Tony Mendoza: Interview
Date: 04/09/2006 Interviewed by Jorge J. E. Gracia Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia
The interview was conducted through the Internet and edited by Gracia.
[Gracia]: "Let's begin by asking about your personal life, who you are, where you were born, and where you were educated."
[Mendoza]: "I was born in Havana in 1941. Like my father and grandfather, I was sent to an American prep school (Choate School) then Yale, (1963) where I studied engineering. Then I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design (1968) and got a Master's in Architecture."
[Gracia]: "When did you leave Cuba?"
[Mendoza]: "In the summer of 1960."
[Gracia]: "Would you like to say something about the circumstances in which, and the reasons why, you left Cuba?"
[Mendoza]: "My family was an upper class landowning family. That summer the banks were nationalized and they figured the Cuban revolution was a Communist revolution. Everyone in my family, including uncles, cousins, and grandparents, left."
[Gracia]: "Where have you been after you left Cuba?"
[Mendoza]: "All over, but mostly the East coast, Miami, and for the past 18 years, Ohio."
[Gracia]: "When did you decide or discover that you were going to be an artist, and under what circumstances?"
[Mendoza]: "I studied engineering at Yale, but took some art history courses with a legendary professor, Vincent Sculley, and felt in love with art and architecture. I decided that after Yale I would go to grad school and study architecture. Also read The Fountainhead, which made the idea of architecture very glamorous."
[Gracia]: "How did your family react to this possibility?"
[Mendoza]: "No problem."
[Gracia]: "Where were you trained?"
[Mendoza]: "I worked as an architect for about 5 years. During that time I became proficient with photography, which I needed for work. I took a few classes in photography in night adult education centers in Cambridge, and all my teachers praised my projects. I started getting the idea that I was good at photography. When I got laid off in 1973 during an architectural recession, I decided to try to earn a living as a photographer."
[Gracia]: "What were the main challenges you faced in becoming a professional artist?"
[Mendoza]: "The first week as a professional photographer was a piece of cake. I did a freelance cover story for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. I thought: this is easy. I never did another cover story till seven years later. Luckily, I was by then interested in the counterculture. I lived in a commune, and had minimal expenses, so I kept photographing and learning the craft. I started having little shows. Finally, in 1980 I felt I was ready and moved to NYC, where I figured I had to go if I wanted to make it as an artist."
[Gracia]: "Did the fact that you were a Cuban American ever played any role in these difficulties?"
[Mendoza]: "None. If anything, it made me more exotic and interesting. Also, I was educated in elite schools and everyone was impressed by that."
[Gracia]: "How does your position as an academic affect your career as an artist?"
[Mendoza]: "It's tough balancing being an artist and an academic. I mostly work in the summer but during the school year it's hard to concentrate in projects when I have to prepare for classes. The fact that a check comes in, regularly, makes me less ambitious about making it in the art world. On the other hand, art world successes seem to be a lot more satisfying to me than whatever success I might have as a teacher. I generally think that I teach for money, but do books and projects for love."
[Gracia]: "How would you describe your work? What is unique about it? What do you consider to be its contribution? How do you see your work in the context of contemporary art at large?"
[Mendoza]: "My self image as an artist photographer is that I never have done what everyone else in my field is doing. I've always have done personal, slightly off the beaten path type projects. Right now I'm kind of out of it, as far as postmodern work is concerned. (I'm making beautiful pictures of flowers.) In the past, my strength as a photographer has had something to do with the fact that I write and photograph and have combined both skills in most of my projects."
[Gracia]: "What are you trying to do, what is your aim?"
[Mendoza]: "Probably to publish books, be known as a good artist, make some extra money."
[Gracia]: "Are there stages to your work? What is the continuity, the gaps?"
[Mendoza]: "For a while I didn't do much work because school stuff, getting tenure, was very distracting. Also having a family took time away from producing work. When the postmodernist thing happened, I didn't feel like it appealed to me, and felt marginalized somewhat."
[Gracia]: "Which artists have influenced you the most?"
[Mendoza]: "I've always invented and re-invented the wheel. Maybe Duane Michals made an impression, but I don't have heroes or models."
[Gracia]: "Do you feel or think of yourself as primarily Cuban, Cuban American, Latino, Hispanic, Latin American, American? Do these labels mean anything to you?"
[Mendoza]: "I'm pretty Cuban. It's a strong culture and you never totally move out of it. I like the food the music and Cubans amuse me. Most are too conservative for my taste, but I forgive them."
[Gracia]: "Your work incorporates some things that can be described as Cubanfamily, memories, places. Are these common themes in Cuban art? And why did you pick them?"
[Mendoza]: "I come from a family of verbal story tellers. That, more than anything, has been my influence. I grew up hearing my father and uncles tell very well told and funny stories. They never had an interest in putting the stories down, but I did."
[Gracia]: " How do you negotiate your Cubanness and your Americanness, as a person and as an artist?"
[Mendoza]: "I like the American culture a lot, how it is more liberal and less traditional than Cuban culture. I like how it doesn't matter who your parents are but more, who you are, that counts here.
The old Cuba that I remember was stifling that way. I was always introduced to everyone as Miguel's son etc. But I like so many other things about the Cuban culture. The humor is way up there. Energy, enthusiasm, wit."
[Gracia]: "Where does your inspiration come from?"
[Mendoza]: "I'm a believer in work. If I work consistently at something, it happens. All my books have taken 2 years of steady work to accomplish. If I work faster than that, it's never good."
[Gracia]: "How do you work, what is the process in which you engage?"
[Mendoza]: "I start with a project and in the first few weeks I can generally tell if it's going to pan out. Then I need to stick to it like a horse with blinders. I can't walk and chew gum at the same time. I have a feeling that if I focus on anything, I can do a good job. That applies to cooking, playing tennis, whatever."
[Gracia]: "Are there any techniques you use that are unique to you?"
[Mendoza]: "No. I'm pretty good technically with photography, but not better than anyone else. I can write a little, while most photographers don't like to write. I think my training living in a commune for nine years with men and women taught me a lot about people, being honest, cutting out the bullshit."
[Gracia]: "Do you go to Miami often? Have you kept in touch with the Cuban community in Miami and elsewhere, and if you have, how has that affected your career?"
[Mendoza]: "I go to Miami almost every summer for one week. I'm ambivalent about it. Maybe I have too many relatives that I'm expected to go and visit and if I don't I feel guilty. I have a history of being a hippie, living in communes, always voting to the left etc, and most people in Miami are republicans, which is bothersome. There is this curious thingall my old friends from growing up think of me as the teenager they knew and pegged as a kid, and no one is too curious to want to know how I might be different. But I get along fine with most of my cousins, the ones I see. What I like the most about Miami is the weather and living by the sea, going to the beach, seeing royal palm trees, going to Çuban restaurants. The parrots flying around. I'm not too happy to be living in the Midwest. I'm here because of my job, a pretty good job, and old professors are almost unemployable in other schools. I think if I could land a job in Miami, I would move before you can count to ten."
[Gracia]: "How do you feel about art in Cuba today? Is there any? Is it worth anything?"
[Mendoza]: "Again, when I was there in 1996, I felt totally at home weather-wise. My body felt it was at the place it was designed to be in. Cuba felt not like the Cuba I remembered, thought, as far as the people. The racial composition is totally different. The system has made people different. Everyone is totally focused on money and surviving. It's like a completely capitalistic society.
[Gracia]: "How do you feel about Latin American art?"
[Mendoza]: "I don't think about it at all. I mostly follow American art, European art."
[Gracia]: "Are art and your artistic career integral to your identity, to you as a person?"
[Mendoza]: "Yes. I figure I can dress anyway I please. Not have too much money. Be somewhat peculiar. Be somewhat selfish."
[Gracia]: "Could you have been anything else but an artist, and if so what?"
[Mendoza]: "I think I ended up doing the only thing I can do. I think I would have been a terrible businessman, engineer, architect."
[Gracia]: "That about wraps it up. Thank you."