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