Monica Kim Garza: On Coming Home
I saw Monica’s artwork for the first time when 5BORO NYC, a skateboard and apparel company, dropped their latest line of decks about a month or so ago. The curvy girls who sported nothing but bikini bottoms were placed in the midst of the city, against its skyline, floating on pink inflatable beds in the east river a mile from the Brooklyn Bridge or climbing the palm trees I wish existed during the two years I lived on Lafayette Street in Manhattan. This was totally my New York story I thought to myself. While I’m stoking on getting my deck in the mail, I reached out to Monica in hopes that she’d be interested in doing an interview. She agreed. The thread of emails which turned into FaceTime sessions, a slew of text messages and videos all have amounted to what we’ve put together here in this story about coming home.
Inhale. She was stoned again. Drake purred over the airwaves and she was atop a queen-size mattress on the floor of a house she shared during quintessential, doozie, college life. Thinking… thinking back to the years she spent with the wood’s as her backyard in central Georgia, climbing trees, copying her mother’s drawings of little girls in “cute ass clothes” onto 8x11 pieces of paper on her bedroom floor and rollerblading, she missed rollerblading. Exhale. The smoke curled upwards before dissipating on a bay area breeze. It was a Sunday night and that meant another week of classes at the California College of the Arts which consisted of painting for six hours then critiquing for another six. They didn’t go to any art galleries, studios or museums. They learned about “art”, “the expression of ideas”, texture, how to expand one’s palette, hues, but no one taught them how to be an artist, what it took, life skills per say. “Honestly I stayed lit the whole time I was there and really didn’t give a shit about anything except my own art, smoking weed, chilling and making money. I guess what set myself apart from the crowd was me in the cut with a pre-rolled blunt. I painted hard though,” Monica recently said via FaceTime from her backyard in Georgia at age 27.
Monica would graduate from CCA just as her mother recovered from a harrowing heart surgery which necessitated them to tour Korea together, just them two. Her once shoddy English had gotten better and mother and daughter connected again after years of the presence of a hazy distance that lingered in-between empty words and glances in the hallways of their home. This marked the first of many changes in mentality for Monica. Each of which would serve as a coordinate tagging the trajectory of her life as an artist.
Obligations aside and diploma framed, Monica’s mind was set on the paper chase, on stacking money so she could move to Peru, a place she had visited during one of her summer romps in college. “I didn’t wanna pursue art because I was like, ‘how the fuck do you become an artist?’ You have to make good art, you have to know people and you have to get lucky. I didn’t see it as something— like you could actually achieve your dream type of a thing,” she said. That being said, the opportunity to move to Korea arose. There, if you got a job, they’d pay for all your expenses: flight, housing, health insurance, the works.
At the time there weren’t any questions to ask, nothing to consider, she just went, a 22 year old in a foreign country with two moves already under her belt. She planned on only staying for a year but ended up staying for two, teaching English was seemingly an easy gig. Peru had been pushed to the back of her mind where paintbrushes and her knowledge of texture and color now sat idly, dusty. Instead she traveled to different pockets of South-East Asia, walking on the sand of foreign shores, eating watermelon, snorkeling. “I love listening to the waves you know, it’s just good energy. A beautiful landscape really says God to me and it just relaxes my soul,” she said. The decision to leave Korea wasn’t fueled by a “real” plan. Monica wasn’t even sure she was ready for a departure but her fuck-it attitude and an indifferently ticking clock propelled her to new latitudes, manifesting as a two month backpacking trip, life on the road where every day was a “cheap, beach day”.
Falling asleep on a bus, with her backpack either on her lap or on the seat besides her, she traveled the no-man’s lands of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam with a single friend and without a cel phone. Unable to keep in touch with the first world life she had left behind in America, she got caught up in the simplicity of no-wifi zones and the feng shui of mountains against a big sky. After two months of defining “vagabond" by her own terms and carrying the weight of life on her back, she was exhausted. Peru, the reason she had left the states in the first place, surfaced as her next move.
Another flight, another time zone. She lingered beneath the Cordillera Blanca, Waywash and Willkanuta mountain ranges for three months. “When I was done backpacking in Southeast Asia, I was like this is my moment to go to Peru even though it’s been like three years since I said I was gonna move there. So I went for three months and it was tight but I was such a different person,” she said as another change in mentality transpired. “At the end of three months I was like I gotta move back to America, like I gotta go, so I moved back to Atlanta again and then maybe after six months, I moved back to New York.”
This would be her eighth change of scenery since she left Georgia for college years ago, she was backtracking but she wasn’t cornered. The return to America was taxing, her mind was flooded with culture shock, obligations, not knowing how to answer questions of “how she’d been” and a lack of direction. “Looking back on being in Korea, I feel like it was almost like lala-land. I was just in a different time zone, time warp, like it’s completely different even if you’re still online. I don’t now I just feel like I missed out… When you’re gone for so long and like really in a different culture the whole time, you kind of lose yourself a little bit. My friends were like two to three years into starting their career and I was like three years into leaving mine,” she said reflecting.
Monica would return to New York as her friends living there roused the creative provocateur within her to join their newfound pursuit. Art, a latent piece of her soul that she now turned around to face stared back at her, peering out from behind her pupils as she looked in the mirror. A reminder. Purpose. It steered her back towards painting, to the “Gucci Girls” she parented in college to the further evolved fat-assed, tropical, shark surfing chicks that are now her signature bitches.
Navigating the streets of the city where coffee is a signifier of taste, artists shop at Blick and everyone busts their ass to afford apartments the size of two closets combined, the job opportunity and the friends she had moved here for, jilted her. Shaken, she was forced to get a job. Because she already had her teaching credentials from her time abroad, she took a position at an international school. “It ended up being a 9-5 and it was like all fucking day and then I was trying to do my art on the side so it felt like I was working 24/7. I was like this has been my dream so if I don’t pursue it now, I’m gonna live my life just teaching and never have chased my dream so that’s why I decided if I don’t start now, it’ll be over. Like get married, have a baby, die,” Monica said. Paperwork aside, this would be the year, 2015, the year when she decided to focus on her art, the year when things would come full circle.
In between counting other people’s money and constantly picking the blue paint from under her nails, the city began to get the best of her. From being abroad, waking up amongst palm trees, not having to do her make-up or care about what day of the week it was, Monica found herself climbing a corporate ladder at a job she didn’t even want in the first place. “ It just ended up sucking because I felt so alone. It sucks to feel like you uprooted your life. It was like a year of my life was taken — like a friend took a year of my life. I was really depressed because that shit just hurts. I just got really down when I was in New York and then you don’t just wake up and feel up,” she said. Painting, finding new music on Souncloud and warm blankets were like crutches to her, allowing her to mentally distract herself from the emotional battle it was to wake up under a sky-scraped sky each day where there were less than three trees on a block and no bang for her buck.
When winter came and an arctic chill ravaged the city streets of Manhattan bringing with it oppressive, commuting conditions, hues of brown and yellow snow, questions of why one would live in a place where the air hurts his or her face, the inability to wear cute shoes, having to be responsible for a coat when drunk and longer lines for coffee, Monica couldn’t tolerate anymore. She quit her job in March with the thought of moving back home, back to her parent’s house, back to what she knew and the place where her love for art first originated.
A dial tone. Entering a Georgia area code. A few rings. A voice. Talking to her parent’s on the phone, her mother wasn’t too keen on Monica moving back, after all she had told her not to move to New York in the first place; but her father, seeing how stressed his daughter was, recognized the need to facilitate yet another move. “It’s funny because when I got older, my thinking is so different than what it used to be. When I was younger, I just didn’t think things through, I just did it. Now that I’m older I’m actually really tired of moving. I’m just tired of the struggle—I don’t wanna struggle without my family and stuff anymore,” Monica said.
Come May, Monica would trade life in “the city of dreams” for her childhood home amongst the sugar maple and needle palm trees. Her dad was on his way. He would drive over 1,400 miles to bring his daughter home. Packing her bags and loading them into his car, using the Empire State Building as a landmark and walking over the Brooklyn Bridge would simply become things she had done in her 20s or an old post on her Instagram. With art now as her occupation, Monica has returned to painting the feminine figures that first dazed her into submission on the floor of her mother’s bedroom that was now once again, just down the hall. Her paintings are mostly literal reflections, thoughts and memories of her time as a nomad. Who she is is in the paintings. “I quit my job, I purposely moved back home to focus on my art and where my parent’s live is kind of far out from the city. It’s really good at the same time because I feel isolated. Every day I wake up and paint, there’s nothing exciting going on. I don’t go out, I don’t fuck with people, I don’t do anything, I just stay in here and I paint,” Monica said.
Her parent’s hadn’t seen her art until this year, all the hours, time spent praying their daughter was safe without knowing where she was, the dollars spent on college, all now amounted to a few brushstrokes on canvas. The unveiling of painted, naked women on a beach or crawling up palm trees to their eyes were cause for laughter from her mother and puzzled looks from her father. She’s finding that growing as an artist means letting go.
The wayfarer who thrived on solitude and spontaneity is now a homebody who has found that what she needed is what she already had: the woods, some good finger food and mental support from her loved ones. She’s got her first solo show happening this month out in Los Angeles and her collaboration with 5Boro NYC has blown up. In between missing picking sand out of her hair, wearing bikinis, forking over twenty dollar bills for yet more paint, dealing with FedEx and occasionally peeping Kelly Slater’s (aka. the real life Mr. Clean) Instagram, Monica has come home. Whether it’s to the place she grew up climbing trees, her mother’s bedroom, kisses in the morning from her dog, the only way Monica was able to return home was realizing that she had to leave in order to truly come back.
Within the 2,250 words here that tell Monica’s story, I have found a bit of my own. Upon my return home from New York, a place that I thought would solve all my “problems”, where I’d work at a magazine and live out my “Gossip Girl” dreams, I have found that no matter where you go you take yourself with you. Though I am now always surrounded by friends, family and have mango and guava trees growing right outside the window of the studio I live in, life here requires an unwavering appreciation for simplicity, a concept that the city and I didn’t have to understand. I wake up and I write for this magazine that doesn’t even fully “exist” yet but it’s my purpose and I’m trying to find legitimacy in that everyday. Being able to write Monica’s story, hear about her sacrifices and see the results, even hang them on my wall, we’re trying to stay wavy even when writer’s block sinks in and doubt washes over it because shit can really happenif you do everything to make it happen. Aloha Monica, thanks for your time and honest words.