Monroe Hodder is an artist whose work breathes color and music.  Her multi-layered works sing and soar through her deep conviction and courage to go to uncomfortable places.  Her paintings really are a triumph of concentration and spirit.  Read on and find out how she does it …

“… Without that willingness to open up to the deepest feelings in oneself, one might as well be an accountant or drive a truck ... Art for me is about plumbing the depths of the human spirit and wallowing in the muck and fire. It's a cave you have to go through …”

MICHAEL: Hello Monroe, Your paintings are very intriguing. Viewing them online, they actually look like they've been done in pencil, pen and crayon and they’re highly textural which is great.  How do you describe your process? 

MONROE: Hi Michael, You're right! I use many media in my work often in subtle, covert ways that may later melt into layers. These media might include oil acrylic, watercolor, inks, florescent markers, oil paint of course, oil stick, various mediums and pigment powders. I feel each different material has its own voice in the process which gives me sort of a chorus to work with.

MICHAEL: You've just said something very interesting.  Materials give you a “chorus” to work with. I know that you mean this in the metaphorical sense, but do you think of your work in musical terms?  I so see a symphony of color in your work.  Is your work musical or music inspired?

MONROE: I usually sing my way through each painting as I make it - to very Catholic tastes in music. When I go to a museum, I have to muffle myself to keep from song - Matisse is a killer. Bach partitas and sonatas are a favorite, as are the Chemical Brothers. On multiple visits to the American Academy in Rome, I have grown close to musicians there who had a huge impact on me. Paul Rudy, from Kansas City, a scholar in 2010, gave me his CDs to listen to of non-melodic and non-metered music.  My paintings literally began oozing out of their boundaries and I slipped into a break through. Music can make it happen.

MICHAEL: Now we're talking. What would you say is the relationship between the colors in your work and music?

MONROE: Have you read Johannes Itten’s, The Elements of Color?  I used to teach from it. In part, he puts a gray scale next to colors so that you can read the value of them. Yellow for example is a “2” on the scale going from "1 to 10.” Red and bright green are at “5” and  blues are at “8” or “9.” White is of course “1” and black is “10.” This makes colors easy to sing, especially if you have synesthesia. Look at the Matisse painting, “The Blue Window,” at MOMA.  The yellows sing sort of like the Doxology, Dum De Dum dong dum - if you know what I mean.  “The Red Studio” by Matisse is also a good painting for a sing along. I hope you don't think this is absurd.  

MICHAEL: No, it makes perfect sense. And so, in applying this musical notes theory to color in your work, what might we be listening to with our eyes ... Or seeing with our ears?  Mozart?  Bing Crosby?  Madonna?  Kanye West? 

MONROE: My work has elements of Phillip Glass, John Adams, Hip Hop, Rap, Jazz as in Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and of course Bach. The partitas cut right through my soul.

MICHAEL: When people look at your work, would you rather they feel it or understand it?  Is your process more intellectual, emotional or spiritual?

MONROE: What an interesting question! I can only answer that my process has all three elements - intellectual, emotional and spiritual.  

The structure of my work is a mental mountain for me. Piecing together the painting puzzle requires intense focus and exactness of positioning as well as curiosity about unseen possibilities.

I am looking forward to the Degas show in New York - above all, I am interested in how he allowed new photography to influence and shape his compositions. Yet the search for the real and the new springs primarily from the emotional content of the work. Without that willingness to open up to the deepest feelings in oneself, one might as well be an accountant or drive a truck.

Art for me is about plumbing the depths of the human spirit and wallowing in the muck and fire. It's a cave you have to go through.  I hope I do.

How can an artist tap into these depths? I think each artist must chose whether they forge each art work with self-reliance or turn their making process over to a Creative and Guiding Force.  I am an artist in the second category.  On my own, I find I am lacking enough imagination and perseverance to make my deepest, most vital, most sensitive work. 

Tapping into that spiritual force is for me gaining access to a Power that can transform art. While this sounds self-centered, I have the hope that this desire for transforming art will be passed on to viewers who will feel a heightened poetry and energy in this jumble of mark making.

MICHAEL: When you tap into the Creative and Guiding Force, do you ever feel that a literal message comes with the inspiration?  Surely the Guiding Force also has something to say, at least on occasion. 

MONROE: Hahahaha! Michael, it works a little differently for me. When I am painting in the spirit, so to speak, I don't hear more voices, I hear less. So I always begin my day in the studio with a sit down in a very comfortable chair and I let those nagging, troubling voices just drift far out of my head. “Get milk, your sister hates you, you haven't heard from that gallery in weeks, etc.”

I wait until my head clears and I almost have the sense that my heart is opening. It’s a kind of meditation.  It's like you are by the sea on a calm early morning. And then I begin my work.

MICHAEL: How did art come into your life?  When did it take hold and you knew that you were going to be an artist?

MONROE: As a child in Elementary School, my painting was chosen to hang in a citywide show of children's art at the Baltimore Museum. I got to see my work along with the Cone Sisters Collection featuring a roomful of Matisse paintings. This was my first experience of kiddy fame and I loved it. I also fell in love with Matisse.

Art stayed with me, and in college, when I hated the world, I spent long hours in the New York museums. There I fell in love with everybody. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but didn't know how to make that desire match with practical reality. One has to live, I thought.

The first year of my marriage was spent in Amsterdam. I studied painting with a strangely hostile Spanish painter. On our anniversary, my husband gave me a bowlful of yellow roses in the morning. I moved them this way and that on the table, watching them catch the light and I began to paint. Hours passed, I could not quite capture what I saw and I worked as if in a trance.  

My husband came home and I asked what he was doing there. It's evening he said, and I realized I had stood in one place painting these roses for the entire day. Art seemed no more practical than it had before, but I no longer cared.

MICHAEL: As a writer, I understand you completely.  When you start a painting, do you have a concept in mind or do you just let your mind, spirit and hands guide you?

MONROE: Right now, I am painting my backgrounds all one color as I seem to want a stable base which will permeate the painting. Then I take a high dive into deep waters, having no premonition of what I will dredge up. And why do this, why not plan? Because a plan might work as intended. I want chance, irregularity, riskiness, fear.

I want to heighten my angst so that I have this super-vigilance, this absolute willingness in the menacing shadow of failure. I crave a sort of all or nothing exposure because I know that a cry of pain reaches deepest into the heart. You can see it in the furrowed brow of Jackson Pollock (I am not comparing - I am no fool). But how else to get to the wilderness inside?

I seek the moment when all is loose and precariously wobbling, when the force chaos engulfs me. It takes almost a physical act, a muscular upsweep of the vision to pull one’s image to the fore and allow a painting to happen. I am exhausted just writing about it.

MICHAEL: Finally Monroe, when you're gone and your art remains behind, what do you want to happen to it and what do you want people to get from it?  Is there a narrative or message? 

MONROE: My hope, in this life and after I am gone, is that viewers will see my art first as an emotional and intellectual experience rather than as an object to be bought and sold. There is no message in my work other than a  great affirmation of life, but that may be enough.

I am now in seven museums around the world and like to think of people who I will never meet looking at my work and having that kind of experience.  

Art has the power to extend itself beyond our own small communities and our brief lives. However, most of the time I feel so absorbed in my work that I don't think about all the tomorrows.

MICHAEL: Thanks Monroe.  Lovely chat.

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