20 Questions w/ Madeleine Tonzi



Madeleine Tonzi, Photo courtesy of Metric Cosmetics

Describe yourself and your work:

The foundation of my work rests on the concept of Solastalgia. It is a term that was created by environmental philosopher and psychologist, Glenn Albrecht, to describe the emotional distress people were experiencing due to the loss of their environment as a result of industrial extraction and the impact of climate change. Within each painting, I seek to create emotive landscapes that underline the importance of preserving what is sacred. The landscapes I create are a combination of experiences and places from my past and often include remnants of human existence, but never include the figure. It is to say that these places and spaces hold importance beyond the material value placed on them by people. With this, my goal is to highlight the importance of preserving our environment. As it stands we have already caused irrevocable harm, and my goal is to further push my art toward a more impactful conversation concerning the issues we face together.

How did you get started in your career as an artist?

I was raised by a single mother who needed help with after school care. When I turned eight years old she placed me in an after school art program called, Fine Arts for Children And Teens, in Santa Fe, NM. I instantly felt at home in the studio.  I remember creating still life paintings of fruit and flowers carefully arranged over draped fabric, combing the neighboring train tracks for objects to make found art with, and making molds of my hands and face, all while learning the history and vocabulary pertaining to each subject. As I got older, I would work as a studio assistant with the younger students in trade for classes. It is a time in my life that I always look back at as being one of the most important experiences of my youth. It served as the foundation in which I would later pursue a degree in Studio Practice and Community Arts at California College of the Arts.

What piece of work best represents you and why?

The piece that represents me best is a painting titled, “Reconstruction.” I consider it to be my breakthrough painting. The one in which I found my visual voice, and thus set forth the momentum for every painting that followed in its path. After spending my entire life making art, I finally felt that I was able to convey what I wanted to say through a vocabulary I created, distinguished by my own specific color pallet and lexicon of imagery, shapes, and design elements. Stylistically, I created a look that was distinctly mine, and that was a very moving experience as an artist.

Reconstruction, Gouache, Wood Panel, 3 x 4 ft, 2016

How do your materials influence your work? 

As I mentioned above, it took me a long time to develop a specific style in which I identified with. Part of that process was experimenting with various mediums, and finding out what worked best for what I was trying to achieve visually. I have used oil paint, acrylic, watercolor, spray paint, pastel and so on. But when I started experimenting with Acrylic Gouache, my style really started to take shape. As a medium, Acrylic Gouache is incredibly opaque and richly pigmented. I was able to mix colors easily and fell in love with the pallet I created. Because the paint dries fast, I started to really experiment with creating solid shapes of color to express natural forms within landscapes, accented by patterns and stars. The combination of blocking out color with richly saturated pigments and fast drying paint was appealing to me. It was reminiscent of the aesthetic and process of screen printing which I had fallen in love with in school, all while achieving the tactile nature of painting. As a result, the overall aesthetic of my work has become very bold and graphic due to the nature of the paint. I like that it is clean and crisp like a print, but up close you can see the brushstrokes and the mark of my hand.

Where do you go to get inspired?

Witch Mountain

Often times I listen to music that instills a mood I am trying to express, and it is enough to simply ruminate in that feeling for awhile in order to uster up some ideas. But more often than not, I need to get out and explore. Traveling home to the desert of New Mexico always inspires me. Walks in the mountains and arroyos trigger so many memories of childhood in the rough desert climate. Memory and place are the subject of my work, so it is imperative to revisit important places from my past and always keep a sense of adventure. Additionally, I love taking photos of piles of wood, debris, rocks and plants. I like to explore places of decay in which nature is taking back its place and remnants of somebody else’s life still lingers. I always keep a camera on me, and use the photos as reference later.

What have you learned through creating that has surprised you?

The thing that surprises me is that after all the insecurities, the failure, and the frustrations that come along with making art, after an entire lifetime of doing this, that I still have the drive to create. It is the one thing that has remained largely consistent within my life and creating everyday only motivates me to keep going, to challenge myself more, and to continue to improve.

Describe your work routine for your artistic practice.

I am very much a morning person, even if I don’t sleep much the night before. After my obligatory cup of coffee I get straight to work. I like working during the day because that is when the light in my studio is the best. However, I don’t limit my hours to just the daytime.Sometimes the hours flow into the night, and the drive to create overrides any sense of hunger or exhaustion. My process involves sketching, mixing colors, priming panels, and the best part of all, painting. Making art often involves going into a trance-like state, and that is part of what makes the creative process so magical, and I try not to constrain that if I have a good workflow. As I get older and more serious about my work, I have become a bit more rigid with my schedule, but I still allow for spontaneous dance sessions, music, and snack breaks to keep the creativity going. But in the same breath, I realise that the work still has to happen even when my creativity isn’t abound, and I think that is one of the key differences between my earlier practice and now.

Just Before Dark, Gouache, Wood Panel, 3 x 4 ft, 2016.

What is it like when you collaborate with other artists?

Collaborating with other artists is both challenging and incredibly rewarding. There is a distinct and unique energy that comes from collaborations versus working alone. When you find a good collaborator, ideas begin to build and flow and the possibilities start to feel limitless. I think this is important for an artist’s independent practice as well. It helps you get out of your own bubble and expand your creative process and thinking.

How do you balance being an artist and making a living?

For me there is no separation between being an artist and making a living. Any side work I consider to be supplemental. Making a living as an artist means hustling, and part of maintaining a balance is having multiple sources of income so as not to rely too heavily on any one source. Accounts with independent artisan stores, print releases, mural jobs, painting sales and side hustles all contribute to the greater whole. The key to managing all of the parts is exercising saying no. This is something I am actively practicing in order to allow time for myself and keep space open for the important things I need to achieve in order to make a living and of course maintain my sanity. It isn’t easy saying no, but it is necessary.

What is your process for coming up with new work?

Coming up with new work extends from my previous paintings and drawings. It is a process of finding what works best within a composition, whether it be a color, design, shape or any other element, and then extracting that and manipulating it in new ways to further explore that idea. Sometimes it requires searching deep within my memories of the places I once inhabited and recognizing the feeling or mood they instill, then translating that into a painting. Additionally, it is the collective conscience or collective ethos of creativity. This is the subconscious aspect of art making. It is an amalgamation of the external forces of inspiration subconsciously aiding in the creative process. This, I believe, is the foundation of art movements.

Sacred Offerings for Ceremonial Gathering, Gouache, Wood Panel, 11 x 14 in, 2016.

Sacred Offerings for Ceremonial Gathering, Gouache, Wood Panel, 11 x 14 in, 2016.

Why do you believe art has value?

Art has value because it is emotive. It is a universal language that bridges the gap between people that may not speak the same language and thus it serves as a way to connect people, shape ideas and history, and steer entire political movements. It allows people to express themselves in ways that can only be felt in an attempt to make sense of the world around us, and it instills a sense of agency within those who hold less power. Furthermore, art encourages us to explore new mediums, ideas and places. Above all art equals choice and within that exists so much freedom.

What is playing on your stereo?

I listen to CocoRosie a lot while I am working. Their music transports me to a place that feels nostalgic and familiar, dark, deranged and beautiful all at once, and it inspires a lot of my work. I’ve recently learned about an Oakland musician named Kohinoorgasm, who I admire. Anything ambient and ethereal. I am also no stranger to dwelling in the music of my past. I grew up in the 90’s listening to pop, grunge, Hip Hop and electronic. Music from back then still influences my life and artwork now.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been reading a book by Rebecca Solnit called “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.” In it she describes the history of walking and the various reasons we as humans do so. From pilgrimages, afternoon strolls, to the evolution of recreational exploration.

Which artist is currently inspiring you the most?

I have been particularly moved by the work of Zaria Forman. In her large-scale pastel drawings of sea ice, Forman captures the dramatic beauty of a landscape most people never experience in person, simultaneously underscoring the fragility and urgency in which these landscapes exist under the world’s current climate crisis. Another artist of whom I admire is Celeste Buyers. She just finished a collaborative mural depicting a woman made of plants whose legs extend across the border between Mexico and California. It is a piece that speaks about the man made concept of borders and walls versus the natural path that humans and nature take. Visually and conceptually this is a very important and powerful work of art, especially in our current political climate.


Madeleine Tonzi’s studio, Photo courtesy of Metric Cosmetics

What’s the best thing about your studio/ workspace/ workshop?

My studio is in a neighborhood that I have lived in for ten years and I have really grown attached to the area. Currently, there is someone blasting music through their car stereo system and the neighbor next to us is trying to match his drums to the beat, and I love that. I work in a shared space with one other person and our studio is nestled in a mixed-use live/work warehouse. I love that when I walk through the halls I can hear people jamming music, and there is alway someone working on a project in the parking lot. It is a creative and sacred space, one that feels ever so rare in today’s economy. We also have a sweet succulent and cactus garden that I love tending to and seeking out inspiration from.

What do you do to stay motivated to create?

Setting goals is a huge motivating factor. I work well with deadlines and so creating my own based on the goals I want to achieve really helps me stay motivated, as well as lining up projects and exhibitions. I also have to remind myself that art is what makes me happy, keeps me grounded and keeps my mind active, and that plays a big part in it as well.

What’s the best part about being an artist?

There are so many amazing aspects to being an artist. For one, I get to create beauty in a world that can be really difficult to exist in, and if I can make just one person’s day better because of that, then I know I’ve done my job. Secondly, art is a means for connection. I have found myself in all corners of the world, from Paris, Costa Rica, Japan, Indonesia and various places within the United States, all because of art. Art is an extended invitation into spaces created by and for artists, that you would never imagine otherwise. And lastly, art has the power to create social change, ignite political movements and save lives, and that is a pretty special thing to be a part of that.


To find out more about Madeleine Tonzi’s work, visit her website.


Photo courtesy of Metric Cosmetics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *