happy music—with songs about summertime champagne bike rides and nostalgia for the glorious cocktail of poverty and youth—that makes the band and audience alike jump up and down with childlike abandon. All that jumping can be hazardous, though. At a springtime show at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, Santa Maria jumped so zestfully that he sprained his ankle on stage ... and kept jumping.
Even outside the setting of a live show, Monster Paws have managed what few small, local bands can: They produced a smooth and professional-sounding album, which makes for a perfect road trip soundtrack. Kappy mixed and mastered the album, and Santa Maria helped produced it. The nine-song, self-titled LP (available for download on iTunes) was released in November of last year. Its CD release party was actually Monster Paws’ first show. That inaugural appearance sold out, and although the band’s only existed a short time, its history thus far has echoed the success of that first night. In fact, Monster Paws’ music is already finding its way onto television.
The idea for the band formed in the summer of 2009, when Kappy launched a karaoke night at a local bar. Santa Maria showed up the first night and said he’d help. “It was kind of our singing practice,” he says. They’d known each other for years (they met when dating a pair of best friends) but had never played music together. After a few karaoke nights, “I said he should be in a band with me,” says Kappy. Along with third bandmate Mario J. Rivera, Monster Paws was formed. The name, by the way, was the residual murmur from one of Santa Maria’s dreams. He just woke up saying it.
Kappy and Santa Maria (who are now roommates) write songs together. Their process is freeform—sometimes a song will start with a melody, sometimes a lyric. But in every song they write, their goal is to make it happy. “We wanted to make up songs that make you feel good,” says Kappy. “Music that you can smile to.”
“And lyrics that you can cry to,” tacks on Santa Maria, laughing.
The two didn’t set out with a theme for their first album. “We just said, Let’s do songs we really like,” Kappy says. “Let’s just make sure all the songs are awesome.”
Although they went an untraditional route—making and releasing an album before playing any shows—they say it wasn’t part of any grand plan. “When you’re doing live shows, it cuts into your recording time,” says Kappy. “We wanted to have everything together.”
Although Monster Paws is a new band, Santa Maria and Kappy are seasoned musicians, and both are classically trained. Santa Maria played classical guitar for 10 years, and he’s been a member of another band, The Oktober People, for the last decade. Monster Paws is Kappy’s first band, but he started playing classical viola as a kid, performing in youth symphonies from age 12. He got a scholarship to the University of Arizona for his playing but tired of it at 19. He gave up his scholarship to return home to Albuquerque and go to the University of New Mexico. Well outside of symphony territory now, Kappy looks at home on stage with his wiry frame, signature fro and theatrical antics.
That last bit makes sense, since Kappy’s day job is as an actor (with parts in Thor, Terminator Salvation andFanboys, among others). Santa Maria remodels houses during the day with his brother—“It puts hair on your chest,” he jokes. Both would like to see Monster Paws become self-sustaining, and they’re working vigorously toward that goal. The two are now working on a second album, which they hope to release early this fall. And with two music videos under their belts, they’re planning on putting out two or three more this summer.
The band’s music videos are also astoundingly glossy. Made with the help of a handful of friends in the film industry, “Champagne Bike Ride” (bit.ly/monsterbikeride) and “Ray of Light” (bit.ly/monsterlight), due perhaps in part to their professional feel, have racked up hefty views on YouTube. The former’s gathered more than 36,000 views.
Monster Paws feels like it’s on the verge of something, and that’s a prediction supported by the fact that its music is now being used on a number of TV shows. “I got [our album] to a music supervisor for a production company,” Kappy says. “After that, now TV shows are contacting us independently.” So far Monster Paws music has been used on “Real World: Las Vegas,” “Bad Girls Club” and “Khloe & Lamar,” among others, and more high-profile placements are in the works (although the boys can’t give out any names yet).
Right now Monster Paws is in Albuquerque, but the band is hoping to get on tour with an established act to work its way further into the business. “I want to be in front of thousands of people,” Kappy says. “The more people there are, the more comfortable I am.”
Santa Maria agrees but focuses on a slightly different dream: “I want to wake up, get a cup of coffee and record.”
by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, July 2010
The Box Performance Space & Improv Theatre should have failed. Based on the predictions of any experienced businessperson, the outlook for the upstart theater was grim. Its owners, Doug Montoya and Kristin Berg, had no business plan. They had no capital. They bought no ads. They sent no press releases. It was an unknown venue on an unremarkable block in a desert town. It was an accident.
But The Box didn’t fail. On its opening night, which featured an unpublicized “secret” show, the line to get in overflowed into the parking lot. So many people came, Montoya and Berg had to turn some away. Within a few days, theater patrons the city over were talking about the space. Within a week, the local press was calling. And now, three years later, The Little Theater That Could has done what no one would have predicted: survived.
The Box is no ordinary theater. It’s not exclusionary, and it doesn’t have a sole purpose. It’s not seeking fame, and certainly not fortune. The shows that appear on its stage are of no particular genre. To borrow from an obvious idiom, you can’t put The Box in a box. But that’s not to say it’s without a mission.
Montoya says The Box has a strong mission, which is “to create an environment where children of all ages can feel comfortable expressing themselves.” That’s because The Box is, first and foremost, a children’s theater. Montoya and Berg offer classes and put on shows through their theater company, Cardboard Playhouse Productions—although unlike most children’s theaters, parents don’t have to pay a tuition for their kids to perform. The attitude they embrace also differs from other theaters. “A lot of children’s theater talks down to kids, and they’re smart,” says Berg. “They’re smarter than I think most grownup actors are.” Montoya and Berg expect kids to be smart and treat them as such, and the result is that their productions don’t feel like “children’s” theater—they just feel like theater.
Next on the space’s list of priorities is improv comedy. Along with hosting performances, The Box offers classes for both kids and adults and puts on the annual Duke City Improv Festival, which brings in teams from throughout the region. Beyond that, The Box is a sort of catchall. It opens its doors to outside theater companies, taking a chance on anything that succeeds at being, as Montoya puts it, something that can be not just viewed but experienced. Among the groups The Box has played host to are Tricklock Theatre Company, the Pajama Men, Harrington & Kauffman (in the vein of the PJ Men, a theatrical comedy duo from New York City) and its now company-in-residence, Blackout Theatre.
But Montoya and Berg didn’t plan any of it. And while Berg had worked in children’s theater for years, serving previously as the stage manager at Albuquerque Little Theatre, the last way Montoya thought he’d be spending his life is teaching kids how to act.
Montoya moved to Albuquerque about 14 years ago from Los Angeles, where he’d been involved in the theater scene. He continued working in theater when he came to New Mexico, and a few years ago he was active with the now-defunct Gorilla Tango Theatre (a branch is still open in Chicago). The space was looking to bring in some extra revenue around the holiday season one year, and Montoya came up with the idea to put on A Charlie Brown Christmas. He wanted to use child actors, of course, thinking that any stumbling over lines would only add to the legitimacy of the play. It was a huge success, and soon Montoya found himself planning more children’s productions.
It was during round two that Berg came on to help. Together they put on a kids’ parody called LOST on Gilligan’s Island, which turned out to be another success. But on the heels of two high-selling shows, Gorilla Tango closed. Parents were upset and encouraged Montoya and Berg to continue with their work, and so the two toyed with the thought of opening their own theater. A month and a half later, they did.
That’s when the idea of “community” theater became tangible. Kurly Tlapoyawa, owner of Burning Paradise Video, told them about an available space on Lomas near 12th Street. When they went to look at it, the landlord said he was going to rent it to someone else the next day but would rather give it to them. If Montoya and Berg could come up with the $1,500 they needed for a deposit within 24 hours, it was theirs. They didn’t have it. But some of those parents did. And collectively, along with other supporters, Montoya and Berg gathered enough donations within a day to secure the space.
Of course, they still didn’t have seats. Or lights. Or a sound system. Or anything else a theater needs. And who even knew about next month’s rent? But the community kept coming through. A friend told them about 60 old seats Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe was giving away. Another friend gave them some used lights and a sound system. And with only a couple weeks to go before their scheduled opening night, and no idea what they were going to put on stage, they ran into the Pajama Men (full disclosure: The author is dating one of the group’s members). The duo said they’d perform for the opening and put out the word about a secret show. They even got New Mexico native Zach Condon of the band Beirut to accompany them. And that’s how Montoya and Berg found a long line twisting around their brand-new building on its very first night.
The Box left its Lomas home last year and moved Downtown to 100 Gold SW, Suite 112. And again, the way the theater found its new location was, as Montoya and Berg call it, “accidental.” Feeling that their old space was getting too small, they called their realtor to let him know they might be looking for something else. But their realtor was already about to call them to talk about an available spot—because the manager for the space hoped they’d move in.
The Box has always billed itself as a community theater, but since relocating Downtown, the space has now become not just a fixture in the theater scene but in the neighborhood as well.
Rick Rennie is the guy who wanted The Box to move to Gold. He’s the asset manager for the Historic District Improvement Company (HDIC), which, among other things, means he’s responsible for the block the theater now sits on. HDIC is leading the campaign to revitalize Downtown, and Rennie is passionate about the tenets of urbanism. He wants to see the neighborhood morph into a “center for creativity and innovation,” he says, where lots of eclectic, smaller spaces continuously draw different demographics to the area. It’s about building a walkable environment that caters to both the young and the mature, singles and parents, businesspeople and those looking to play.
At a time when retail was hurting, Rennie thought bringing in more performance spaces would help invigorate the area, and he was right. “There was an immediate effect, as soon as they moved in,” he says. The building where The Box is located has spaces for businesses on the ground floor but residential lofts above, a number of which were sitting vacant before the theater moved in. But almost as soon as it opened its doors, someone purchased a loft because The Box was there. And the trend stuck. Three of the four ground level corners of the building have been empty for months. But in the last two months, after the theater increased traffic on the block, seven restaurants came to look at the spaces, and Rennie’s now in negotiations with three of them. Rennie says existing restaurants on the block are already benefitting from the theater, which hosts either classes or shows nearly every night.
Most of those classes, which run from improv and acting classes to workshops on filmmaking and theater production, are taught by members of Blackout Theatre, The Box’s company-in-residence. Montoya and Berg have worked with Blackout for the last two and a half years, but the group only became the space’s resident theater this spring.
Jeff Andersen is Blackout’s artistic director. He says working with The Box has been a great boon to the company because their missions align. Blackout, which is also very improv-based, has always put education at the forefront of its work. “They have very similar views to us,” Andersen says. “A lot of places see it as a way to make money, but we want to make it available to as many people as possible and keep it high-quality.”
Montoya and Berg feel the same way. They want to keep classes affordable so anyone can take them. They charge enough to keep the theater open, but there’s not much left over. Both Montoya and Berg have day jobs separate from their roles at the theater. Additionally, the kids productions they cast are tuition-free. Most children’s theater companies charge parents a fee for their kids to be cast in shows, Montoya and Berg say, but that’s not the way The Box operates. Kids who take classes at the space are welcome to audition for parts, but kids who have never been to the theater before can audition, too. And there’s no guarantee that a child who’s taken a class will get in. Roles are cast based on who’s best for the part, says Montoya, because there’s no point in giving something to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
It’s a philosophy that feeds back into The Box’s mission—theater isn’t about ego or oneupmanship, it’s about creating and sharing. “We want to take that ego part out of it,” says Berg. “This isn’t just about you. It’s about the audience, it’s about the rest of the company of actors that you’re working with. It’s not just about Doug and I as directors of whatever we’re doing, it’s about the production as a whole and doing it for the good of everybody else.”
Montoya and Berg, along with the Blackout crew, want the kids they teach to learn valuable skills and gain confidence and eventually move on to other theaters. And with regard to adult theater, Montoya thinks of it as a free-for-all. Whenever their space is dark, Montoya and Berg hit the town, seeing as many shows as they can. They let the parts they love influence their own work, and they hope other theaters do the same.
“We’re constantly changing, we’re constantly adapting,” says Montoya. “I think that you have to be flexible, you have to be able to change. Otherwise, you become rigid, and you can possibly break.”
Turner to Cézanne
by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, June 2010
Andrew Connors’ office is flooded with paper. Thick stacks of newspapers, forms and pictures collapse into one another, like giant piles of cards being shuffled on a table. Hundreds of art books nudge each other on shelves, vying for wiggle room. Three massive Rolodexes stand at attention, eager to recall names, addresses, numbers. Andrew Connors’ office is like a brain—teeming with information, ideas, images and connections. It’s fitting, because Connors, the curator for the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, believes that art feeds the brain, that it makes neurons multiply and synapses pop.
What’s getting Connors’ brain sizzling now is the museum’s new exhibit, Turner to Cézanne, a 53-piece collection on loan from National Museum Wales. It’s the kind of exhibit Albuquerque rarely sees, featuring some of the great masterpieces from artistic history: Renoir’s La Parisienne, one of Monet’s Waterlilies and van Gogh’s Rain-Auvers, which had never before been seen in the United States, among them. Connors is ecstatic with the potential of the exhibit, which has been three years in the making.
“I hope that people respond with a sense of pride and a sense of wonder at what great inventors have done for us,” he says. “I’d love for their experience to be a little more deep than simply appreciation for beauty. Maybe I’d like their brains to hurt a little bit from thinking hard. ... I’m just looking forward to having headaches from having to think so hard. And then to help the headaches subside, go into the gallery and just sort of celebrate the pure beauty of what all that thinking produced.”
All the works in the show are from, as Connors calls them, “great inventors.” Created primarily in the mid-1800s, the pieces were some of the first to push the boundaries of the popular, academic method of painting of the time and introduce Impressionism. The exhibit displays the works in chronological order, providing not only visual, but also written and aural history lessons through large placards and guided audio tours. The museum has worked to make the show highly interactive, with a side room featuring videos that further expand on the pieces’ history and an educational play room for kids, along with a number of educational programs that will run throughout the exhibit’s life at the museum.
The exhibit is taken from the Davies Collection, formed by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies between 1908 and 1923. The two Welsh sisters were devout philanthropists who volunteered for the French Red Cross, gave asylum to Belgian artists, and founded the Gregynog Press and Gregynog music festival, both named after their home, Gregynog Hall.
They amassed their art collection as a way of bringing great masterpieces to the people of Wales. In 1913, they hosted an anonymous exhibit at Cardiff City Hall to help raise funds to build a museum. When they died, they left their estate to the University of Wales to use as an arts center and bequeathed their collection to National Museum Wales, which is now known for having one of the best Impressionist collections in Europe.
Prof. Michael Tooby, the director of Learning, Programmes and Development at National Museum Wales, has been involved in bringing the exhibit to the U.S. since 2002. National Museum Wales partnered with the American Federation of Arts to place the exhibit in five cities around the country, all of which Tooby visited two years ago to make sure they met the show’s requirements. Obviously, each museum needed to have the technical details to support the show. But National Museum Wales also wanted museums that, while they play a significant role in their regions, don’t often have major exhibits. The Davies sisters were interested in bringing great art to those who didn’t always get to see it, and National Museum Wales wanted to continue in that tradition.
Tooby thinks the sisters would have enjoyed knowing the show is in Albuquerque. “They would be intrigued,” he says. “They would be very excited, very pleased. And it’s important to remember that when they bequeathed their collections to the National Museum, they encouraged the National Museum to share collections.” He says the museum even “double, double” checked this request while planning the tour, re-reading the actual bequest documents. “They were very aware of what you might call access, to use a contemporary term,” he adds. “I think that they were the kind of women that saw the responsibility of wealth and were very aware of social and educational causes.”
The other cities that hosted the show are Columbia, S.C., Oklahoma City, Syracuse, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. Albuquerque made it on the list because of a relationship the Art Museum formed with the American Federation of Arts, which suggested shows to National Museum Wales for the tour. Albuquerque had worked with AFA twice before, bringing Millet to Mattisse here from Glasgow in 2004 and Temples and Tombs from the British Museum in London in 2007. When the Art Museum called AFA to find out what was coming up, it learned about Turner to Cézanne and got on board right away.
Cathy Wright, the Art Museum’s director, says it cost about $300,000 to bring the show here, all of which is paid for through the Albuquerque Museum Foundation. “It’s a really high-quality exhibit that, as far as renting exhibits go, is affordable for museums of our size and a little bigger,” she says. “When you get up to the King Tut kind of exhibits, we can’t do that at all here, those usually only go to really big cities.”
But exhibits of Turner to Cézanne’s caliber aren’t often found in cities Albuquerque’s size, either. “[People] would actually have to travel to Dallas or Houston or Denver to see an exhibit like this,” says Wright, “so we’re very proud that we’re able to bring it to New Mexico. I think the great appeal of this exhibit is that it’s more than just the usual Impressionist exhibit. It has a lot of great historic content to it and it shows an evolution of painting during that period.”
Connors hopes more exhibits like it will come to Albuquerque. He says it’s crucial for the state to have important installations because it’s known as an artistic hub. “There are so many artists in New Mexico. And so rarely do those artists have the opportunity to see the great masterpieces,” he says, adding that if the state is going to maintain its image as an arts center that artists need to be able to see collections of this magnitude and “be inspired by them and learn from them.”
In Albuquerque, Connors says the city administration shows its support for art. “You will find very few cities of this size that have a zoo of our caliber, an aquarium of our caliber, botanic gardens, an art and history museum,” he says. “It’s a good mother ship.” National Museum Wales’ Tooby agrees. “I think it’s a really interesting and rich place—rich in a cultural sense,” he says. “While Santa Fe has a reputation for great museums, great cultural life and so on, I think Albuquerque as a city is a place where an exhibition like this really works.”
Part of the reason why is the way people involved in the arts cooperate here, says Connors. “The arts community knows each other, we speak to each other and we’re fairly classless—meaning without class division, not that we have no style,” laughs Connors. he says that while in other “arts cities” there are distinct lines between wealthy art patrons and working-class artists, here everyone works together and gets along. But there are still plenty of Albuquerque denizens who don’t regularly make a point of viewing art, he says, and that’s an area ripe for growth. He hopes exhibits like Turner to Cézanne, which feature artists with household names, will sway more people toward the museum and art in general.
“I’m thrilled that people have the opportunity to see works of art of this caliber and spend time to hopefully understand why those of us in the art world celebrate these sort of objects,” He says. “Because there are times when people come into an art exhibit and say, The emperor has no clothes. But when you look at these works in this exhibition, people immediately are exposed to greatness and can see the greatness palpably in a way that you never can through reproductions. And that’s why museums exist, because the original is always better than a copy.”
It’s about more than showing art for art’s sake. Connors believes art actually makes people smarter. “The more people are exposed to the great questions of the past,” he says, “the more we might learn to think of proper responses to those questions. Most of these artists in this exhibition are pushing and questioning and experimenting, and taking risks. And in some cases, those risks were mortal.” He cites van Gogh’s death, caused by “his passion for experimentation and ideas and the lack of other people’s understanding of what he did,” as well as the financial setbacks and public ridicule most of the artists faced in their lifetimes. That’s why, he adds, it’s important to celebrate their achievements.
In the U.S., arts programs are often among the first to be cut in times of budgetary crisis. As a result, Connors says, “our arts education generally in the United States is so minimal that we don’t sort of have a national consciousness that art is thinking and art is experimentation and art is good for the brain.”
For many people, including those who cut budgets, he says, art is what people learn about when they’ve already studied “all the real things.” “But art is problem-solving,” he says, “art is invention and experimentation—deep, thoughtful inquiry. So without that rooted in young children’s consciousness, we have to sort of go back and re-educate some of the adults and 1) makes them feel welcome in an arts institution and 2) make them feel that it’s worth coming back.”