Today we’d like to introduce you to Monika Ramirez Wee.
Hi Monika, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
My students sometimes ask me how long I’ve been an artist –there’s the formal answer related to schooling and exhibitions, but from my perspective, it all starts at the dining room table of my childhood. Art was my first friend. I was the youngest in a large Latino family, and there was a big gap in ages between my siblings and me. So, I would spend hours of my childhood alone, drawing at that table. Fortunately, there were grown-ups who noticed my focused, solitary, activity and they’d provide me with supplies—pencils, crayons, a stack of paper. Oh, the joy in a brand-new box of Crayons! And that first box with a sharpener so you could get a sharp tip, over and over again! To this day, I still adore the smell of Crayola crayons—even though other supplies have replaced them as top choice. I also spent a lot of time outside—the California sunshine was my companion—and influences my strong palette. If I wasn’t inside drawing, I was outdoors making concoctions with plants or climbing the avocado tree. My aunt and uncle took care of me, and their property in El Rio was this very beautiful, magical place as a child–with its shady patio filled with maidenhair ferns and metates, rose bushes and soft grass, and tons of fruit trees that became a multi-purpose “forest” for imaginary stories.
As a child, it was like a Leo Politti picture book come to life. My aunt, my beloved, “Tia-Tia,” often sewed clothing for my mother and me and would occupy my time with her with bits of fabric, tissue, and her thread snips. All of these experiences…running through the laundry on the line, the scent of roses and orange blossoms, the quiet, tactile companionship of fabric and thread were some of my earliest creative influences. They represented safety and a sense of home. These experiences at my aunt and uncles’ home gave me a safe foundation from which to later explore. My path to where I am today has been circuitous. I intended to pursue art as a degree but explored many other subjects. Natural Sciences related to agricultural ecology, Women Studies, dreams and psychology—I like learning and learning about lots of different subjects. But ultimately—that first friend, art, kept calling me back. I completed multiple graduate certificates in Dream Studies, Museum Studies, and my Masters in Fine Arts in Studio Arts. I‘ve been a full-time professor of art at Pierce College since 2009 where I teach a wide variety of courses in the Art and Architecture Department.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s hasn’t been a smooth road to be where I am today. Without going into a long story laden with detail, my path has been greatly influenced by cultural, intergenerational, gender-based, and childhood trauma. And these things tampered with and created roadblocks on my path. They’ve influenced me as an artist and being Latinx and queer. It’s not to say that survivors and LGBTQ people don’t meet educational or career goals. But, what’s more often the case in stories like mine (which are more common than not), is that the pathway to success isn’t quick or a clear one. I worked at a lot of crazy things–from farm help to craft fairs to yarn stores to being a divorced, single parent on a single income in this very costly place to live. But the one thing that is the thread woven through this all– is that we don’t tend to talk about trauma from the standpoint of how to navigate it as a survivor within multiple marginalized groups. We tend to only talk about it from a mental health standpoint. And this perpetuates an unrealistic picture of what success can look like. Because from the outside, I don’t look like a trauma survivor now. Yet, my awareness of it is an integral part of who I am and what I do—from the plants I grow, the colors of my palette, to how I help students in the classroom. So, the struggle doesn’t ever fully go away–it’s a part of who you are. From my perspective, how you adapt and figure out how to thrive is what matters.
Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I’m a mixed media artist working primarily in acrylics, watercolor, and collage. I’m known for works with rich, high-chroma colors—influenced by the bright Western sunshine, the fields and produce grown in California, and Mexican folk art and textiles. My work is highly influenced by language and text. The ability to speak English was important to my parents, as well as their decision to not speak or teach Spanish to my siblings and I, despite having grandparents and extended family members who did. Access—to our ancestral culture, as well as US/American culture plays heavily in my work and shows up in imagery, phrases, and collaged book pages. I loved reading and picture books when I was growing up for their ability to take me to other places—much like my aunt and uncle’s magical yard.
So, the genre of magical realism and the realm of the fantastic, where objects, walls, don’t follow the rules of perspective, are integral aspects of my work. Not whimsy—but dreamscapes or alternative narratives untethered to waking reality. Sometimes my work operates as incantations, much like Latin American and Southwestern retablo paintings. They are prayers or offerings in reference to autobiographical events. For me, being an artist is about more than the visual artwork I do in the studio. I see the work I do on the land that I live on, in the kitchen, as all linked to my wider community. To that end—many aspects and themes in my studio work—food and the land, bees and pollinator health, interpersonal and community healing, are interconnected. Trauma—that is generational and intersectional has never been an easy topic to discuss prior to the pandemic. But it’s become impossible to ignore due to recent political and social events. The pandemic has coalesced this. As an artist, I see a need for more direct action: more cooking, more dinners, more working together on the land. I see the studio heading outward.
Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting out?
Approaching situations with beginner’s mind really helps foster a viewpoint of: “what can I find out here?” and this can positively influence artmaking. From the most mundane things—can come beauty. So essentially—turn trash into treasure, whether that’s creative re-use of leftovers into yummy soup, junk mail incorporated into a painting, or nursing a neglected piece of land into a thriving vegetable garden—see potential and abundance in situations and people. I’m an educator, so of course I’m going to stress education! But beyond my “day job” I really do believe in the power of education and its ability to ground us in the humanities, in our sense of who we are and where we’ve come from. As well as giving us a wide and varied skill set. Having this foundation allows us to pivot along our creative path as we need to. Read, keep a journal, listen to music, do something outside, and work with your hands in some way. This. Is a varied skill set in and of itself. Oh, and last, I’ll emphasize some sage advice that was given to me a long time ago—hone writing skills. If you can write well, you can get jobs and potentially raise funds. I wish I put this into practice more often for myself.
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