Alyssa Monks earned her B.A. from Boston College and she studied painting at Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. She went on to complete her M.F.A at the New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art in 2001. She teaches and lectures at universities and institution nation wide, and is an adjunct professor at the New York Academy of Art.
“My intention is to transfer the intimacy and vulnerability of my human experience into a painted surface. I like mine to be as intimate as possible, each brush stroke like a fossil, recording every gesture and decision.”
Monks’s paintings have been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions including “Intimacy” at the Kunst Museum in Ahlen, Germany and “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009″ at the National Academy Museum of Fine Arts, New York. Her work is represented in public and private collections, including the Savannah College of Arts, the Somerset Art Association and the collections of Howard Tullman, Danielle Steele and Eric Fischl. For more about Alyssa Monks, check out the interview below and visit her website www.alyssamonks.com.
What made you want to become an artist?
I started painting with oil at 8 or 9 years old. I liked it. I liked drawing so much. I liked painting so much. I really needed the escape and identity in a way as the youngest of such a big family. It worked out to have this place that was all my own. I didn’t want to become an artist, I felt like I already was, but that it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t plan on making a living on it, as most everyone warned me I wouldn’t. I didn’t see it as a calling or a gift, it just was what I did with my free time. Some people did other things. I just kept painting and learning and exploring it. Eventually people asked me to teach them and others wanted to buy the work. It evolved as my “career” so to speak. I’m lucky I think, in some ways, sometimes I just think I’m obsessive and compulsive about painting and it was a good thing to be obsessive about.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your way of thinking?
My mom and her passing has lately been a big influence on my life and work. She really taught me so much about creativity and connection and how to be present in what you are doing, letting go of controlling and expectation and just being curious about where it’s all going. She was wise beyond words. Before her illness she was the number one most encouraging force for me. She just put me in the places I needed to be to absorb all the art and technique I could. We really enjoyed art together. The NYAA also was a great influence on my work and career. That school is a community, a family, and it’s a rigorous program that can and will improve your technique and understanding if you open up to it and surrender the ego to the learning.
What was your favourite project and why?
It’s always the one I’m working on at the moment. I’m most engaged and invested and connected to that moment at that time. That’s what it’s all about for me. When it’s over, it’s over.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your career as an artist?
Negotiating a balance between my desire for empathic intimacy and real emotional and creative connection with others with personal space for my own work and creativity. It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to figure out. I thought I’d be in my studio alone most of the time without distraction or any desire to do anything else, as I was for my adolescence and early adulthood. But as I get older perhaps or as my work reaches more people, as I teach with more vulnerability and compassion, I find myself losing studio time to wanting to connect with others. Then I haven’t painted as much as I think I should, which is a lot. I can’t seem to shut out the people I care about so I can focus on my paint, which is my energy source in the first place. This is the challenge.
Do you have a favourite quote that describes what you truly believe in?
I Found this online one day and read it often:
When you can get free from the demands of your ego, you also free yourself from most of your self-imposed limitations. In practicing genuine humility, you will find enormous power.
Get beyond the desire to control others, and you vastly improve your ability to control your own actions. Let go of the need to be right, and you open yourself to experience new truth.
Get free of the need to blame, and your own sense of responsibility grows stronger. Stop seeking to place judgments on others, and you’re free to powerfully improve your own actions.
Give up the thought that you’re better than everyone else, and a whole new world of opportunity opens up to you. Stop seeking unfair advantage, and you’re free to develop an unstoppable effectiveness.
Quit demanding the most and start expecting the best. You’ll experience a level of true abundance that you never before could have imagined.
Live each moment with humility, love, respect and gratitude for the whole of life that surrounds you. And you will find a treasure that has no end.
How do you define creativity?
Creativity isn’t something we can stalk. It’s like happiness or passion or comfort. We can’t will it. We can only make space for it, allow it to occur by removing the blockages. The biggest block to creativity is the egoic mind. Unfortunately we can’t will that to go away either. Our ego is what is wanting the creativity in the first place. So my solution through the back door is to focus on gratitude and curiostiy. Shifting the focus away from an outcome or result of creativity and instead of what is already here to enjoy and savor. Gratitude is a funny state of mind where we give up striving and the self-critic can quiet down. As long as there is a self-critic (and I don’t mean the evaluating mind in the studio with technical choices or aesthetic choices), there is and ego and where there is ego, there can’t be flow. So go to gratitude. Gratitude can often time reveal our curiosities, too. Then we can see what we are attracted by, stimulated by visually, curious about and eventually compelled to do. This compulsion leads to flow. Flow is that state of mind where our focus is so engaged, so calmly yet furiously working, and we are at our highest state of performance, physically or mentally or emotionally. We are swept away from the state of wanting and striving and into an excstatic experience of creativity. Great things happen here. Creativity is what happens when we give up what we want and think we know and give in to our curiosity and compulsive intuition to solve problems at high levels of performance because we are not hung up on the outcome or fearing failure or criticism. Creativity happens in a state of Flow, and that flow state may be the most satisfaction a human can achieve.
If you had one advice for someone seeking to live a creative life, what would you tell him?
Take classes learning to draw and paint and sculpt from life. NYAA is a great program. Try not to rely heavily on photographs. They make great tools, but not great teachers. Focus on the materials and expand your vocabulary on how to use them. Experiment. Don’t try to come up with a style or voice or brand or idea. Lose yourself instead in curiosity for what attracts you. Play. Find flow. Look at paintings and films. Explore. What attracts others ultimately is your energy, focus, attitude, and enthusiasm, not your skill or your cleverness. Be yourself. Trust yourself. Don’t put pressure on your art to support your life, put pressure instead on your life to support your art. You define your own success, not anyone else. For me, success is simply getting into the flow in the studio and making work that blows my own mind. The rest doesn’t define success for me. Learn what grit is and then embody it. Figure out how to stick with what you’re doing and follow through all the way.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at 21?
I was 21 when I started graduate school at the NYAA. I just finished college. Of course I didn’t know many many things. I still don’t know many many things. I don’t have any regrets in my career path, so I can’t think of anything I wish I knew then that I know now. I liked how it all happened. I worked so hard. I made so many paintings. I had great support and so many inspiring and helpful conversations along the way. I learned so much and loved teaching it back to my students. What I wish I could learn now is how to enjoy it all while it’s here. I’m so used to striving. I’m so used to pushing myself really hard. At this point I think it would serve me and my work better to enjoy the process, surprises, and risks and ease up on my self-criticism.
Is there anything for which you would be ready to give up your passion for art?
Passion is part of my DNA. Art is where it lands. I think it would be wise to keep the art in one form or another, some creative and engaging problem solving practice. I don’t want to sound romantic about it, but it’s a personality, not a hobby. Some people have to run every day or they are not “themselves”. That’s what it’s like. It’s not necessarily a good feeling. It just is. I’m not sure it’s that complicated, I just get irritable when I don’t paint enough.
All images © Alyssa Monks