Mona Caron’s epic murals are full of pageantry, wonderment and amazing detail, and have been a transformative presence in San Francisco neighborhoods, alleys and street corners since the ’90s.
In her extravagant illustrations of re-imagined urban existence, asphalt streetscapes transform into natural landscapes that humans co-exist with rather than colonize; the ghosts of grandiose civic buildings drift away like shed cocoons; a winding garden snake becomes a bicycle tire tread on a dune headed toward the sea; patchwork timestreams interweave, showing us pasts, presents and futures full of hope, whimsy, and liberation.
Her art has since turned up on walls and buildings all over the world, most recently as towering depictions of common weeds enlarged into epic depictions of overlooked beauty and deep resilience.
In this wide-ranging interview, Caron describes her art as intensely social — emerging from realtime interactions with the people and places that contextualize her creative acts — and full of activism more utopian than political.
This interview has been lightly edited for continuity and clarity.
The Fabulist: As a bike commuter in San Francisco, I would always encounter your art as part of a narrative experience commenting on the place I’m in at that moment. There’s always a story being told. And now you’re in the news, you’re international, your art has evolved and changed, but it’s still so full of narrative. I wonder if you could tell us about your experience of visual art and murals as vehicles for telling stories.
Mona Caron: Telling stories has always been my thing. When I was a child, I was an avid writer of fantastical stories, and I always wanted to tell stories. I wanted to become a writer first. So I haven’t always been an artist. I discovered the brush when I was well into my 20s. But one desire remained — telling stories, and also to be told stories. I feel like a lot of my early murals in San Francisco were a way of telling stories, but also it was a way for me to be told stories by people in the neighborhoods where I was painting.
I recall the transit mural you did off Market Street in San Francisco, I think it’s on Church Street?
Church and 15th Street, you mean?
Yes. With the time panels juxtaposing different eras, and people would walk up and ask you what you were up to, and they would wind up in the mural.
[Laughs] That is something that became kind of a trope of mine — having the story of the city being told by the passers by, as well as neighbors that I would interview prior.
I’ve been doing this mural thing for so long, for twenty-four years now. The mural that you mentioned is sort of like my early period of [detailed], trans-temporal murals narrating the place that they’re in — past, present and imaginary future …
I think people who discovered me more recently in other places have no idea this is the type stuff that I used to do.
There’s this body of work that stretches back, as you mentioned, almost a quarter century.
And I don’t really do this stuff anymore, but it doesn’t matter. What I’m doing now is on a continuum with what those things are about.
I want to linger for a moment on your earlier works, which were incredibIy detailed tableaux full of whimsy and fantasy and fantastical vision — flying bicycles, time travel, landscapes that warp and transform. But it’s never quite just escapism that you’re going for with these whimsical elements — there’s a specific storytelling mission.
Yeah — these utopian, fantastical visions of the neighborhood transformed in the future. Kind of like a sci-fi version of the present, except that instead of being focused on new technology it was mostly focused on a radical change of society, imagining what the world could look like: D.I.Y. utopias, post-capitalist, post-global warming, ecotopian fantasies.
Because all change starts with visions, right? All changes start with the imagination. Those murals are a way of training our imagination, [and] getting people to talk about how else things could be like.
It was a way of breaking past this kind of fatalistic attitude people have, “Oh, the world’s the way it is, that’s that’s the way things are, you just have to accept it.”
Those detailed panels of transforming neighborhoods were actually an illustration of the fact that the neighborhoods, the cities and society have changed dramatically in the past. So why not again in the future? They were really just a diorama of how much things can change in very little time — changes one could not have imagined.
The historic part of the mural would serve as an argument for radical change in the future. It was a picture of how much is possible to change, and then how we would change it.
And you would talk to passers-by, and people in the community, and make them participants in the creative act.
I would really just ask, “Well, what do you think? What what would you do differently?”
And immediately, people’s reaction were like, “Well, I don’t know, who am I to —”
Well, it doesn’t matter, this is just art. We’re not coming up with a program or anything. It’s just a painting on a wall. We can have fun. So what would you do? What would you do different? Once you take the pressure off, people can come up with things.
Those kinds of spontaneous conversations among neighbors that happened in those projects were actually the art — the social practices of making the sidewalk or the street function more as a public space, not just as a place of transit, but as a place to inhabit. An enhancement of the polis or the agora where where people can come together and discuss their common futures.
It’s almost as if you’re a transcriber, like you’re capturing what people are expressing.
Well, yeah, definitely. I would capture what people talked about.
But you also would remix their realities between the past, the present and the future you were encouraging them to imagine.
In the panels that had described the present, or the past, I would ask people where they wanted to be, where their spot is, to pick their location, and thus where they were really describing the social geography of the place themselves. And so people will be grouped and placed according to where they feel they belong or they hang out and where they live or work or whatever.
Whereas in the future panel — the radical-change-in-the-future panel — I purposely scrambled all of the people. I would include people hanging out together [who were] completely incongruous, people who’d never hang out together. By then I knew that these murals have this other social utility to them — as things that break down barriers between people, [and become] an excuse for people to meet each other.
I constantly heard people telling me after I painted them in the mural, “I was showing my brother that I was in the mural, and then I saw, there was another group of people, they’re always down there on Jones Street, I always see them, I never talk to them, we’re doing the same exact thing, and we ended up shaking hands.”
And I kept hearing how glad they were. They had an excuse to meet their neighbors: “Hey, we’re both in the mural. Hey, we’re actually hanging out together.”
That was kind of like the social praxis of all these things, like using humor, and whimsy, but really bringing out in real life the kinds of things the murals envision — which is a more sociable public space, and more involved society with fewer barriers among people, and a society where everybody gets to participate actively in the shaping of what’s there for them.
Art at its best is a social prompt —
Right? And people are having conversations at museums or so forth. But this is even more committed, down in the stitches of the tapestry.
And that kind of brings to mind a lot of pageantry. When you think of pageantry, you think of lords and kings and so forth. But I think that there is another side to it, like the pageantry of a Brueghel painting, where everybody’s out in the square and they’re doing their thing all around town, it’s very quotidian and inclusive. A lot of that work that you did has that quality of pageantry.
Interesting word choice — like, I’m glad you explained it.
The pageant of history doesn’t just have to be the great man theory. There are people living it — and any tapestry is full of stitches, right? Individual little stitches.
I sank an inordinate amount of time into those people, they’re so detailed, they would take me months to do — nowadays, who can afford that?
Now that you’re expensive?
[Laughs] Now that the world is expensive. San Francisco, for heaven’s sake. You’re supposed to pay rent and all that. It’s really sad. Like, maybe we capitulated a little bit.
Even at the time [that these murals were being painted], we were witnessing what Chris Carlsson used to call “the Great Speed Up,” the early dot-com era, when life started speeding up, a lot, everything faster. So one of the things that I was doing was asserting the right to do the opposite.
I depicted in these murals an ideal of living in a world where you have time to do your craft well: craftsmanship, and the patience and the time that it takes to make a beautiful, quality, artisanal thing. All of these things have gone by the wayside. And now even more so, you just do things that are Instagrammable, and are appreciated for a split second, enough for somebody to hit “like,” and then you move onto the next thing.
Instead I was doing murals that are impossible to appreciate, except for up close, they’re totally not Instagrammable. You have to go close to this story and it doesn’t stay within the limit of characters that they give you.
Nobody has the patience anymore for long stories. But also in doing those details that will take months and months, it was really difficult to think that nobody has the luxury to do [that] anymore. And that is too bad.
Someday we’re going to reclaim our time. That’s one of the things that will happen with the revolution. [Laughs] Reclaiming the time to dedicate ourselves to making every object in our lives be made with care and dedication, and perhaps that means that each thing would be very expensive, relatively — but it would be a less consumerist society that doesn’t just buy something cheap and throw it away the next year and buy a new one.
It’s going to change in some way, that change looming out there. It’s also certainly the case that the way we’re living now, the way our society has sped up — consumerism and a manic pace of production alike — is not healthy. It overwhelms the senses. A lot of the beauty of those murals you were doing is — you called it the right to do the opposite? — requires or demands the right to slow down and get lost in the details.
Exactly, the right to slow down. That I used to be able to do when my rent was, what was it, $275.
Oh my gosh. Another era.
I know, it feels like a different planet. It feels like a different era, like those times are gone. So, yeah, I don’t really do these [murals] anymore,
So it’s not the lack of desire, it’s the resources and time.
Well, in part also lack of desire, because I feel how I lost patience — I mean, I’m still obsessive-compulsive in many ways, but I don’t know, maybe not quite at that level anymore. Or perhaps I too have fallen victim of the fast culture.
Let’s linger on the right to be slow, and look backwards at another, less-sped-up era. The styles of some of your art has a very classical and romantic style. I’m not educated in art history, but I think of Art Nouveau, in terms of these really organic flowing moments that belong to ordinary people. It seemed to elevate the quotidian and the ordinary and the everyday, and make it into something really special. You did that with the 10th anniversary poster for the Critical Mass bike rides — it could have been a revolutionary handbill from the 19th century. There’s a woman cyclist at the center, she’s a barefoot kid on the street with some piercings, but she could be Athena.
And she is totally plausible as this classical goddess out of the firmament — in an ordinary person.
And there was a Soma Bikes poster that had all this dynamism and early 20th century romance to it, a sense of discovery you see in those old ads for bicycles, where you’re out on an adventure with your scarf flowing behind you.
Those both attempt to make “fake antiques,” deliberately copying Alphonse Mucha and those kinds of things. Those things I consider very much juvenalia. As a girl I was really into Art Nouveau — really, really into Art Nouveau. That’s another thing I wouldn’t do any more, my taste has changed. But at the time, it’s true, it was deliberate, to make it look like an 1890s poster, so as to make an event like Critical Mass look like a classic, like a time-honored tradition, which at the time was anything but.
I would push back on that a little bit, though, I think that what Critical Mass was doing is very time-honored in terms of taking over the streets. Keep in mind that the public street, the people’s street, dates far back. Carnaval, for example, has been going on for a while all over the world. So there’s plenty to tap into there.
By now we’re going on to the 30th anniversary — it’s kind of funny you should bring these posters up because, a) I no longer like them, but b), on the other hand, the 30th anniversary is coming up. I did the 10th, the 20th, I gotta do the 30th! So I’m deciding whether I should or shouldn’t — because it’s always the same woman — girl — who ages. So in the last one, in the 20th anniversary poster, she had a kid. And now that kid would be big, right? Would be a teenager. So I already have a vision of what I would do, if I had the time and inclination. I might do it, just in a slightly different style. It will have to be at least a little bit in the same style for it to be a good triptych.
Next topic: We had discussed utopianism, and using whimsy and fantasy to define a D.I.Y. utopia of sorts, or eco-topia. Your SF Bay Guardian illustrations of a post-capitalist, climate-changed San Francisco are an example of that. And in fact, you were kind of ahead of the curve, as there’s now a thing called “solarpunk” — I don’t know if you know the term?
It’s turning into something of a subcultural movement, using speculative imagination to depict utopian futures as an act of resistance to all the dystopianism you see in in mass media and science fiction media in particular. So I think you were kind of on to something about that.
I mean, “Ecotopia” has been around for a while, and utopian communities have been also.
And they’re quoted also in my murals, like the Market Street mural, I included titles of some of those books in storefronts in the city, referencing other people doing the same thing in literature or other social experiments.
I think that what you were doing was a step in a conversation that’s still going on.
And now you’re doing that with these gigantic murals on the sides of skyscrapers — skyscrapers!
And these gigantic murals of tiny things — weeds — as you said, it’s an inversion of your earlier murals, which depict pageants of social change full of little details. And now we’re just doing one detail, one detail blown up to enormous scale.
It’s definitely an inversion of what I was doing before — I was painting large things tiny. And now small things large.
But it’s still utopian, isn’t it?
It’s actually the same story. It’s just a different way of doing it. You started the whole conversation with the storytelling element, and I think we moved the same story, the style of telling them, from the literal to the symbolic, or from prose to poetry. So it’s a little bit less didactical than my super-detailed murals, where I tell all those things in detail, like, how we’re going to change the world and everything. And now it’s something that doesn’t need quite as much language, and that’s also less dependent on people knowing the specifics of each location for them to be able to get it.
And the whole thing started while I was painting one of my last super-detailed murals in San Francisco, the one in the Tenderloin, at Jones and Golden Gate.
I remember there was a dandelion that kept growing at the foot of the wall that I was painting. I was at that wall over a year doing that mural. And periodically somebody would come by and quote-unquote “clean.” They always made sure to destroy the dandelion. Their perception was of the dandelion as dirt. And it would just always come back, always the same spot. It just quietly comes back. And I was just, “Whoops, there it goes again!”
It occurred to me, what that condition is — the radical patience of that dandelion asserting itself and reasserting life in that concrete in a place where nobody has given it permission to exist.
And it keeps getting stepped on, and the more you step on it, the more it insists and grows back. That radical insistence. I had visited places that for one reason or another were abandoned, where nature has taken over, and it occurred to me that some day — they’ll win. It’s easy to just eradicate one of these weeds. So, what that one plant does may not be super consequential, but if there’s a million of them, they can completely retake the whole. They can be the first plants that come out to reclaim the space for nature … And once they’ve done their job, other plants will follow.
I felt like what these plants were doing was a metaphor for change. That is how change happens, through the insistence, the cumulative effect, the collective insistence and radical patience of beings that bring back life in sterile places. That is how change happens.
I see also a continuation of this theme of contrariness, the right to do opposite. You had mentioned the Great Speeding Up, and these weeds that you depict on a heroic scale represent the opposite of where we’re at. It’s a radical assertion of the right to pay attention to small details and little things that get lost in this current configuration of our society.
It’s an invitation to pay closer attention to things that we’re taught not to look at or to somehow discount.
For example. Everybody knows and is taught that the rose is beautiful. That’s why they cost $20 a bunch. You go in a hurry to get the person a birthday present, you quickly grab a bunch of roses because it’s been decided already — we know that those are beautiful. You spend money on that because that is guaranteed to be something beautiful. It has been decided on already. [The weed murals] are an invitation to look at things with an open heart, discover the beauty of something that you have not been taught is beautiful.
The thing about weeds, I always have to explain, I’m not making some sort of ecological argument in favor of invasive species, that’s not at all the point, those things that are called weeds can be any plant, can be native wildflowers.
Any plant is considered a weed when it grows where it doesn’t have any permission to be. It’s just a question of permission. Any any plant will get ripped up and torn down and stepped on when it’s clandestine somewhere. You only look at things with appreciation when it’s cultivated, when someone decided that there’s a place for them to be.
I doubt that the type of change that we really need will ever come from the manicured lawns at the center of places where power is concentrated. The real change is coming from the margins, like we need to start paying attention to what’s growing on the margins of things, and discover a new beauty there.
A new beauty, and also a sense of alertness in terms of how we are just organisms in this system, and we see things like climate change and coronavirus as stuff that’s literally happening at the periphery of our society, yet they’re increasingly just pushing into our attention, in a way that we are increasingly unable to deny. Although people are working hard at it, they’re working really hard to deny these realities. It’s really important that we have hopeful visions of how to live better, because change is gonna to happen, whether we like it or not.
We need to start looking elsewhere for answers. The places that have gotten us into the mess we’re in are probably not going to have the answer we need. Look further and unlearn what you’re what you’ve been taught and think of what else there is.
So you’re bringing this story all around the world.
That was a crazy surprise. What happened is, after many years of doing these [detailed murals] in San Francisco, I started this personal project. I started doing stop-frame animation of weeds growing that I would paint inch by inch, and take a photograph of, and put together into mini-videos. It would take days to do a six-second video.
The idea was to have these plants grow in places overlooking the city, a place that gives you a sense of vista over our current reality. Usually it was on rooftops. I was envisioning them coming back — while everybody down there is busy going about their lives, the weeds are coming back. And I made a little video, and I put that on YouTube, and I had 17 followers on YouTube, and maybe three friends saw it.
And then all of a sudden, I wish I could credit the person who discovered it, all of a sudden I saw this thing was getting a ton of views, got somehow picked up by some of those blogs and aggregator sites, it went all over the planet. This thing that was just a personal project.
I started getting email from all over the world in all kinds of languages about people resonating with the message. And what I love about it is like, wow, the murals I’d been doing only really speak to people who know the neighborhood; other people might appreciate the picture, but they won’t really get it because they won’t get all the references. Whereas that video [‘Weeds’] was the first time I’d done something that anybody [could get].
And then I started getting invited. I got an invitation from São Paulo, from the curator of the Virada Cultural, “We too are weeds, we here are weeds, we want you to spread that message here, we totally identify.”
He told me about the group and what they were trying to achieve — repurposing a freeway that had been imposed on them during the dictatorship, and so they were seeing themselves as weeds, trying to reclaim the space for the people and so on, and they wanted me to decorate it with one of these weeds.
It was amazing because people were inviting me, having gotten the metaphor. That was pretty stunning. And I was getting things like, email in Arabic, I had to put in Google translator, a little sentence with a picture of a weed from Baghdad, just somebody’s going around taking pictures of what was growing in that dusty, intense environment, saying something about resisting and coming back and persevering. It’s really become sort of a symbol of resilience.
And where have these emails and invitations taken you? Give us a little itinerary of where the weeds have sprung up.
Brazil, all over Europe, Taiwan, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru … All over.
And right now you’re in another exotic location.
Oh, very exotic.
Tell us about it. What are you doing right now?
I’m in Walnut Creek!
Walnut Creek, California.
So this is different. I’m doing a public art piece for the city of Walnut Creek, here at the Lesher Center for the Arts. And it is a plant. However, it’s not literally a weed. In this case, I’m very deliberately painting a native wildflower — a native plant. One that is not just native to this region, but very specific to the Mount Diablo area.
And so over the years, I’ve become an avid user of Cal Flora and databases that show the incidence of plants all over California, where you can literally see how these things propagated. It’s really fascinating. In this particular plant I’m painting is present in many, many places in California, but in the Bay Area or the nearby Central Valley, there’s hardly any of it except for right here on Mount Diablo.
And the metaphor I’m using here is a little bit different. It’s a plant that has a famously long taproot. And I’m planting it here in a patch of dirt. This really massive, concrete structure, that’s the Lesher Center. There is one little hole with with soil in it, and it’s growing out of that. And it’s a metaphor of culture: This is a site of culture, there’s a gallery here, and performances and so on, it’s growing and reaching up and out, reaching further. The taproot is down below and soars upward, reaching for transcendence. If you want.
How long does it typically take you to do do one of these weed murals, and do you do it by yourself?
Well, remember some of those detailed murals in San Francisco would take me months to do. So now I do murals at the vertiginous speed of three weeks, two to four weeks on average, depending on the size. And so that’s supersonic for me. I’m still a slow artist, but that’s extremely fast for me.
And speaking of vertiginous, what was the tallest building you’ve worked on?
I did one in Jersey City last summer, that was 23 stories tall or something. That’s probably the tallest one, and 110 feet wide. That was an adventure because it was hurricane season.
Did that ever freak you out?
The one I just did before this one was in Porto Alegre, Brazil. That one was also 20 stories tall, and the person I was working with had the brilliant idea of doing projections to transfer some of the lines. And so we were working at night. And of course — of course! — something happens. One of the two swing stages breaks down at 2 a.m. at, like, the 18th floor. I had to direct the rescue operation where we had to throw a rope between the two swing stages, pull them together, hook in someone from the other stage to this stage.
That’s anxiety producing.
I’ve repeatedly done all the safety trainings, I don’t do anything crazy. You have to learn to trust your equipment. I was pretty proud of myself, having done it in a way that I think was safe at all times, but kind of trippy for somebody who’s not used to doing that. Yeah, it’s still scary for the people involved, but actually it was not dangerous. I don’t want to do a dangerous thing. It’s a bit like mountain climbing. People have no intention to die, you learn how to hook in properly.
Like window washing, I suppose.
Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly it. Like, I’m just the window washer.
Where are you going with all this? Is it all weeds from now on? Or you anticipate some other new styles and subjects to emerge in the future?
Well, I have been doing a number of combinations of the previous detailed storytelling stuff with the new mega-botanical stuff. A massive piece I did in Taiwan was one of those, in which the healing plants are growing from a kind of a dystopian landscape — a nighttime dystopian landscape with towering, surreal elements, that tell of our current predicament, and the plants appear from pots that you can only see when you walk up close, which is all the places where people are starting to gather and are hanging out and plotting something or doing something together — that’s where the healing plants are being born.
From afar, though, you just see enormous, seven-story tall plants.
And also I’ve been doing a lot of collaborations with like-minded friends and artists, in which I combine natural elements [that] have always been in my pieces, and they will continue to be, but in different configurations, like combining with portraits and other type of storytelling elements.
One of the things that this allows me to do is just get to know people. I’d like to remain open to the influence of the people that I meet and find new ways of expressing some of these values.
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