Artist Interview: A Conversation with Monica Pipia, Painter & Exhibitor in the Group Show “Win, Place, ART Show” at Revelry through May 6, 2019
By Rev Reporter, Stephanie Lindsay
Rev Reporter: I’m curious to hear about your background and how you got into painting.
Monica: I have a biology degree with a minor in chemistry from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. My dad and my sister painted, so at that time in my life, I didn’t want to paint. My mother was a music and drama double major, she sang opera, and she was in a lot of plays. So, art really is carried in my family. And in high school, I worked in an art gallery. My co-worker, now an artist himself who works for the Dedalus Foundation (Motherwell Foundation), inspired me through our conversations on painting.
Rev Reporter: Did you grow up riding horses?
Monica: We are from Chicago originally and moved to Lake Forest, Illinois where there is a really big horse community. I rode extensively and took care of horses for other people. I worked for a breeder, and I trained foals. I was a high point open-jumper at age sixteen. I did everything from jumping to barrel racing. I campaigned my horse in college. After I graduated from college, I worked for Leonard Campbell who ran the stable where I used to ride, and I worked breaking and training horses for the track. When I moved to Kentucky, I did dressage and cross-country, and I purchased a retired racehorse.
Rev Reporter: What was your first experience in Kentucky?
Monica: In ’84, I wanted to move from Chicago to Kentucky and had an opportunity to transfer there with my job selling veterinary supplies. I never moved back. This was my first trip to Kentucky. I ended up in medical supply sales and later as a pharmaceutical representative for Wyeth Laboratories in the women’s healthcare division.
Rev Reporter: How long after moving to Kentucky did you start painting horses?
Monica: I was doing my own thing and loved Kentucky, and I loved to travel. I didn’t get inspired to paint, not to sound cliché, until I had a dream that I was painting. Then I asked myself, “Why am I doing this in my dream?” I started studying Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and then began to draw and paint. I drew for my biology and comparative anatomy classes when I was in college, but I never thought of myself as an artist or a painter. This was different.
In 1995, I was downsized from a pharmaceutical company and so that set me free. I was really happy about that, and that’s when I made the decision to “follow my bliss.” I was exploring different options, and I put together a portfolio and sent it to Atlantic Center for the Arts, where I was accepted for an Andy Warhol Fellowship grant. This happened during a year when I really committed to applying myself to my art. I was completely self-taught. The fiber artist Nick Cave was the mentor for the artists-in-residence there. He said, “Monica, do what’s in your heart,” and that’s when I realized that the horse was in my heart and that’s when I made the commitment to being genuine and authentic. Those two things were pivotal to my whole art career. Being vulnerable is a really tough thing. I had previous successes in a different career. Then I decided to commit to my life work and hone that.
Rev Reporter: That’s inspiring. At what age did that happen?
Monica: I was thirty-seven. In a way, I am really starting just now because I have developed enough as a painter that now all of my life experience leads me to new work. I am really happy that I did a lot of groundwork. I did the work. I know who I am, and I know what I did. I don’t know necessarily what I am doing right now because it’s always a mystery, but it comes back to you.
Rev Reporter: Tell me a little more, when you made the leap to commit to your art, how did you first support yourself?
Monica: I am a self-supporting artist, and I have been working solely as a fulltime artist for over three years now.
I received a Kentucky Foundation for Women’s grant that provided me with the funds to convert my garage into an art studio. It was key for receiving recognition and support as well. The Lexington community was really great too.
Over the years, I had to do several jobs along with the art. Back at the economic downturn in ’06, I took a job selling Cadillacs. I would work all day and come home at 7 or 8 PM and then paint in my studio until 1 AM. I was totally committed. Leslie Phillips, who is football coach Joker Phillips’ wife, came into the Cadillac store and while chatting, I found out that she has a new house and collects folk art. She invited me to bring my work to her home, and she bought a piece. Then I introduced her to my friend who owns Kentucky Home & Garden, and they featured her house along with my artwork in the magazine. I think this is a story of connection. I am really grateful that I have connections that help with other connections, and I think artists really do struggle with this.
Rev Reporter: When was your first solo exhibition?
Monica: In 1999, I showed 20 pieces of mixed media work in the president’s room at University of Kentucky in an exhibit called “It’s Not About the Horse.”
Rev Reporter: What are some influences in your work, aside from riding and the horse itself?
Monica: There’s a little bit of an Americana thread in my work, and that’s because I am part Italian American, and being American was important to my family coming from Sicily. I also highly value freedom.
One of my collectors introduced me to the Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, which led to my being on the board there for ten years. I love primitive, self-taught and anything that has specifically to do with visions.
I was awarded an arts residency in Skagway, Alaska with the National Parks Service, and I studied the Northwest Coast Indian art, including the Dead Horse Trail. It was very influential and really became about baseline and space for me as well as texture. Also, these indigenous peoples knew the animals with fresh eyes. Painting is about feelings, emotion, and so with texture it is created through different techniques and layering. It’s a painting until I reach a heart connection, and then it is a work of art. Painting for me is about bringing spirit into matter.
Rev Reporter: Is there any exercise you use to open your heart before the painting process, or is it a moment that happens in the process of painting?
Monica: It’s not that my heart isn’t open. It’s basically about communicating that connection in the work. My heart is open. My mind is open. To convey that in matter is a different story. You are putting a life in there somehow. It depends upon the piece. I think certain pieces are created in time and space, and that’s as far as you can go. So, sometimes I’ve got to go farther because it’s not there. And if I write on it or paint over it, something else comes in too and maybe that ends up being the final piece. Then I have to go back and reconfigure, but basically the threads of my work will be there. For instance, the piece of the woman holding the horse with the garland for the Kentucky Derby-- I felt like it connected with the writing and the horse and the colors and everything that make the vignette my vision.
Rev Reporter: I’m curious. Do you paint largely from the imagination or do you do live sittings with horses?
Monica: For a couple years, I did a lot of photography work just to see how I saw. I think my power of observation is one of my greatest talents. Working with horses, you have to see how this happens. I didn’t want to make a painting of a horse from a photograph like a racehorse scene where they are all coming around the bend. It’s really about the organic. So basically, I use my knowledge of the horse’s anatomy, but I don’t want it to be the ruler of the piece. If I try to hard too make this happen then it will become stiff.
Rev Reporter: So it’s not necessarily a portrait of a specific horse?
Monica: It is its own reality. The painting is its own reality. I was wondering about this the other day. I’m represented by a gallery in Mackinac, and so I was in the portrait gallery of the Grand Hotel when I saw a portrait that looks Just like a close friend of mine. I was thinking about how I can see but I can’t control my process to where I can make people think it’s acceptable as exactly this horse or that horse. I want it to be more open, but it will look like something, yes.
I’ve done gobs of studies of horses. That’s about technical work versus poetry. When you are doing poetry, you have to take those sentences away and those periods away and listen to the music. It is more poetic than it is factual, but it still conveys a real meaningful horse or feeling. We don’t really see with one look but lots of looks to make up a horse in our mind.
Rev Reporter: What you’re saying reminds me of a Henry James short story called “The Real Thing” that addresses this question--having a model that you are using for form but that actual reality versus the actual painting’s poetic reality and the difference between those and what is actually the real thing.
Monica: Exactly. For instance, when I look at my paintings, I will ask myself if that leg has weight on it and it looks like the horse is standing on that leg. It makes a big difference if you understand the feel of a horse. I know how it feels when you touch a horse in the winner’s circle. I volunteered for the High Hopes Steeplechase to give out the trophies in the winner’s circle. So the painting of “The First Saturday in May” is grounded in my experience that I had in there.
Rev Reporter: To your point earlier about conveying emotion, the heightened emotion of a moment like that is unique, the feeling of being in the winner’s circle.
Monica: I think it is a different kind of beauty that we are looking at. I like the fact that everything isn’t perfect because we don’t really live in a perfect world. Feeling is different than seeing. Feeling a horse, understanding a horse and riding a horse…I try to bring all of those things into that experience. In some ways, I made the horse unreal for me but yet, in my memory and heart, it’s alive.
Rev Reporter: What part of your work brings you the most joy?
Monica: When the paint is still wet. I think there is rhythm. I like to play great music, which is a big part of my process. I am listening right now to Romanian gypsy music, the blues, and all kinds of things. I think the strength of the rhythm in the music reminds me of my heart and who I am. In the studio, there is a lot of work to go from the vision to the actual working out the painting. Sometimes you look at the canvas and think about how it’s going to take hours. So the joy comes from that moment when I see what needs to be done, and then I am in action and I don’t think. I just do it. That is when most moments of joy happen for me. I am free from myself and the work, and I just do it.