OAKHURST — Artists are often influenced by their surroundings, and Monique Wales is no exception. The printmaker is inspired by the natural world, including the majesty of Yosemite National Park; its towering trees, monumental rocks, abundant wildlife and exceptional vistas.
She’s also affected by the more intimate surroundings of the home she and husband Tim built in the foothills, from the ground up. Monique opens a home studio for Sierra Art Trails for the third year in a row, and recently she offered some insight into her process and the magnificent 12-piece project she has created to honor Yosemite.
“I am excited to be showing the entire Yosemite series on my own Red Tail Studios’ walls during the Sierra Art Trails 3-Day Open Studio event,” says Monique, adding that on average, each one of the Yosemite edition prints took over 200 hours to complete. “It’s a wonderful venue that we enjoy immensely each year. Sharing my love of printmaking is my favorite part of the tour and I also enjoy giving all my visitors the opportunity to try a form of the medium themselves.”
Sierra Art Trails runs from Friday, Sept. 30 through Sunday, Oct. 2. Monique is sharing the space by hosting wood sculptor, Steve Carney. Together, they are Artists #42 and #43 in the Sierra Art Trails catalog which serves as a ticket for two throughout the three days of the open studio tour. Purchase your catalog here.
“This year, monoprints made with a gelatine plate is in the works; guests need only bring their imaginations and sense of play.”
The last year has been one of milestones for Monique and the Park, and both the artist and the landscape experienced transformation. Monique turned 50 and Yosemite celebrated a birthday of its own. This too was inspirational.
“So many people feel a sense of impending doom around the ‘Big 5-0,’ as if it’s all downhill from there. I didn’t feel that way, but I knew that if I didn’t plan my own 50th, I would end up with one of those horrible surprise parties or something.”
Instead of one pressure-packed party, Monique opted for a string of satisfying activities and events. She got an early start.
“I began marking the occasion after my 49th and spent the entire year indulging myself with things I had always either been afraid or intimidated to do, or had always intended to do, but just never gotten around to the actual doing.”
Monique’s adventures ranged from a first-time cross country ski experience, to a plein aire oils class, and a five-day yoga plus hiking workshop. That’s not all.
“I became a certified California Naturalist by taking a life-changing immersion course in Yosemite through the UC Extension, and joined the Board of Directors at the local Audubon. All of these were things that challenged or enriched me!”
Ultimately, Monique decided to commit to the artistic challenge of what she has dubbed the Yosemite Series.
“I had just completed, Taft Point Fissures – Yosemite, which coincided with the the 125th birthday for Yosemite as a national park and became the first print in the series. Both the Park and I celebrating big birthdays, it was a natural fit.”
Monique wanted to prove to herself that she could commit to an immense project over a span of time, she says, while doing her beloved Park justice, and stretch herself as an artist, despite life’s distractions.
“Many friends and family assumed that I was pursuing my art as a hobby after my move to the mountains, a fact that I resented but perhaps secretly feared was true, since my output had faltered.”
She resolved to complete a large, single-color 24″ x 18″ relief print each month for the 12 months of Yosemite’s 125th birthday in honor of the park that first sparked her interest in the wilderness. She considers the effort a dual celebration of both the Park’s and her big year, purposefully culminating on the National Park Service’s 100th birthday.
“The easy part of making the decision to do the Yosemite Series was gathering the inspiration! There is nowhere in the park that doesn’t give me a sense of awe and ‘breath.’ It just clears my head space and makes room for personal expansion whenever the chatter of doubt and limitations sets in.”
Calling her many day trips magical, Monique spent her time there mostly alone, basking in the splendor of the place she notes is a World Heritage site.
“With the Yosemite series, I had the excuse to spend the entire day in one spot or to go to six different areas in a single afternoon, depending on what I was looking for. What I hope to convey is my reverence for nature, its beauty and balance, my sense of wonder and awe and, perhaps, both it’s fragility and strength when I can.”
“The idea that I ‘didn’t do’ landscapes well or that carving completely freehand was impossible for me. I experimented my way out of these mental barriers and discovered more joy in my work as a result. A greater confidence in my abilities, coupled with the growing inspiration and contentment gained from each completed print, allowed me to take great risks I wouldn’t have before.”
The project has taken Monique places she never thought she’d go creatively, and she’s taken the project with her as well.
“I had to plan prints well in advance, plan large chunks of carving time into family holiday and vacation time, even during family crises. I took my portable carving table to Colorado twice for three weeks each to visit our daughter at college, and to the hospital to carve in the parking lot during some major surgeries my husband needed. I took sudden trips into the Park when I didn’t have the info for a print that I was looking for.”
Not surprisingly, the hours of dedication did not come without sacrifice, and where there is family, there are often distractions and tough choices to make.
“I really did actually miss out on some fun outings with friends and family, but I think rising to this challenge was important to me personally and I think they came to understand that in the end.”
Even while living in the very urban landscape of Oakland, before moving to the foothills, Monique’s subjects mirrored her appreciation of nature.
“While I don’t intentionally confine myself to the natural world, I find that is what gives me the most inspiration and what I am drawn to capture through printmaking and painting.”
Eventually the artist and her husband were introduced to this part of the Central Sierra by a friend.
“Over 13 years ago, the moment we crested Deadwood and looked over the valley into Oakhurst, we knew we had found our forever home. Within 3 months, we bought 12 acres of very neglected land. It took us about 4 years of prep before we could start building on the property, but that gave us time to fall in love with it, too. Whenever possible, we did the work ourselves and my husband, Tim, with one other ex-contractor, built the house from the ground up.”
Along the home building journey, Monique gathered inspiration for her work, starting the Nest Series after finding an abandoned finch nest in the rafters of their half-built studio.
She named the studio after a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks that stayed throughout the process of building the home. That’s where visitors can find her during Sierra Art Trails weekend. This is the artist’s third time participating in the open studio tour.
“After three years of living and working in the mountains, I’ve settled into its rhythms and come to rely on its abundant beauty and quiet pace as my own personal tonic. We’ve made treasured friends from different areas of our lives, including yoga and cardio classes, birding and volunteering, and the Sierra Art Trails community. I’ve found friends among the many amazing artists that reside and work in the mountain area.”
As for the milestones Monique has encountered, and those in the park, her spirit remains strong.
“Connecting with the Park on a more intimate level than I have ever done before, I found I was able to see and feel more as well. By the end, the series only fueled the desire to go further and see more of its wonders, glimpse more of its hidden treasures. After a challenging year for both of us, I look forward to spending more time enjoying Yosemite to its fullest and letting “… nature heal and give strength to body and soul alike’ – John Muir.”
On average, each one of the Yosemite edition prints took over 200 hours to complete. Each single-color print is made with this basic process: 1) The design is conceived and transferred to the block, in this case, artist’s linoleum. 2) The negative space (the areas remaining the color of the paper) is carved away, leaving the uncarved surface areas for inking. 3) Ink is applied to the uncarved portions of the block with a printer’s brayer, or roller. 4) Paper is laid onto the carved, inked block and pressure is applied, either by hand, using a wooden spoon or printer’s baren, or with a press, as in this series. 5) The image is ‘pulled’ from the block with the finished print revealed, the ink having been transferred through pressure to the paper. The print is hung or laid to dry over the course of days, or even a week, depending on the amount of ink used. The block must be inked for each print pulled, so for an edition of 30, that would be 30 inkings and press pulls. Each one, though similar, is unique due to variations during inking and pulling.