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The Many Lives of Mendoza

Cuban refugee. Ivy league preppy. Hippie commune resident. Modern New York artist. Retired photography prof. Successful Kickstarter campaigner and self-published author. Tony Mendoza has lived enough lives to fill a book. Or eight. A photographer and author, the 76-year-old places his striking color and black and white images alongside succinct paragraphs capturing specific memories. A [...]
Jeni Ruisch

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Cuban refugee.
Ivy league preppy.
Hippie commune resident.
Modern New York artist.
Retired photography prof.
Successful Kickstarter campaigner and self-published author.

Tony Mendoza has lived enough lives to fill a book. Or eight. A photographer and author, the 76-year-old places his striking color and black and white images alongside succinct paragraphs capturing specific memories. A flashbulb igniting a moment in time, spectacular or mundane. We identify with his images not because we have lived his life, but because he is our friend recounting his greatest hits. The stories with which we’re already familiar, but goad him into telling again and again. Mendoza tags his tales with an accompanying belly laugh that smacks the air above him and then drifts away like steam on a calm day. He drops bemused and casual conversational bombs—like trying to sail on a motorboat from Cuba to Florida when he was a young teenager, attending Harvard and Yale, and taking an elevator up to his loft past Andy Warhol’s parties nightly when he was a starving artist in New York.

To publish his latest book, “Pictures With Stories: A Memoir,” the Columbus resident and retired OSU prof forged his own path. Confronted by unresponsive publishing houses, he turned to crowdfunding. And after a successful Kickstarter, 2017 will see the print version of his latest set of tiny tales, as well as a show at Columbus’ Joseph Editions Gallery.

(614) was able to pin down the indefatigable Mendoza long enough to hear about his past and future lives.

How long have you been cataloguing things?

At some point, I started writing little stories with the photographs. I started doing that when I realized that maybe I had lived an interesting life. I say maybe because we all live interesting lives. I feel in a way privileged that I’ve lived many lives. I used to be an upper class Cuban in one life. I was a very spoiled kid and I was wealthy. I was a morally terrible person [laughs].

What was the worst thing you did when you were a kid?

When you grow up in a Latin culture and you’re a boy, you kind of have the run of everything. And you’re allowed to do everything. So from the moment I was 13, I had the run of the city of Havana. It was a center of sin in our hemisphere, and I participated in it [laughs]. At 18 I left, but living in Havana was a wild place. I gambled, I went to brothels, I drank. I did everything.

When you were a teenager?

When I was 13! [laughs]

When did the political climate change?

In 1958, Fidel Castro came in. And in 1960, I left. That was my first life, then I came to America. I quickly moved into the American thing because I had gone to a prep school. I totally understood Americans, what they were like and all that. I liked it. I liked the whole thing. I just moved into American society pretty quickly. I went through an Ivy league education. I went to Yale, so I became kind of a preppy, just automatically. I bought clothes at Brooks Brothers [laughs], went to Yale and went to all the girl’s schools for dates—Sara Lawrence and Vassar. That was my second life, as a preppy. Then the next step was, I went to graduate school and architectural school—and that was in Cambridge—and I got radicalized. At the end of that, I became part of the ’60s. So that was my third life.

When you say you understood Americans, what does that mean?

American culture, in my opinion, was clearly superior to Cuban culture. Cuban culture was very traditional, conservative and all that. There was a sense that you did what your father did. That also implied that you would also adopt their ideas. So there was religion and there was property, and there was conservative political ideology, and so on. When I came to the United States, I realized that you didn’t adopt your parents culture automatically. If anything, you rebelled against it. I kind of understood that right away. And people were very open, religiously and all that. No one really gave a damn about all that, and that suited my personality. Socially… the girls necked. Cuban girls didn’t, so I immediately took to that. [laughs] I immediately became an American at heart.

How did you become a part of the ’60s?

The ’60s changed me a lot because I basically got rid of all my conservative views pretty fast. I took to the idea that the ’60s was about exploring everything. Nothing was off limits. Drugs, sex, rock and roll, leftist politics, everything of that sort. At the end of that decade, I moved into a commune and explored that lifestyle of living with many people and trying things out. Nothing heavy—marijuana, acid, that kind of thing. And then my fourth life was… I became an artist.

Tell me about your breakthrough moment in New York.

I had this box of really good cat pictures. I spent like two years and took like 10,000 pictures of this cat. Photographed him every day. I knew pretty fast I had a project that was gonna fly, because people really admired the pictures. Even good galleries in New York gave me a show of cat pictures—which is rare. I took it to publishers, thinking “This is clearly a book.” I got rejected like 30 times. I went to everybody in New York, and everyone rejected it. Then somebody said: you can’t publish a book of pictures if you’re not a famous person. If you’re Ansel Adams, you can put a bunch of pictures in a book and then publish them. But if you’re Tony-Mendoza-I’ve-never-heard-of-you, you can’t do that. You have to have a story, a text. The book has to be interesting to read and see. There has to be writing in this thing. After so many rejections, that made perfect sense. It was interesting, cause up to that point, I never saw myself as a writer. I saw myself as a photographer. I basically holed myself up for a while and started coming up with the text. The first publisher who saw the project with the text said “This is great, let’s publish it.”

With that success behind you, why did you turn to Kickstarter?

Stories, my previous book, got reviewed in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, New York Times Book Review—all excellent reviews. All the viewers loved what I do, photographs with little stories… I figured, “Hell, I’m just gonna write publishers and say, ‘I’ve brought my Stories book up to date. I’ve written new stories.’” And to my amazement, no publisher wanted to publish it. The Museum of Modern Art owns 65 stories in the permanent collection, and people aren’t interested in this? [laughs] F*ck this. I’m gonna publish it myself.

Mendoza will release his latest book, Pictures with Stories: A Memoir in the fall of 2017. His show at Joseph Editions will open Thursday, September 14. More info at josepheditions.com.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Kate Morgan, 2D mixed media artist

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Kate Morgan began developing her ghostly, layered two-dimensional portraits after going back to school at the Columbus College of Art & Design in 2005. She already had some background in visual arts through her work in fashion and commercial photography, so the transition to drawing and painting was organic.

Morgan’s textured collages are inspired by folklore, mythology and a variety of artistic periods — especially Byzantine art. The 2011 Columbus Arts Festival Emerging Artist alum and 2019 exhibiting artist welcomes a wide array of complex themes into her pieces — including symbolic, cultural, historical and spiritual themes — while utilizing layers of vintage paper and original drawings to create visual depth and a sense of mystery.

Her pieces are purposely vague, leaning toward more minimalistic ideas to allow for wider interpretation by audiences. Largely her art depicts the female form, with as many layers and stories to tell as that of every human being. This is done with an eclectic assortment of materials — including sheet music, German Biblical pages, newspaper and maps — to add detail in both a topical and textural sense.

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And yet, Morgan still continues to look for a challenge. From venturing away from her familiar blue hues to exploring different mediums like ceramics, her work knows no creative limits.

Morgan has exhibited at the Columbus Arts Festival nearly every year since 2011. She has gone on to win two jurors’ choice awards in the 2D category at the Columbus Arts Festival, as well as sell and have work juried at other major festivals across the country. In Columbus, her work can be seen as part of the Columbus Makes Art and Donatos Pizza collaborative mural “Every Piece Is Important” at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Morgan has a BFA from CCAD and currently works out of her Franklinton studio in Columbus. Experience this stunning work first hand when you visit her at booth M572 on the Main Street Bridge during the Columbus Arts Festival from June 7-9 at the downtown riverfront.

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Arts & Culture

Be Square: Changes coming to arts community at 400 W Rich

Mike Thomas

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If you haven’t visited the thriving arts community at 400 West Rich street in awhile, you might be surprised to see how much things have changed. Now, the minds behind the city’s hub for the arts are changing things up to better reflect the area’s evolution.

400 Square is the new collective moniker for the array of concepts that currently occupy the buildings on the 400 block of Rich street in Franklinton. The rebrand seeks to unify the community of artistic innovators who call the area developed by Urban Smart Growth their creative home.

Promo art for 400 Square by Anthony Damico

Spaces encompassed in the rebrand include Strongwater, The Vanderelli Room, and Chromedge Studios, and of course, the studios at 400 W. Rich. While the name may be changing, the group remains committed to providing and sustaining a thriving hub for creatives through education, resources, and entertainment opportunities in the area.

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With the launch of 400 Square, Urban Smart Growth Director of Operations Seth Stout has led his team to develop new offerings for each of the growing spaces. Food and Beverage Director Lauren Conrath and Events Director Molly Blundred have taken the lead with changes to the Strongwater brand, while Community Director Stephanie McGlone and Art Director AJ Vanderelli are facilitating programming for all ages and abilities on the artist side.

Through all of the changes on the way, the staff at 400 Square are committed to bringing the public the same high quality of workshops, events, exhibitions, and more that have always been part of their unique creative community.

Stay tuned for more info—the new 400 Square officially rolls out during the weekend of Columbus Arts Fest 2019, June 7-9.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Cousin Simple to wow crowd with energy, passion

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As a young up-and-coming band, Cousin Simple is excited to play at this year’s Columbus Art’s Festival. In their two years as a band, they have already done a lot of really cool things, such as making a single with L.A. multi-platinum music producer David Kershenbaum, playing at Vans Warped Tour at Blossom Music Center, and selling out shows at the A&R Bar, the Basement and The Big Room Bar. But there is much more they want to accomplish including recording more music, making a music video and playing more shows in and out of Columbus.

The band members are all Columbus born and raised. Four members currently attend The Ohio State University, while their drummer Joel is finishing up his junior year at New Albany high School. Cousin Simple brings an energy and passion to the stage and gives everything they have to their performances, regardless of the crowd size. They just released a new single in February called Honeybee, available on iTunes and Spotify and have a single set to release May 10 titled “Star Destroyers.”

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Columbus is a great city for musicians. Whether you’re in the indie, rock, or hip hop scene, there are other musicians and music industry people willing to help you out. Columbus also takes a great sense of pride in its “local gems.” People love to see musicians who are doing well in their hometown and are willing to support them in many ways.

There are so many organizations that have taken this to heart and are helping bands get great opportunities. CD102.5, WCBE 90.5, PromoWest Productions and the Columbus Music Commission have helped Cousin Simple get airtime, shows and support. When it comes to music cities, Columbus may not be the first place that comes to mind, but there are so many bands and musicians doing exciting things it’s making the future bright for them and the Columbus music scene.

But Cousin Simple recognizes that none of this would be possible without the support of their family, friends and FANS that come to each and every show. They are humbled and motivated by their audiences who energize them to make every performance an experience their fans won’t forget. 

Cousin Simple will perform on the Big Local Music Stage on Rich Street on Friday night, June 7 at 7:45 p.m.

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