Just to set the scene: we're in Elmira, California, in my dad Malaquias’s studio, and it's raining outside. My dad is wearing a fez and drinking water, and he's still in his gym clothes. Maceo: We’re going to develop a series of conversations where we talk about your work, the content of your work, but then also about the aesthetics because one of the things that I noticed most about your work is the range of styles, not just from your printmaking to your painting and drawing, but even within your prints there’s a range of styles. You’re always experimenting. Beyond the message of the print, it’s evident you want to craft the piece so that it has the biggest impact. I'm hoping that these conversations can explore that, but then I also want them to go in whatever direction that you want. I guess just to start off, when you're asked to talk about your work, what's the most interesting entry point for you? Malaquias: I think it's the content of my work. That pretty much always starts off why I do the kind of work that I do and I never get into much about the aesthetics of it. I’m not thinking of aesthetics when I'm working. I'm just expressing myself with whatever medium I'm working in, so when people ask me about aesthetics I give them a blank look. Maceo: Fair enough. I get that. You’re mostly feeling your way through a piece, intuiting its direction. But maybe an entry into talking about aesthetics is to examine your personal history and how much that impacts your work. For instance, you worked at a commercial print shop in San Jose, CA for years, and you must have learned printmaking skills that would’ve been different if you’d learned the medium in art school or if you had learned on the fly at a community taller (workshop). The silkscreen poster was one of the most important mediums in Chicano Art, and here you were able to draw on years of experience in a commercial silkscreen shop. That must have been hugely important for you.﷯ Malaquias: The experience working for Ed Pranger (1962-1968) as a commercial artist did help me out a lot. I think it helped me develop discipline. The nature of silkscreening – cutting the stencils, the separations – requires skill and patience. Everything is a step. You can’t get from step 1 to step 5, you have to go in order, each step dependent on the one preceding it. I did this as a 9 to 5, 5 days a week for 7 years. We printed on different materials – on paper, on fabric, on metal and wood, on electronic circuit boards, and even on three dimensional forms, which required us to figure out how to build a set-up so that we could print on the surface. Each project meant a different approach and I saw each one as a challenge and the results could be quite amazing, such a range of outcomes. That's why I enjoy printmaking so much. I mean, I also enjoy painting and drawing, but each medium calls for a different character, you might say, of myself. Silkscreening makes me slow down and think of what it is I'm doing, whereas in painting, I really don't. I just like to get in there and express myself. Silkscreen allows me to think more about how something's going to look beforehand and decide what technique I should use to express what I'm trying to say. Of course, I also enjoy bringing the technique and expressive work from my painting and drawing into my silkscreen, but I don't think I could do so without having that basic experience working in the commercial art field. Maceo: I’d like to introduce four prints into the discussion and I want to start on a personal note. The four silkscreen posters featured here had a big impact on me growing up. Three of them - “FLMN: Juventud Sandinista (1979),” “U.S. Workers Must Not Support the Bloodshed of the Rich” and “Che: Una Flor Que Brota En Tiempos Duros” – were hung in my childhood bedroom.﷯ So, in addition to going to bed every night staring at two young soldiers with assault rifles, I was also made acutely aware of the violence perpetuated by the United States government in Central America. And Che Guevara, well, his eyes followed me as I went about my daily routine. Is it any wonder that until I was 21-years-old I was convinced that I was placed on this earth to foment radical revolution? Was this your intent? Malaquias: I never thought to myself “I'm going to put this print here and this print there so that my children could see them every day and be influenced by them,” but once they were up there I figured my children would see the work and learn from it, ask questions about it. As parents what you hope to do is affect your children in a positive direction, in a way that calls for justice, and honesty, and that opposes those things that are wrong in the world, and most of the work that I do depicts that, it intends to empower people to want to change that which is wrong. The intent of my work has always been to start a dialog. This idea that I’d want my sons or daughter to grow up and go into Central America and fight for the right reasons, well, I guess that’s pretty exciting. Maybe because I wished that I could have done that. Maceo: So you really would have been okay with me picking up arms?﷯ Malaquias: If it was for a just cause, yes. Maceo: (incredulous) Yeah, but your concern for us has always been making sure that we have stability, health insurance, a good job -- Malaquias: Sure. I mean, I wouldn't want any struggle, I mean, any war anywhere, but if that was going on and you were so passionate about wanting to defend the right cause, and you wanted to go, I think I would have let you… I don't know if Mom would have. Maceo: Okay, the fourth poster – “Unificación, The Family” from 1990 – didn’t hang in my bedroom, but I remember it well because my brother Macario is the 12-year-old boy featured in the photograph on the other side of the chain-link fence. I can still recall the day when you asked Macario to pose for the photo on the front porch. I think I asked you, “You wanna take my photo now, Dad?” And you said, “No, I got what I need.” Which, of course, left me thinking, my neurosis already in full force at 10, that I must be too ugly. Is that what you were thinking? I mean, I don’t care anymore, I really don’t, but I thought if we’re going to have these conversations, we might as well start off honest. ﷯ Malaquias: (laughs) No, no. This poster was commissioned by Bert Corona, a labor activist from Los Angeles who was working on a series for undocumented immigrants in L.A. They wanted a kid in the print and they asked that he be a certain age and I think that was Macario’s age at the time. Maceo: So it had nothing to do with the size of my cheeks? Malaquias: It had nothing to do with the size of your chubby cheeks. Maceo: I want to talk about your range of styles, which are on display here in these four posters, and I think we can develop that discussion in later conversations, but I want to start off with asking you how you found your source material. These posters range from 1979-1993. How did you develop your imagery back then? Today, photographs are so much easier to access. You can google a few key words and end up with thousands of images to choose from, and you can pull them often without regard for the context. I know how you got the photo of my brother – I haven’t been able to forget – but how about the photo of the two young Nicaraguan soldiers? Your work is responding to specific political situations, did you do research to find the documentary material to work from? And how do you decide whether you’re going to use a photo or draw something from your imagination, such as in “U.S. Workers Must Not Support the Bloodshed Caused by the Rich,” which features a stylized U.S. flag and the repetition of a blindfolded figure? Malaquias: As far as the two young people in “FLMN: Juventud Sandinista,” I was approached about making a poster and they supplied me with documentary material. I often made posters where organizations would reach out to me and already have some sort of documentation that they wanted included, or what words they wanted. In this case, I can’t remember what organization it was, but at this time in the Bay Area there were a lot of efforts on behalf of Central America.﷯ I remember they gave me a packet and there was a real small photograph of these two young kids and I started drawing it at first, but I guess the impact of that photo hit me so much and the drawing I was trying to do wasn’t capturing that. I did want to do something totally on my own, but these kids just kept looking at me. So I tried to just copy the photograph, and I said, well instead of sitting here and just copying it, I'll just use the photograph itself. It was a strong image, especially blown up a little bigger. The rest was just design. I used what I learned as a graphic designer and commercial artist – how to lay out letters to have an impact. What letters go large. What letters are smaller, you know, whereas with “U.S. Workers Must not Support the Bloodshed Caused by the Rich,” that was just a very expressive image that I developed on mylar, on acetate. That was all from my imagination. Maceo: Then, how much are you thinking of graphic design when you’re working? In that poster I’m drawn to different elements: the repetition of the imagery like the faces, the flag that, in a way, is the most prominent part of the piece. The way it's stylized with its jagged stripes and stars, it almost has the feel of barbed-wire. I’m also drawn to the drips. How do you feel your way through a piece like this keeping in mind its message? Malaquias: I think it's just part of that energy that's coming from you when you're working. Without thinking, a jagged edge appears that makes you go, wow, that looks good. Or a barbed-wire running across here or splattering something on the paper or on the mylar, and it just adds to it… Something emerges that looks good, and that just keep driving you forward until you're complete. It comes from experience, but also the energy that you have inside for it, the emotional energy. The conversation ends when a FedEx employee knocks on the door. She’s there to pick up two paintings for an exhibit in Oakland. The woman informs my dad that she can’t accept his packaging and that he should instead bring it into the store for them to wrap. He tells her he’s been shipping artwork for 40 years and he doesn’t understand why he has to bring it into FedEx only to watch some eighteen-year-old kid handle his paintings. I shut off the tape recorder. April 6, 2018
Conversations Between The Artist and his Son Maceo Montoya with Malaquias Montoya My father Malaquias is guided by a belief that an artist must respond to the injustices of this world with clarity and directness. He is also a tireless craftsman, and I have witnessed firsthand his commitment not just to react or to create, but also to continuously push his work in new directions. These conversations seek to shed light on his process, his aesthetics, and his creative philosophy. - Maceo Montoya
November 13, 2018
Just to set the scene: We’re in my house in Woodland. My dad stopped by TANA (Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer) to visit José Arenas, but José wasn’t there. My dad doesn’t like to call ahead, preferring just to stop in, which means he often misses people. But he caught me, and being as he was already in the area, we decided to go over some questions I’d developed a few months ago and hadn’t found the time to sit down and discuss. My dad is wearing his wide-brimmed Panama hat and a Peruvian side satchel where he keeps his keys, wallet, phone, and the carrying case for his temporary tooth. Lately, he doesn’t ever seem to take off the side satchel. I’m sipping an espresso. Maceo: Are you ready? Malaquias: I wasn't supposed to be briefed? Maceo: No, I was just hoping to jump in. Malaquias: (laughs) Okay. Maceo: You recently turned 80, so I feel it's a good occasion to look back on your early childhood, and some of the factors that impacted your creative bent. I remember you used to say that your mother was an interior decorator and that your father was a chemist. The joke being, of course, that Grandpa Malaquias was a bootlegger. He operated an illegal whiskey sill in the mountains of New Mexico and served two years in Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary for his crime. I never thought of him as a creative person. ﷯In fact, the irony of coming from a family of artists all named Montoya is that we probably owe it most to Grandma Lucy whose family names were Saiz and Lobato. But after getting your dad's prison records, and seeing the reports where he's listed as “an illiterate Mexican of poor intelligence,” I thought to myself that maybe he was more creative than given credit for. I mean, instead of settling for a life as a shepherd, he was looking for a way out. It took ingenuity to do what he did. What was bootlegging for him if not some sort of creative leap? Do you agree? Malaquias: (laughs dismissively) Oh my god, José would love that (José Montoya [1932-2013], older brother and brilliant embellisher). José would jump for that and run. I could just hear it in his next presentation… No, I mean there must have been something that he had, that he survived 60 years, through all of that living in the mountains, you know, without much to go on. And then he worked for the W.P.A. But even that, I don't know if he ever picked up anything that he could run with. I think he was just a hustler, and he was always looking for that thing that's going to make him, or make them wealthy. I remember my mom telling a story... she had the ability for astral projection. And in one incident el sobador (a healer) came and put her to sleep, or in the state of mind where she could go and find the knife that my Tío Elfigo was looking for and had claimed that my oldest brother Santiago had stolen. It bothered my mom that Santiago might have done it, or even it bothered her more that it was her tío who was accusing her son. So during one of these times, el sobador said, "Well look, if it's bothering you so much, let's see if we can find it." So he put her in a trance and she said she could look down and see herself, and she went and she found the knife. Found the knife by a woodshed where my tío used to sit all the time and whittle. So when she told my father—well, first, my mother was real happy. She told my Tío Elfigo, "Look there, I found it, and it's not Santiago who stole it, you left it there." But my father got all excited about the possibility that they could go to the police and talk to them and somehow enlist her service to find people who stole things. Maceo: So he was going to use your mom as a crime tracker? Malaquias: Yeah. And of course my mom wouldn't do it. But that was how my dad was, if he could figure out some way of making money he would go for it. That's why he and my Tío Benjamín spent nights and nights in Laton (CA) along a ditch bank where we were living at the time. They believed that the Japanese farmers, before being interned during World War II, had buried their money. So they would go out, and they had those sticks that come together when there's a treasure buried. Or they had a three-legged stool that would start to (mimics shaking motion)... and they would go out every night, and they would talk, and they would come home early in the morning exhausted, their shoes muddy, and they would do that almost every night. Looking for that treasure. Somebody would give them another clue, and they would go to another part— Maceo: So it wasn't creative then?﷯ Malaquias: (laughs) No, not at all. Maceo: I mean, it wasn’t artistic creative. How about hustler creative? Malaquias: What was that? Maceo: Hustler creative. Malaquias: (shrugs) Aw, yeah. Sure. Maceo: All right. So I know that your mother had a bigger impact on your creativity. Obviously, she wasn't an interior decorator, but she did decorate the humble homes you lived in. Sometimes not even in homes, just labor dwellings, even box cars. Can you tell us a little about how she did that? And what other ways did her perspective on life impact you as an artist? Malaquias: Well…(pauses) I think the impact was her creativity, the way she wanted to see things beautiful, or make homes beautiful. And I would ask her, "Well, how did you learn that, Mom?" And she would say, "Pues, allá en la sierra everybody knew how to do something beautiful. Wanted to make something beautiful." And I got to thinking that we all have that ability. I think that if we found ourselves in a situation of ugliness, if somebody transported us somewhere, you know, that little by little we would want to make where we were living, make that place beautiful, and we would start to find things to be creative with. And living in the mountains, and being poor, I remember asking my mom—and the reason I asked her was because I remember the house in the mountains where they had lived and where some of my siblings had been born. We’d go up there sometimes to visit my tío, and I would run over to the house simply because I could just jump all over the furniture and play games. But I also remember sometimes when I would stop and look up at the beautiful colors on the wall and the little decorations that I thought were decals. Later, when I was just learning how to silkscreen, cutting stencils and printing decals, I remember coming home one night and I could hardly wait to ask my mom these two questions. First, if we were so poor, living up in the mountains, where did we get the paint? Beautiful paint and the brushes to paint the house those colors. And second, where did she find the decals that she placed all along the walls? All along the edge where the walls met the ceiling, and all the way around the windows, you'd see these floral prints. Birds, too, you could see the wings defined. So she told me that she would go up into the mountains behind el ranchito where they lived, and she could find this white rock that she would bring home. And then at the house, she would mash it, and add some… I don't know what else she added to it besides water. But what she was making—I think the rock was gypsum—and what she was making was gesso. Gesso that she, and how she knew that gesso had to be applied, I don’t know, or what we would call a primer today to get a wall prepared. But with that, she would paint the entire house white. And I asked her about the brushes, and she said they were sheep's skin, “una jalea de borregas.” And with that, she would paint the entire house white, or with whatever colors she was using. The colors that she made came from her going along different arroyos up in the mountains. And when the creeks would go down, they'd expose different colors of earth. And she would take those different colors, browns, and deep reds, and ochres, and of course she didn't know that they were ochres, she didn't call them ochre, but un poquito de amarillo con café. So she would bring those home, crush, mix the muddy dirt, clay, whatever. And she'd mix berries she found, too, unas morras. And then when she wanted other colors, she would go to the—my dad used to take her to the dances there in the mountains, and she would bring home all the crepe paper that was left after a dance, and she would bring the paper home and put those in different buckets. So she had red water, blue water, yellow water, different colors of water that she would use to tint the paint. She added the blue water to the yellow to make green. The blue to a red would make it darker. So she was actually making her own tinted paint.﷯ Then, what I thought were decals, turned out to be stencils. She would go up on the highway-- Highway 66 used to run by the house--and she would find inner tubes and abandoned tires, and she would bring those home. And on inner tubes, she would actually cut out floral designs and designs of birds. And she would cut those and paste them onto a piece of cardboard. So what she was making were printing blocks. And with those printing blocks, she would get up on a ladder and do her stenciling. That’s what she would make, printing blocks, and then she would stencil them up and print them up along the wall. Around the windowsill, or window frames. And then in the kitchen, what looked like it was wallpaper, turned out to be stencils using the actual tires. One of her cousins would cut them up in different sizes for her. And then she would dip those into the colors she had made, and then just go around and roll the tire. She would print the treads, and what was neat is that she would print the treads in one direction and then she'd go the other way, and when those treads crossed, it created another design. That to me was pretty amazing. Wherever we lived when we were following the crops, we would go off, we would get to the new ranch, and she would stay home the first day or two. And when we came back that night, that house was... that tent, that shack, that boxcar was transformed into a livable space, and it was done so beautiful. I think that's where I got, or maybe all of us, got that talent, from Mom. And she was very, very pleasant, too. She had a demeanor that was just, it would soften you when you met her. And maybe that's why all the people that knew her would call her Grandma Lucy. The other kids would call her grandma, and even her own children started calling her Grandma Lucy. Maceo: No, Mama Lucy. You didn't call your own mom grandma.﷯ Malaquias: What’s that? Maceo: It was Mama Lucy. Malaquias: Mama Lucy, that’s what I said. Maceo: You said you called her grandma. Malaquias: (confused, but as if I had been the one to confuse things) No, we called her Mama Lucy. But that's where I think her ability to reach out and touch you... because I remember coming home from UC Davis when I was already a professor. And I was exhausted like you get at 3 or 4 o'clock after either a meeting, or a class that doesn't go well. And you’d go to Grandma Lucy's [in Dixon], and she would just say, "Ah mijito, pásale, pásale, siéntate.” And you would sit next to her on the couch, and then she'd put you on her… put your head on her lap. And all she had to do was just sort of rub your head, your shoulders and it seemed like everything just left you. And that's the kind of woman she was.

Malaquias Montoya Sr. served prison time from 1932-1934 for bootlegging

My dad speculates that his father documented himself wearing a neck brace for an insurance scam.

Mama Lucy (center) with her daughter, Helen, and her sister-in-law Barbarita in Chilili, New Mexico.

Lucia Saiz-Montoya (1908-1997)