Questions for Franco Mondini-Ruiz: An interview by artist Gary Sweeney 

GALLERY: The Artwork of Franco Mondini-Ruiz

Ten minutes into my conversation with San Antonio art star Franco Mondini-Ruiz, it became obvious that my little one-page interview in the Current would not be able to hold Franco’s oversized personality. The story of how his parents met could be an entire article in itself.

During our two-hour talk, Franco took the conversation and ran with it, covering such diverse subjects as Italian history, fashion, Linda Pace’s influence and San Antonio’s art world during the 1980s. His observations were insightful, outrageous, reflective, hilarious, bitchy—often within a single sentence.

In a nutshell: born and raised in Boerne, became a high-powered attorney, burned out on the lawyer life, began making art, came out, became a fabulous artist and party host.

His art successes have been truly impressive. He was juried into the Whitney Biennial of American Art (the art world’s version of the All-Star Game), after which he was awarded the very prestigious Rome Prize. He published a beautiful art book, High Pink: Tex-Mex Fairy Tales. Last year, he presented a solo show at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and is showing in Santa Fe with fellow San Antonian Justin Parr this month. His work also resides in important national and international collections too numerous to mention.

As I said, someone needs to write a book.

Ed. note: Sweeney and Mondini-Ruiz decided to have some fun with the pictured photo-op and set it up inside Mondini-Ruiz’ onsite goat pen. No sooner had they arranged several works by the artist than one opinionated billy goat headbutted the largest work, ripping it apart. This being Mondini-Ruiz’ world, the photo shoot went on as if this were a totally normal occurance. They simply turned the painting around (to protect its identity!) and kept on shooting.

What was it like growing up in Boerne in the ’60s?
Pre-Wal-Mart, Boerne was a cedar-scented, little German town of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. Old buildings, new money, dragging Main and the occasional transvestite horse-trainer couple who wore heavy Tammy Faye Bakker makeup and matching Patsy Cline drag when they ventured into town!

What was it like growing up gay and Hispanic in San Antonio?
It was a cautious, precarious existence with moments of relief when some new kid “gayer” or “Hispanicer” moved into town.

What was your first experience in art?
Third-grade (1969) Weekly Reader, [which] came from someplace far weirder than Boerne. One week, in the middle of a dusty drought, the publication had a tiny story with a tiny picture showing a Warhol opening. The scene was hotly lit and futuristic, stark white and weirdo-ish and glamorous and scary and arty and a sanctuary. I would from that day journey forward.

How did you decide to make the transition from attorney to fine artist?
I decided while visiting the crumbling, rustic Sergio-Leone-movie-set of an art studio belonging to Alejandro Diaz, that fateful evening dominated by a large pile of russet potatoes and Mexican cigarettes among precariously stacked ancient chairs upon which dozens of huge candle-lit martinis were delicately balanced, slightly quivering to a scratchy 19th-century recording of a castrato singing in German.

Who were your major art influences?
My father, who would in the mid-1960s paint nude frescoes of my mother on the walls of our suburban tract-house, and my mom, who unwittingly turned our treasure- and junk-filled household into performance art, high-low installations, and improv.

What never fails to make you laugh?
No one right now. I fired all my funniest friends, or they fired me. I laughed non-stop from middle school until three years ago. Laughter and mirth are on hold.

Your paintings combine art and fashion. Those two worlds have been almost interchangeable for the last decade. Do you think it’s because we all want glamour in our lives?
The themes of art and fashion sell well, are easy to paint, and make me happy and solvent. One of my mottos is, “If a painting doesn’t sell, I’ll add a cat or a chandelier.” I truly feel even my lightest work can provoke poetic and philosophical discovery. I think my work’s success with the broad public lies not in that it brings glamour to the collector, but that it soothes and comforts a sense of the loss of things wonderful and fabulous, but impractical amidst the realities of our times.

Yes, the size 0 Audrey Hepburnesque figure under a chandelier, with a cat and maybe a cigarette in a diamond pave holder is so splendid, so remarkable and SO of another time. Who wants to wear long gloves in San Antonio, weigh only 100 pounds and still wear a girdle, have a huge hat bigger than a closet, smoke a deadly cigarette, own an unregistered non-neutered cat and a chandelier that is melting Antarctica, and talk to their friends in a British accent? OK, a LOT of people do! But just for a minute, and conveniently. That’s where my paintings come in handy.

Who are some of the interesting artists you’ve been able to rub shoulders with in the last few years?
Oh, I have rubbed more than shoulders with hundreds of interesting and famous artists the last few decades. My year at the Academy in Rome, or for that matter the six years in Manhattan was like living on the Loveboat. In Rome, I might find myself serving a cupcake and glass of milk to Chuck Close, having Frito pie and tequila with the statuesque viking Poet Laureate of Finland, discussing poetry with the artsy former Queen of Egypt while she’s drinking scotch. I must say, however, that I have a strong interest in the artists of San Antonio of different generations who explore, critique and interpret the historical, class, cultural and racial fusion which makes San Antonio interesting and relevant.

How did you spend your year in Rome: Was it more Roman Holiday or Fellini’s Satyricon?
It was more Caddyshack! Most of the Rome Prize fellows in the different fields were very fancy and serious, from Ivy League schools. At first they looked at me as if I was Rodney Dangerfield. Eventually my studio became La Dolce Vita, where some lives were saved, and some ruined.

Name three things you can’t live without.
Oxygen, water and food. The rest is gravy.

Tell me about your spectacular living compound
San Antonio is becoming uglier and less inspiring every day … Where’s the Swiss skyride? Has anyone ever heard of planting lots of trees and dramatic modern architecture? What are those hideous kiosks that look like fallen air conditioning vents doing in front of the San Fernando Cathedral? Where is the happy, gurgling, romantic, unpretentious fountain that used to be there? And why are all the fountains turned off except for the ones on the River Walk for tourists? Why can’t the richest man in San Antonio make a fabulous Tex-Mexican-German Mercado showpiece grocery store with cultural heritage, foodie fun, a mini-Fiesta downtown and the envy of lesser cities, just for the hell of it?

I stay home on my two properties and spend every free penny and minute on beauty and wonder and a sanctuary for San Antonio visual traditions and birds and goats and jobs! It also helps sell paintings to the often high-end cultural tourists that seek my oasis out and visit.

Some artists claim to do their best work in an altered state. Does that apply to you?
I find I’m not critical enough and my technique suffers when I work with relaxants. Stimulants often lead to some good work at prolific levels. In my youth, I found that being in love with someone who doesn’t love me back, while listening to Maria Callas, resulted in some very good work, but it was too high a price to pay.

In spite of your fame and success, you’ve managed to keep your artwork surprisingly affordable. Is it more important to you to make it accessible to your fans?
Yes! I need mass love and approval. I also don’t want to make baubles for the elite, even though they are a share of my market, and often extraordinary people. I know what it feels like to have your nose pressed against the glass of the fancy shop where you’re not welcomed, and I hope that I never deny anyone one of my confections because of the price!

You always seem so sunny and cheerful. Is there a dark, mean Franco lurking beneath the surface?
Sunny and cheerful? You must only see me early in the evening on the rare occasion that I socialize.

Where did you get your sense of style?
My sense of style was passed down to me by my older, stylish, opinionated gay mentors, now mostly dead. It seems many young people don’t think they need mentors. I guess it’s because everything you need to know now is at your fingertips on the internet.

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