Walking the streets of San Francisco I'm always fascinated by the variety and colors of murals and graffiti. Mostly concentrated in the Mission area, murals are popping up everywhere in the city where there is an empty wall available. In this large diversity I recognize and enjoy one particular set characterized by an absolutely unique and intriguing style. These are the murals created by Mona Caron, a local artist who hails from Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. Interestingly, Mona is from the same small village as Gottardo Piazzoni, a well known local artist of the first half of the twentieth century, who's most famous artworks are now exhibited at the De Young Museum in the Golden Gate Park. I'm deeply fascinated by Mona's murals. When standing in front of one of her murals I feel like my eyes are gently guided through a dynamic perspective that continuously and gradually changes from a bird's eye to spectacular closeups. Like a good piece of music that gives me new pleasure every time I listen to it, Mona's murals reveal new details and hidden meanings every time I peruse them. In order to know more about Mona Caron and her artistic experience, I asked her for an interview.
Mona, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic activities?
My name is Mona Caron. I am a visual artist, mostly a muralist and illustrator. My large paintings appear on buildings, mostly in the streets of San Francisco, while my small paintings tend to be tiny, and appear as illustrations for books or magazines or posters or other uses. I also do painting performances sometimes.
I'm Swiss-Italian, from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. That's where I went to school through the Liceo (high school). We focused on literature in French, English, and German. Then I went to the University of Zurich for three years studying English literature and then dropped out and came to San Francisco and enrolled in the Academy of Art University downtown, majoring in illustration. Now I mostly work as a muralist, but I was never schooled in this endeavor. I'm a autodidatta (self-taught) person.
You came to San Francisco from Intragna, a small village in the Ticino region of Switzerland. What limitations might there be for an artist living in a small town, even if it's a beautiful Swiss village?
The area I’m from is a place that I still derive inspiration from. My connection with nature, and the way I observe and represent it, has everything to do with my place of origin. However, there are not too many opportunities there for me to live as an artist, and at the time I left there, I had not even considered becoming an artist yet. Even though the nearby town of Locarno (and Ticino as a whole) is actually quite rich in culture and has a lot of artists residing there, it was necessary for my own path to go far away to both become an artist and explore what I’m about.
I started creating murals thanks to a chance encounter. I was invited to do my first mural here in San Francisco when a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition approached me right upon my graduation from the Academy of Art University. At first I refused, simply because I had no idea how to do a mural -- that is, how to paint something hundreds of times the scale of my own body, and somehow still keep control over how it looks. I was encouraged to just, well... figure it out! So I did. I feel that the city has pushed me toward this attitude of possibility by giving me the opportunity to expand the range of things that I can do. That, I find, is another thing that differs between my place of origin and SF.
You invested an incredible amount of time in creating some of the most astonishing murals in town. But murals are one of the most fragile forms of art, being exposed to weather, vandalism, etc. How do you deal with this intrinsic fragility of your art?
I try to use certain precautions, like using only permanent pigments, and varnishing the finished painting, but unless you create real frescoes on fresh plaster and keep them in protected environments, which is not an option in a modern city street, murals are not forever. That’s just the way it is. Because of this, sometime my work feels a little like doing a giant intricate sand mandala, like Buddhist monks do, which are meant to be blown away by the wind at any moment. But one of the thing that matter the most to me when I do a public mural, is not so much the finished product as the effect of creating it.
I work very, very, very slowly. More slowly than not just people but society as a whole expects. We live in a society that is really sped up. Everything keeps getting quicker and quicker and we all are getting shorter and shorter attention spans. There is an expectation to produce things quickly and move on. By contrast, my murals are almost like super slow-motion performance art, and it is meant to stand in opposition to this trend. When I start a mural, people expect to see me there for days, but it ends up being months. I definitely do put an unexpected amount of life energy into something that people, as you were saying, expect to be ephemeral. But it’s precisely when people in the street realize my commitment to a spot that they themselves start changing their attitude towards it, start slowing down too, start looking and appreciating more closely the very place I’m working in, which they share with me. In that moment of pause, that’s when the conversations get really interesting.
It may be a combination of nostalgia, as well as a Utopian direction for me, to hark back to a time in which people were still able and allowed to truly invest time, love, and care in the craftsmanship of what they do. And of course that is something that flies against the principles of capitalism and the necessity of creating ever-greater profits. The world’s trend has been towards cheaper, worse-made products. Craftsmanship is now a total luxury. As a public muralist, I want to lavish some of that lost time and love onto public places shared by all, people of all class backgrounds and cultures.
In terms of vandalism, I've been pretty lucky so far. There is nothing that prevents it from happening. While the mural is in progress anybody could come and vandalize it and destroy the work, that's just the nature of the beast of working in the street. I am conscious of that, and I simply decided to take that risk. Once a mural is finished it gets coated with anti-graffiti varnish, as required by the City. But I actually tag my own murals! Since I live in the street for long periods of time I meet everybody that frequents the street, including some taggers. The Market Street railway mural is full of tags of the kids I met around there. Except I put them in myself: I had the kids write their tags to my sketchbook, and I put them in the mural in prospective, in a way that works with my cityscapes. And since in my cityscapes I always try to show the myriad ways in which people interact with public space, adding the tags is only obvious, as I also include my favorite guerrilla posters, stencils, all sorts of stuff you find in the street that I find interesting.
One of my leitmotifs is public space and how it is used. I'm always wishing for a more convivial way of co-inhabiting public space. By visually referencing all sorts of subcultures in my murals with cityscapes, I make different people aware of each other. And my being on the street painting is something that in itself brings about a little bit more of this conviviality: people may be going home, or shopping, or coming from works, and the mural presents a reason for them to stop and look. And maybe another neighbor stops and looks. And both start commenting to each other about what they are seeing. All of the sudden they ask for each other name, and where do they live, and a connection is made. I see this happen all the time. And that's really what my work is about.
Ever changing perspective is one of the features that I appreciate the most in your artworks; it adds dynamism and forces me to look in continuously shifting angles. Is this feature in some way related to your personality or your vision of the world?
I don’t really know. I'm sure that in the process I can’t help but express something about my personality subconsciously, but that is a side effect, not a goal. I'm a communicator, and I want to tell stories, and advocate things.
You mention my use of different perspectives. It is just a way for me to fit everything into the picture that I want to tell about. Since I’m free to create anything I want, visually, I stay away from showing things from an angle that is too close to the one we’re accustomed to. I portray the life we know, but perhaps from a bird's eye view which kind of gives you a sense of distance and allows you to reflect on the “bigger picture,” or from a bug’s eye view which brings you to a level of minute observation that we rarely have time for in our regular lives. This way, people recognize the familiar things in the painting, but are given a new perspective on them (literally and figuratively). This way, I may elicit reactions such as "Oh, wow! I never truly noticed this thing or place that I walk by every day, what is it about? Why does it exist? Why is it here? Has it always been like this?" And then, crucially: “Could it be different? Could it be better?”
When I paint nature from a bug’s eye perspective, I’m trying to make a more poetic point on the beauty and richness you find within anything upon close, loving observation. I try to make the most humble of plants look spectacular and rich, separating beauty and ornateness from monetary value. For example I might show a beautiful flower but also a dried leaf, seeds, and dead things,... everything in nature has beauty. And that connects to the statement I was making before, about wishing we had more time to truly see things. Most people don't have the time to go crawling around pulling up a random weed to gaze at its beauty - people will think you’re crazy. That’s a state of innocence that we have as children and a kind of openness I’d like to remind people of in my artwork.
Every single element in your murals is painted with an incredible respect for the reality while never trying to become a photographic representation. What drives you to be so respectful for example of the shape of a flower or a plant?
I'm not always so accurate. I do strive for some accuracy, because I don't think you can ever improve on nature. But because I'm a human not a plant, when I observe a plant, I sort of empathize with its gesture, I imagine what it must feel like in my body to be that shape. I see the tension and relaxation of the way it grows, and I end up feeling it like a gesture, a dance. So then I paint the flower or plant as I feel it, and what comes out is rarely perfectly botanically accurate.
As an artist you seem to immerse yourself in the problems and issues of our time, without being afraid of taking sides. How do you relate with artists who live protected in the art galleries or museums and keep their art insulated from everyday problems?
I do not assume that artists seen in galleries and museums do not relate to the problems of the world. Some do and some don’t, every artist is different and I have seen strong and interesting work being done in galleries. Perhaps what you refer to is that sometimes art is abstracted in such a way that seems inaccessible to vaster audiences. I recognize that. I do see myself differently from that because I do emphasize communication within my visual art: my point is narrative, not just aesthetic, and my visual narration is not abstruse but very approachable. Muralism is a populist medium, and fits with artists, such as myself, who seek to communicate to audiences of all backgrounds, of all social classes. I want to draw in, not intimidate, people in the street.
You were saying that "I'm not afraid of taking sides." Of course I take sides, but I try not to beat people over their head with a political position. I try to be a little slyer than that. For example, I’m a little bit of a tradition-breaker as my political murals look, well, “pretty.” There is a great tradition in the twentieth century art which says that the medium, look and technique of artwork need to reflect your feelings and also the themes that you are talking about. So if that is war or injustice and you are angry about that, this ought to be reflected in your technique, in your stroke, in your selection of the medium. It may be a block print of the German impressionist rather than a painting of the century before, for example. I love that tradition, but I don’t do that in my murals. I fabricate Trojan horses with an appealing, even soothing first impact. My work is on the street, people see it everyday. I want to provide a respite, some pleasure at first impact. Which is also a way for me to draw more viewers in for a closer look, less of a self-selected audience. Then, once people are close and at ease, that’s when the rest of the message unfolds. And the way it unfolds is, I hope, not in a preachy, slogan-like way. Rather, I just lay out all the things I want you to consider, calmly and matter-of-factly, and allow you, the viewer, to wander from one thing to the next and make causal and comparative connections amongst things. And it works, people get it. I’ve heard the humblest of people articulating the ironies and reflections implicit in my mural with razor sharp accuracy, and make deep, incisive comments on it all.
Lastly, I don't do galleries because I do really prefer being in the street, despite all the dirt and craziness. The environment of an artwork influences our perception of the artwork, inevitably. So if you put any object in a pristine white gallery, it is bound to look extremely precious and rarefied. The white walls, the wine and cheese and well-dressed people, and most importantly the price tag next to the painting, all these things together make the way we perceive the artwork. The street does something completely different to a mural, and I enjoy that different effect. I kind of like the strange way a mural impacts the surrounding reality in the street as well... it almost turns real life into a storybook, and people become characters within it.
I would like to thank Mona Caron for taking time for this interview. If you have a question for Mona or for BAIA please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. I would recommend to visit Mona's website to find out more about her and her art. If you are in San Francisco please take the time to visit her murals.