‘You Have to Use Your Art to Amplify the Voices That Are Silenced’
An Interview with Honduran Illustrator & Graphic Designer Mónica Andino
In Honduras, designers and artists face lots of challenges but their determination to create is unwavering. Illustrator and graphic designer Mónica Andino, currently based in Cincinnati, is one of those dedicated creative professionals shaping the art and design scene in the Central American country. I asked Mónica about Honduran art and design as well as her approach to clients and projects.
You studied in both Honduras and Argentina. Please briefly speak about your experiences. What were the similarities and differences between the universities in terms of their approach to design and illustration?
The National School of Fine Arts in Honduras (Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes) follows the traditional European model of a fine arts academy. It’s small and more about live drawing, colours, sculptures, ceramics, and anatomy. While spending time in the school library and at book fairs, I found amazing books with pages of posters, illustrations, graphic figures, and colours. I just fell in love with them. At 16, I wanted to paint posters, postcards and copy the illustrations shown in the books. These books were from Picasso, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, and Sonia Delaunay, artists who were painters but also illustrators, designers, sculptors and ceramic artists. I love this idea of being able to work with any medium that interests you to express and develop your language as an artist.
After finishing my graphic design degree in Honduras, I moved to Argentina for a year in 2012. The University of Buenos Aires (Universidad de Buenos Aires) is a totally different world. The design school was founded around 1929 and based on proposals by Le Corbusier. However, you can breathe there similar air to what is found in most art schools: halls full of curious posters, architectural mock-ups lost and forgotten in the middle of a classroom, pieces of paper, lots of students coping and creating with little sleep. The approach to design is definitely deep and massive over there.
In the international media, we can definitely hear about Honduras but not necessarily in terms of its cultural, arts or design scene. What are the characteristics of Honduran arts, culture and design?
Tegucigalpa, the city where I was born and grew up, has a real cultural scene, but it’s like a secret. People working in arts and culture cooperate to create spaces to gather. There is zero help from the government; all the initiatives are private and based on cooperation. There are amazing artists doing all kinds of arts: Laura Bermudez (film director); Vladimir Sabillón, Nahúm Flores and Xenia Mejia (visual artists); Wilmer Murillo and Mina Wright (illustrators); Tito Ochoa (a director with a cool theatre in the centre of Tegucigalpa); Regina Ponce (jewellery designer). Just to mention a few. What I admire the most in these Honduran artists is their resilience and their need to create and share (something about) their own worlds in an honest way.
What position do you think Honduran design holds in the context of Central America, in the Americas, and in the world?
That’s a tough question! Honduras is still a young, developing country. The situation is very hard right now, very abnormal; not even the basic needs are fulfilled. So, when the basic needs are not satisfied, and people live in poverty and have no access to healthcare and education, it’s very hard to see a design industry thrive. Nonetheless, I personally find a lot of potential in the artisanal. Honduras has indeed great artisans. Many developed countries are losing the artisanal methods of doing things, but you can find excellent artisans with amazing knowledge of ceramics, wood or textiles in Honduras. I feel like highly industrialized countries are losing this. And maybe because we don’t have a big industry in Honduras, the artisan method is still alive.
What are some of the challenges designers in Honduras have to overcome, and some of the opportunities they have as opposed to others in the region?
Honestly, there are zero opportunities and lots of challenges… The biggest challenge is to develop your work while having a 9-to-5 job. Some overcome, others get tired of it, and I understand it. It’s really hard, especially if it’s not paying you.
In an interview, you talked about life in Honduras, explaining that it can be stressful and one may not feel secure while walking in the streets. You also paid tribute to Honduran environmental and human rights activist Berta Cáceres who was killed in 2016. Additionally, many of your projects demonstrate social consciousness. How do you decide which project to work on and/or which client to work for?
When a client comes to me, I always say yes, or at least I rarely say no. It’s true that I frequently work for NGOs. They usually want me to narrate my own experience. They feel confident because they know that I care, and I care dearly. I believe you have to use your art to amplify the voices that are silenced. It’s the most beautiful thing – to create conscience and encourage people looking at the work to act. At the same time, you have to forget about yourself. That’s a necessary exercise for us illustrators and artists.
You created illustrations for Amnesty International. How did this collaboration happen and what was it like?
It happened thanks to Sergio Ortiz, who contacted me from Amnesty International in Mexico City (Amnistía Internacional México). I think he saw my work somewhere. That’s the great thing about the Internet! The collaboration was great. For example, I always struggle when I have a well-known client because the pressure can increase, but, in the end, I always manage to deal with the situation.
Do you think design is a great tool to do activism? How effective can it be to raise awareness or change society for the better?
Absolutely! Design can play an essential role in changing attitudes, values, and ways of living. Design is a great tool to create awareness. Still, communication and good philosophies are needed to change society for the better, and graphic design comes in handy to convey those messages through images and type. Designers must be emphatic so the design can be effective. The public must look at the design and be able to find themselves in it. When this immersion occurs, I can say I have found success, especially when it comes to projects aiming to raise awareness.
You’ve been working as a freelancer for quite some time now. Have you ever worked as an in-house designer/illustrator, or has this never been a goal for you? What is the most challenging part of being a freelancer?
I’ve been working as a freelancer for more than 10 years; I started doing freelance jobs as an art student when I was 16. However, I’ve always had a day job, or studied or taught somewhere. I was working on my portfolio at night, and when I had some free time. I stopped working as an in-house designer only a year ago, moved out of Honduras, and started to freelance full-time.
While working in-house, I learned a lot, no regrets at all. Now I like being independent and being able to speak directly to the person who hires me. I’ve learned a lot through the years. The most challenging part about being a freelancer is the anxiety fuelled by uncertainty. You will never know when your next client may appear and what your next project will be. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time. It’s crucial to be financially responsible and organized to keep things going.
One of your clients is Sophia, a women’s magazine based in Buenos Aires. To be honest, I’m always a bit suspicious when reading the term women’s magazine, as it tends to imply certain things about women, things that might originate in stereotypes. So, please elaborate on what this magazine is about and your collaboration with them.
Anyone can read Sophia. I guess their target audience is comprised of women with certain interests, but it’s not limited to them. I’ve worked with the magazine, and with its art director María Victoria Cascón, for three years. They publish great articles and essays about genre, philosophy, spirituality, culture, psychology, etc. I really enjoyed working with them; María always trusted me and gave me tons of creative freedom. It also came easy for me to work on the illustrations.
Your illustrations have appeared in magazines, children’s books and on websites among others. How much do your approach and design process differ when you illustrate something for children and for adults?
My illustrations for children tend to be much freer. They are not as carefully thought through in terms of communication as the ones I would create for a website or a magazine. Children don’t care about my intellectual knowledge, they want to feel and appreciate the image. They want to see how the “ducky” looks so they can also imagine how it swims and speaks. Children are simple, honest, and really feel what they see and hear; it’s a gift to be able to illustrate for them. When I work on illustrations for websites, a lot of effort goes into every tiny piece of detail because the message must reach the audience in just seconds; you want to delight, excite, educate, and attract users, mainly adults, as much as possible. Adults and children can love the same thing, though. I love seeing childish illustrations on grown-up stuff; I think illustration help adults revisit their funky beings.
Your colour palette contains a range of shades. Sometimes you keep it rather simple and pale, sometimes you play with warm and vivid colours. How do you decide in which direction to go when working on a project?
I like to experiment with colours – a lot. My culture is very colourful: the fruits, the vegetables, the plants, the insects, the birds, etc. We live in constant summer here. All of my projects have a brief, of course, so I try to stick to it as much as possible. It is when I pursue my personal projects that I discover new colours, and new possibilities with them. However, I do feel drawn to simple lines and warmer colours. I couldn’t live without colours! I love the colour of fruits and flowers. Perhaps the colours I choose come from there.
On your tumblr, you were ‘trying to capture that Franz Liszt essence’. Why him and not another composer? How much do you get inspired by other art forms? What are your main sources of inspiration?
I have always loved drawing and painting portraits. It’s one of my favourite subjects in art. While drawing Franz Liszt’s portrait, I was listening to Liebestraum, my favourite composition from him. At the same time, I was reading art historian Ernst Gombrich’s essay The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and in Art, so both things stuck with me. How could I capture not only Franz Liszt’s mask but also his face? The Liebestraum? His music? Can I see the drawing and think in his music simultaneously?
Other art forms inspire me a lot. I love cinema, and I’m currently watching Agnès Varda’s series From Here to There. It’s very interesting how she approaches modern art, and how you don’t notice things that might seem boring in everyday life. It really motivates me to keep looking, to experiment, and not to overthink all my work.
In the interview, you also mentioned that you had worked as a teacher giving talks and leading workshops. What is the most rewarding part of being a teacher?
Being a teacher is an underrated, but it’s a beautiful and rewarding profession. The most rewarding part is seeing my students becoming interested in something they didn’t find interesting at all in the beginning. Most of my students think they need to be capable of drawing like Michelangelo to become an illustrator. Therefore, I try to break all the paradigms with them through exercises and examples, and it really changes their approach to a blank page – from fear to excitement. Also, students keep you up to date; they always know what’s cool.
How do you balance the various activities you’re involved in?
Now that I’m a full-time freelancer, I feel more relaxed in my daily life. Being involved in too many activities can be overwhelming, and I found myself frequently burnt out to the point of not wanting to create anything for myself. Now I feel different. I’m curious to create with spontaneity, and I have more time to work on my own non-paid projects. My commissions need a lot of planning and thinking. I try not to do this with my personal projects to really enjoy the creation process, trust my intuition as well as surprise myself, and maybe others.
What are you working on right now?
A couple of digital stories, both are different and interesting to develop. I’m playing with collages and memories in my free time. Trying to see how to take these memories out of my head and give them a shape with leftover paper.
What are your plans?
I’m planning to re-open my online shop, I’m thinking of selling new editions of my notebooks, maybe trying out new formats as well. I have a notebook line under the name Eglé. I’m also planning a small illustration workshop in Cincinnati. There’s a nice cultural centre in my neighbourhood, and I’d like to share my passion and knowledge with people living here and see how it goes. I moved here a year ago with my husband who’s pursuing his master’s degree. It’s a small town. I so enjoy the experience. Soon we will be moving again but I don’t know where yet.