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Production Dramaturg, Alissa Klusky, sits down with visual artist Laya Monarez as part of the spotlight series for Hedwig and the Angry Inch on local trans artists. Read their conversation below!

Alissa Klusky: Hi Laya! It’s so great to sit down with you today to chat a little bit more about your background as an artist. To start off, I want to ask you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about who you are and what you do in your own words 

Laya Monarez: My name is Laya Monarez and I am an artist. I’m primarily an oil painter, but I also do a lot of murals. I studied sculpture when I was in college, but when I got out of college I decided: “I don't know where to put these things and they're very large!” [laughter] So I was like, “well let's just stick to painting for a while” and I haven't really looked back. 

AK: I know you have a background experimenting with a lot of different artistic mediums. Can you talk to me more about how you found your favorite medium to work with?

LM: Yeah, I think I've always liked the idea of blending a lot of different mediums. When I was at my art program I was taught at a very conceptual school, so they instructed me to use lots of different mediums to find myself as an artist. So, I think for a long time my process always involved that. I would cut up canvases or I would use weird things to thicken the paint to make it more lively somehow. I would also start a lot of paintings in acrylic paint and then finish them in oil. Acrylic paint just dries faster so it's easier to get fast layers down and then over top of it add on oil paint. 

Eventually though, I just realized that some of that just felt gimmicky. Acrylic paint feels more expressive, and I am able to paint faster and more emotionally in a way because I can just move quicker. With oil paint, it feels more technical. The colors, how vibrant they are, there's nothing like it. I just love the way oil paint flows on the canvas to create a rich, dynamic world. So, that's what I want to be doing.

Painting in oil by Laya Monarez titled Walking the Stroll, woman with light shining behind her at night Image credit

AK: I know that your work is heavily influenced by surrealism and by artists like Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Takashi Murakami. Can you tell me more about what drew you to these influences?

LM: For me, I often think of painters as wizards. A lot of the time I feel like a magician creating an illusion on the canvas, and nobody does that better than surrealists because they're drawing from dreams. Surrealist painters, and particularly Salvador Dali does this more than other surrealists which is why he's probably my favorite artist of all time, working in optical illusion. I love that paint offers itself to illusion due to its transparencies and the ability to hide images within a larger image. Also, M.C. Escher is another artist who creates a lot of optical illusions that I adore. So, I try to include those in my paintings a lot. Seeing some of the work of Pablo Picasso was a big influence on my life as well because it was so expressive, particularly his blue era paintings. So, I think that really pushed me over the edge to pursue painting. When I found surrealism, I found what I wanted to do and decided I wanted to be a modern surrealist! 

Safe House Mural painted by Laya Monarez, colorful house in spaice being held by flying horses, surrounded by LGBT planets Image credit

AK: Let's jump into chatting about some of your work. The first piece that I saw of yours was the mural outside of Casa Ruby titled Safe House. Can you tell us more about that piece? 

LM: Yes! So, I haven't had an official hard launch from that space yet, but that is the most recent thing that I've done. It’s probably one of my favorite pieces I've ever done. I didn't work completely on it for an entire year, but it took a year to finish. Basically, I was working on it through most of COVID. Be it from a draft, to the underpaintings, etc. It was such an undertaking because it's six incredibly large canvases that are pieced together on the wall and it looks like they meld together and are one piece. But that wasn't easy to do! Connecting them together like that is very difficult because you have to push them apart since they're so large and when they are apart you can't get right up to the edges. So, you're constantly having to move the canvases around to make sure that they match. I couldn't put them on a wall because I don't have a wall big enough to put them on. So, I had to constantly put them on the floor and move them around like puzzle pieces. So, the logistics of painting like that can be very difficult, but once it was all finally done I was so happy that everything lined up and it looked pretty perfect. 

The piece itself is a welcoming mural in a Casa Ruby Welcoming Center. They are an organization that houses transgender youth who are in need of housing and mostly black and brown people here in Washington DC. So, I really support them and the amazing work that Ruby does. I wanted to create a painting that someone who walked that space could see and feel incredibly welcomed. I became drawn to the idea of a rainbow road leading to an intergalactic queer house in the sky, which is very Hedwig! [laughter] I feel like Hedwig could live in that house and she's the Goddess of the house or something. In the mural, there's a trans road that leads to it and all these different LGBTQ flags turned into planets. I love the idea of being like: “I'm from planet trans or planet bisexual!” And that also feels very Hedwig because I know that in the movie they talk a lot about how gender is separated and we must reunite through the Galaxy. It’s all David Bowie, space, gendered fantasy. There’s a lot of that in that painting. 

Gears of Love, by Laya Monarez, oil painting, red rose surrounded by rainbow gears Image credit

AK: Agreed, it does feel very Hedwig and reminds me of the song Origin of Love about Zeus splitting people down the middle and creating soulmates. It’s very mystical and otherworldly. I also want to talk about your painting Gears of Love, which is a very colorful piece with a statement rose in the middle and colorful gears around it. Can you talk to me more about the influences behind this piece?

LM: Gears of Love is an interesting piece because it was actually intended for donation to an LGBTQ fundraiser that unfortunately was cancelled. I ended up just keeping the piece, but I really enjoyed making it. It started with a found canvas. Sometimes I'll wander through the city and people will throw out canvases all the time. They usually are often Target canvases that have horrible paintings on them that people throw out when they think: “Well, let's get some real art.” Or they're just bad paintings that people threw out after realizing they didn’t like how it turned out. So, this painting started with one of them! I picked it up and there were some weird former sticks on it, that I ended up using a texture to begin as the base. I started creating these wild textures on top of that, thinking of a lot of rainbows, and before I knew it I had all these different rainbow gears. The rose came about because there's a Salvador Dali painting that has a giant rose in it and it's been hugely influential on me. It’s a floating rose in the sky, and I often have that image in my head and I like to recreate it. Not only because roses are beautiful and I think they're fun to paint, but ultimately because the piece was supposed to be friendly to the LGBTQ community and representative of love. When you think of gears, I know there's a video game called Gears of War and one of my partners plays it a lot, so that made me think: “Well, what are the Gears of Love? And what would that look like?” So, I merged these gears, this mechanical machinery, with an uplifting rainbow to represent the LGBT community.

AK: Here’s a fun question that I like to ask artists! If you were given all the resources that you needed, what would be your dream artistic project?

I used to work at the Latin American Youth Center here in DC in the media house and it was just an amazing and magical place. The place was in Columbia Heights and youth would come there and we would just make art all the time. I taught drawing classes there and I taught them how to paint murals, and it’s just a magical place. I would love to do another Youth Center mural, and something really large, specifically for teens. I think it is very healthy for them to be able to express themselves through art and any of them who want to go to art school or further their art career I would help them with their portfolios. So, that's definitely a dream of mine. So yeah, probably some sort of giant mural on the side of a building. I want to get the community involved. I love murals where lots of people are involved. For instance, I have one mural that's at Parkview Rec Center and we used actual kids’ faces from the neighborhood in it. There’s something magical about that to me. Some kids from this neighborhood can come back when they're thirty or fourty and be like: “Oh, man my face is still in this neighborhood!” That's the kind of work I want to do. Work that really resonates with people in the community on a personal level. 

Mural of children's faces outside on brick wall Image credit

AK: Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently playing at Olney Theatre Center. Throughout the show, Hedwig finds a way to celebrate herself through artistic expression. How do you celebrate your identity through your art?

LM: My identity is shared through my art just in the explosiveness of it. Sometimes, I think I’m like the Safe House mural for Casa Ruby. It’s over the top, explosive, galaxies, universes, and existing in rainbow colors. You know, not all my art looks like that, some of it is kind of dark and spooky, but I feel that I'm allowed to release through my art and be really bright and colorful. I'm also an Indigenous person and a lot of Indigenous people identify as what is called Two-Spirit, which is a more modern term. It’s a concept that we have a feminine side and a masculine side that are both within us. I like to embrace that in my art, and I feel like there's a dark side and there's a colorful bright side. 

I do music a little bit on the side too, so there is a little bit of a Hedwig in me. Music has been allowing me to express some of my queerness or sometimes my anger. I am in an angry electronic industrial band called How to Get Killed. And then, I’ve also been practicing one other silly hobby: training with fire nunchucks!

AK: That sounds amazing! How did you get into that?

LM: I used to train with nunchucks when I was a kid, probably since I was about ten. I just started getting into practicing again and starting to get into performances. But, I’m very good at spinning them. You have to hold them in the middle and then they’re lit at either end, so you have to spin them in ways where you’re only in the middle. It’s especially difficult when you do it with two, so that’s what I’ve been practicing, and it takes a lot of skill. Just a silly random thing, but I love it!


To view more of Laya Monarez’s work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram to keep up with her latest projects. Laya is also available for commission and many of her pieces are available for purchase.

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