The Art of Collaborating and Mentoring: a Conversation Between Linda Mary Montano and Nicolás Dumit Estévez
NDE: Dear Linda, I greatly welcome the opportunity to talk with you. I find that our conversations, at least from my perspective as an artist from a younger generation, serve a very valuable pedagogical role. Learning with you is always surprising, never stale or prescribed. It is fun and scary. I will always remember the day you suggested I make an appointment to present my art project to a priest. Only you! I never know what your “assignments” might be.
NDE: Can you talk about your history of collaborations with other artists?
LMM: I cannot mention the names of other "artists" Nicolás, because that is the beginning of a big sin....mention one and not the others!!!!So I will begin with my first "lifeist" collaboration and that was with my grandmother, Lena. She was formidable, large, totally zen, beyond talented, an outsider "artist" and my first teacher. As a small child, I would come home from school in now-chic upstate NY, Saugerties, and walk 3 minutes, unaccompanied, to my grandmother's home and watched her for at least 3 hours a day. I was being trained in seeing then doing and not talking, not asking questions and not having to ever critique or judge her or me or the creative process. We collaborated in a very Asian way....the way of watching, not doing. Throughout my life I have had very similar relationships with teachers who gave birth to my creativity via their letting me be in their beauty-presence. I imagine that collaboration is a similar infusion of energized ecstasy.
This would be a good time to tell the following image-thief story. In 1997, I collaborated with a country, India. I was given a summer research grant while teaching at UT Texas and went to India to research death and nursing homes in Benares. What I learned about collaborating was more revealing than what I learned about death because I came face to face with my inner cultural consuming gene. The kind Benares man who opened my eyes to my pirating their country by coming there, doing my video then going home and using it to try to get tenure, was a true teacher! A Brahmin, he in both words, attitude and glance, let me know that coming to India to export "her" via my art, was not a good way to collaborate with his MOTHER INDIA! I was totally taught the sin of insensitive snap-snap then leave-leave. This collaboration with his India, gone amuck, changed my whole life and altered the way I practice, in fact, I started collaborating with my own physical home and myself much more intentionally!
NDE: Given your involvement with art in everyday life, and the openness with which you have framed (unframed?) your art practice and your day to day, how would you define the concept of collaboration?
LMM: I imagine that it is like falling in love, or needing something that someone can do or needing to use what someone has. It is like feeling a mutuality of mirrored intention and vibed similarity of purpose or style. It is like being high or turned on and amazed that the 2 or 6 of you can make such beauty together. But therein lies the ephemerality of it. This is the utopian view but if you stay in a collaboration for more than one project, then you get into real time reality show stuff with feelings and rubbings of your art-skin against theirs. You get into whose name is first and where are we going to eat and who is paying for the meal tonight and how do you split the honorarium! Some people do this with great grace, some are not interested in grace, just struggle. Maybe the current cosmic "rapture' and Armageddon and fall of the empires will force a proximity and sharing and community mindedness that is less about us artist being singular individuals. Maybe collaboration will be the only way? Maybe we will hit the delete button of who is more famous and get so inspired by an OCCUPY WALLSTREET kind of mentality, that we will make efforts to share the limelight.
NDE: Can you think of a collaboration that, while artistic in nature, has taken place for you in your day to day? I am asking this thinking of the vast number of unstated collaborations in which we, human beings, engage in an on-going basis; collaborations with our mothers and fathers, with our teachers, and with society in general?
LMM: Currently, I am very interested in the ephemera of my dream life. It is good TV.
NDE: What would you say are the most important points for artists to keep in mind at the moment of initiating a dialogue about a potential collaboration?
LMM: TAKE PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELING!!!!!!!! Why? Because everything that couples will deal with in a traditional marriage, comes up in exactly the same way when 2 or more artists do a project. Brutal honesty should proceed the commitment of getting involved with each other. We usually fall into a project without any guidelines or rules but actually there is no need to feel shy or to be embarrassed by the monster hall of fame issues like: Whose name is first? How much money do we ask for? It was my idea and you are gobbling this up and have made it yours! Why did you get credit and I didn’t? Why are you making work exactly like mine? Why are you so jealous of me? Why do they always use a picture with you out front and me in the back? Why do I always have to do the PR? I'm tired of making lunch! I'm tired of paying for lunch! Why do we always use my car? Why does the press ask you questions and not me? Why do you sing so loud and drown me out? The concerns are endless.
These all sound ridiculous and funny but I really believe that people who work together should feel a permission to look at all of the life-stuff that bugs us because......just because we are these fabulous, genius, talented, star-artists doesn’t mean that we aren’t human babies with the emotional responses of a 6 year old in diapers! And when you get more than two 45 year old artists with 6 year old emotional/intellectual responses, the scene can be migraine-making and quite smelly.
NDE: Big Egos can easily interfere with the learning that could emerge through collaborations. Do you have a simple recipe for counteracting this situation?
LMM: TAKE A PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELING CLASS before the collaboration and write down concerns and talk about them before you start wildly texting and Skyping your great thoughts, ideas and dreams. Do it before dual arrogance sets in.
NDE: I don’t know if you have noticed a growing trend in the arts to engage in healing. However, I must say that as much as art can nourish one and heal one’s wounds, there is a side of Art that can be quite damaging. This is the face of Art that often surfaces when collaborations go wrong. Many of us have experienced this. What is your advice for recovering from a collaboration that has left one with a black eye, or a missing tooth?
LMM: Silence. Don’t talk until you are ready to do the POST-MARRIAGE COUNSELING.
NDE: What is your dream collaboration? When answering this question, imagine there are no limits?
LMM: A one night stand always works for me because then I don’t have to do the counseling. I can leave looking like a nice person and actually seem that way! More time together, more reality.
NDE: With whom and under what circumstances would you dream of collaborating?
LMM: A large techie institution where the techie people are paid tons of money to assist artists to do work and a place that will pay the artists and collaborators good money as well. There is a level of BUSINESS and professionalism that can happen when things are cut and dried by this kind of institutionalism. Professional kindness. This makes everyone nice.
But maybe collaboration is over and a moot point? The internet has eliminated the need for face and accountability and presence and gratitude because we can log on and get what we need and delete what we don’t need and nothing needs to be traced to its source. And spending an hour on FB everyday is like a faux collaboration, allowing me to at least visually imagine that I am co-making that sculpture, co-designing that building, co-singing that song, co-creating that painting with the artist I am skimming by and then immediately deleting!!
NDE: Does it sound right to you to move into the subject of mentoring?
LMM: Sure. If we were to trace our lives back, there is always a person, place or thing that gave us our wings. Asians know about this kind of lineage thinking and they learn how to thank the past , the present and how to give credit. We don’t know how to do that and we are not culturally grateful. I think it is an American cultural sin: we came here and pushed our way west without regard for anything but our push! We are consumers of beauty, consumers of ideas and consumers of others. But there is hope because the good manners of our global village co-inhabitors are beginning to be learned by our cowboy, lone ranger shoot em up selves. Plus I feel that lineage-gratitude and footnoting and giving credit needs to be taught in art schools.
But ideas are tricky things...They cant be held onto or claimed because often 329842390 people have the same idea and all want to make $87,878 on it. This is the sickness of art and self. In cultures where community/anonymity is the highest commodity and where sharing an experience is more important than being the main honcho, we get to see the model of art as a vehicle for the sacred.
NDE: At first sight, one could argue that there are marked differences between the concepts of collaboration and mentoring. There are also many similarities. What is your understanding of the two?
LMM: We all want to be the boss. People who have not had children are totally dangerous when it comes to both collaboration and mentoring. The passive/aggressiveness and power over tussles can be suffocating. Why not adopt a child and then do art? Learn how to be selfless then collaborate.
NDE: Would you mind talking about the Summer Saint Camp? The reason I am asking is because, since I have never attended a camp session, I am curious as to how you would define the work you do there with students? Do you see it as mentoring?
LMM: It was the SUMMER SAINT CAMP that I offered for 16 days during 7 years of 7 YEARS OF LIVNG ART. It was wonderful, I was a saint, they were saints, there was no power over stuff going on, no tension, no un-monastic attitudes by myself or the participants, no money issues...LOL!
But all kidding aside, my intention was good and there were 2 reasons:
1. I wanted to share what I was learning from my work with the chakras (at the time I arrogantly was sure that I had invented the chakras!) and
2. I wanted to have contact with other artists because I was living alone and knew that inviting company to live with me and practicing hospitality was healthy and healing. But as far as THE SUMMER SAINT CAMP being perfect or that I was a super-mentor, you would have to interview the 20 or so people who attended and ask their opinion of the experience.
And mentoring now, as I age? I feel I am harder to deal with and I think I was more utopian and sharing back then and more co-creative. Now i'm more of a nudge and it's a control freak attitude that creeps into the psyche as death nudges closer...it is fear disguised as attention to detail and being in control.
NDE: What is mentoring and what are the guidelines for a respectful mentorship in the arts; in art and life?
LMM: Try to trace your ideas and credit the source; try to thank the gurus; try to thank the work and not get so god-goddess-like; try to relax about the whole art thing which can become a war and not a walk of beauty.
NDE: Any thoughts for sustaining a healthy, long-term, mentor-mentee relationship?
LMM: Give nice gifts? Ask, "Is there anything I can do for you? " Go to them once a year and do 3 days of free seva. Footnote and mention them inside the article you are writing. Then pass on your tricks of the trade to somebody else coming along and vow not to get jealous when their star reaches further into the limelight than yours.
NDE: For a long time I have been experimenting with expanding the concept of collaboration and mentorship outside of the confines of the arts. It is obvious that you have been a pivotal figure at the forefront of this approach, can you tell us
the benefits a young artist can derive from working with mentors who don’t see or define themselves or what they do as art?
LMM: Benefits are that the artist can relax because there is no power struggle or fear that the mentee might outstar them so it is a total win-win.
NDE: When I speak of young artists or artists from a younger generation, I am talking about individuals who are relatively new to the arts. These terms are not necessarily meant to refer to their physical age. I am trying to avoid using labels like: emerging artist, mid-career artist, for example. These labels can be confining. What is the “youngest” and the “oldest” person you have mentored?
LMM: I am a good baby whisperer and I do that whenever I can. My best friend from India let me mentor her in a spiritual practice when she was in her 80's and she was already an advanced practitioner. I was elated. It is obvious that some of us are teachers and sharers and if we take good care of ourselves intentionally, mentally, physically, psychologically, then we can do our thing without strife. Labels like mid-emerging are a form of bullying.
NDE: One of the most important lessons I have learned about the mentorship you have done with me is that this requires honesty, open communication, and one’s ability to trust the other. Would you like to add anything to this?
LMM: Remind me how to do this when we work together again.
NDE: I know that you do mentoring live, and through the internet. What other ways of mentoring besides these two have you developed?
NDE: What is your advice to people who are new to mentoring: mentors and mentees?
LMM: Work with someone and see what happens. Tell them about your influences and people who held your hand throughout your stumblings. Have a baby or adopt one or caregive your parents.
NDE: I thank you for your guidance for almost seven years! I remember contacting you through e-mail in 2006. I was then working at Yaddo on a series of pilgrimages and related actions. And I remember hearing a voice telling me “Get in touch with Linda. Reach out to Linda.” And here we are!
LMM: LOL, I'm laughing because you are claiming that you did pilgrimages before you met me! And by claiming that publically in this interview, you are saying that the pilgrimage work that I did imitated your work, right? See Nicolás, this whole interview that you designed and led me into participating in was a Touche! and a way for you to say that you did it first and that maybe you, Nicolás are the mentor!!!! We are such complex beings, so wanting to claim CREATION when there is only the ONE DIVINE ARTIST who we imitate! But all said and done, it is fun playing mentor/mentee with you and maybe it's time for us to find a therapist?
Make it a priest and we can both go to confession!
NDE: Linda, this makes me sad that you think this way. You are misinterpreting me. The voice I heard telling me to call you when I was at Yaddo meant to publicly acknowledge that you had tread the path before. I have a great deal to learn from you, and I am glad we connected. You have given me wings and, at times have given me a reassuring push off the cliff so I can try flying, rather than conceptualizing over and over the way one sometimes does with ART. I am borrowing the use of caps from you because I see astronomical differences between Art, ART and art.
For the last seven years we have worked very closely together and I will always thank you for being first, for going over table manners with me (and I always thought of myself as knowing how to use well my silverware, napkins and glassware), for guiding me through the footnoting process (this makes me rethink some of the rigorous, academic training I have undergone), and for being a generous friend and mentor to me. The Chicago Manual does not necessarily work in real life or when engaging in the process you have been calling for decades, art in everyday life. This is part of my confession. Do you still want to go to see a priest or should we head to a couple’s therapist? You can have the last word(s). But just remember you are my BIG ART HONCHO MAMA!
LMM: Awww shucks, Nicolás, you are the best.
NDE: No, you are, Linda.
LMM: Blessings, my son.