You know that romantic notion of the starving artist — that creative genius who cares not for commercial success or selling out, but pours heart and soul into art, preferably in some damp attic garrett?
Well, toss all that out the window and get ready to meet Franco Mondini-Ruiz. This flamboyant San Antonio artist is the complete antithesis of the “starving artist” mentality. He unabashedly shares not only his own desire to get rich off his art, but to help other artists do the same.
Mondini-Ruiz greets the group of journalists I am with at the door to his house yesterday, where we have arrived to have breakfast. It’s his great-grandmother’s home from the 1930s, in the barrio; most of the people in the neighborhood are 4th-generation homeowners. This is where Mondini-Ruiz lives and works, creating his whimsical art.
He is a hyper spitfire of a man, greeting us and immediately launching into a rapid-fire flow of information about the house, the neighborhood, his work, his life story, the pieces of art that fill the house floor to ceiling…I don’t know where to look first as I enter the house, and I can’t get my notebook out and start scribbling fast enough. His incredibly high energy is exhausting, in the way that watching a two-year-old run around is exhausting. He reminds me a lot of Charlotte’s friend Anthony on Sex and the City.
“I had a few Red Bulls this morning,” he admits, which does not surprise me in the least. He then goes on to inform us that there is a woman showering in the bathroom, so not to go in there.
“There’s a naked woman in the shower — that’s the news!” he jokes. “Believe me, a naked woman is a rare occurrence in this house!”
Franco was once a corporate attorney, for 10 years: “A rich gay lawyer,” as he puts it. He is the son of an Italian father and Mexican mother, who grew up trying to bridge two different worlds in many ways: the two cultures, affluence and working-class, being gay in a place like San Antonio. Finally, his life took a drastic change.
“It was the mid-1980s. All of my friends were in the arts. I came out of the closet — this was pre-AIDS, and everyone was gay and fabulous.”
He left the law career behind and moved to Mexico City in 1995 with friends. “We were living in a world between Anglo and Hispanic; we had a foot in both worlds. We were all ‘born-again’ Mexicans, but we lived in a Mexico that didn’t even exist — a romantic, baroque Mexico, just like this house.” He says that the time in Mexico was one big party, a period of decadence and frivolity. “I bought Mexico City one big drink with all my money.”
Finally, around 2000 (he says the timeline is a bit fuzzy, because the years are a bit fuzzy), Franco returned to San Antonio where he opened Botanica Infinito, a shop that was somewhat of an art salon, selling Chanel and other “fabulous stuff.” He began making the first art that brought him recognition: collages he created using found objects. “I was piecing together this fractured world that I’ve experienced; juxtaposing high culture and low culture together. The worlds between Anglo and Mexican; between upper-class and working-class; between the old San Antonio and the new.” The botanica, and his collages, became celebrity darlings, and Franco continued to live the high life.
“I would make $10,000 in one day, and spend $11,000 on a scandalously decadent party that night,” he says. “So many friends were dying at that time; I felt like my time was limited.”
But he adds, “Something magical was happening here. The locals were all looking for New York, while New York was looking for us.”
New York found him; Franco was discovered at this time, and featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. This is huge. But he knew that he was merely the new “it” person of the moment, a fresh young face. “I was Mexican, gay and flashy. But I knew I had to come up with something sustainable, that would last and I could continue to make a living at.” Franco was determined not to be a flash in the pan.
He expanded his collage art and started doing small paintings, whimsical and fun, that he is most well-known for today. “I sell them like a tamale vendor, but I’m doing it in a high-art context. Until about three minutes ago, I was still considered an outsider artist.” He works 16 hours a day, and creates art that he sells for anywhere from $50 to $50,000. “I work everywhere; in the kitchen, even in bed. When we’re busy here, every square inch of space becomes a studio.”
“I want to create art, I want to be rich, I want to have fun, and I want to be fabulous,” Franco proclaims.
It’s a bold, unusual statement for an artist, many of whom seem to think that if you make money off your art you are selling out. Franco wants to create a model for young upcoming artists as well, to help them make a living from their work, and mentors several young artists.
“We need our artist class to be empowered, to have a voice and be able to make a living. Art school doesn’t teach people how to do that. Artists should be something more than starving, bohemian entertainment for the wealthy. I really work at this model, and I hope it becomes a model and inspiration for others. If I am not extremely rich in a few years, I’m doing something wrong.”
Franco is also passionate about San Antonio, and the rich cultural life here. “There are so many treasures in San Antonio that are gone, or uncelebrated. We are trying to salvage what is left of the richness of San Antonio arts and culture.” He says that often, the non-trendiness of the San Antonio art scene is a blessing. “It’s not competitive here; I am much more aggressive as an artist than almost anyone else. It’s almost behind here sometimes, but that gives you more head space as an artist. Sometimes San Antonio doesn’t appreciate and invest fully in its artists — but it also doesn’t exploit them.”
He is also a wealth of historical information on the culture and history of the city — and the huge changes it has gone through in the past few decades. “This is a San Antonio that didn’t even exist 20 years ago,” he says of the rapid growth of the city in recent years; it is now the 7th largest city in the United States. With its mix of Hispanic and German roots, popularity as a place to relocate to, and recent influx of wealthy Mexicans, it’s a city in constant flux.
His book, High Pink: Tex-Mex Fairy Tales, chronicles the cultural divides and bonds that he faced and created during his childhood; and illustrates the meanings behind and within his visual works with 56 often-hilarious stories, accompanied by images of his artistic installations.
He mentions a term, Rasquache, which is popular among San Antonio artists these days. Its original meaning in Mexico was a negative one, meaning lower-class; but being “Rasquachismo” today means translating that “making do with what you have” sensibility into an artistic style.
“Somes that frustrates me, and sometimes it enchants me,” Franco Mondini-Ruiz says.