Mendez Special Edition

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Jun – Jul 2013 | Vol 1 No 6

Under Cover of Art: The Mendez Family Artists

Under Cover of Art Special Edition

Tony Mendez, Painter Jonna Mendez, Photographer Toby Mendez, Sculptor

“Gateway” by Antonio Joseph Mendez

By Nancy McKeithen

TONY MENDEZ WILL TELL YOU that he’s retired CIA first, painter second and author third, but he isn’t really retired. He’s a prolific painter. “You gotta do it every day or you won’t keep doing it,” he says. “You’ll get lazy.” Mendez has been an artist most of his life, and “for twenty-five years, a pretty good spy,” he adds. “We started building this” — he draws a sweeping arc with his arm to include the house, the gallery and the studios in rural Washington County, Maryland, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains — “in anticipation of my retiring.” It’s where he and his second wife, Jonna, also a retired CIA career employee, live, where teenage son Jesse comes home on weekends from UMBC, and where Tony’s oldest son, Toby, has a working sculpture studio. Around five years ago, a phone call to Tony about making a movie changed the retirement he had envisioned here for something he never imagined would happen. IN 1997, THE CIA RECOGNIZED Antonio “Tony” Mendez as a CIA Trailblazer and made public the details of an operation, the Argo rescue, to exfiltrate six Americans from the Canadian Embassy where they were in hiding during the 1980 Hostage Crisis in Iran. Mendez had led the successful operation, one of two the CIA chose to publicize in a celebration of its first 50 years. The Argo rescue was recognized again in 2007 by a writer for Wired magazine, and this caught the attention of actor George Clooney. It’s a nail-biter of a story ideal for the movies. Ben Affleck produced and starred in Argo, the 2013 Oscar award-winning Best Motion Picture that’s given Tony 12 |

Mendez an even busier speaking career, thousands of messages in his e-mailbox, and continuing requests for interviews and commentary. LIKE HE DID DURING his CIA years to break the tension, Tony climbs the staircase to his studio to paint — daily when he’s home. “I can remember many times working at my easel and having a flashback to

some operation and saying, ‘Well, I’ll take that one to my grave.’ ” And most of them he will. But not Argo, not now. Tony says it helps to be a “romantic” in the spy business. “Jonna says that, too.”

When they talk about being a romantic, it’s that working in this business, you don’t get to share the details of your work, your successes. “There are no pats on the back,” says Jonna. “You have to reward yourself internally, and say, ‘That was a great thing that just happened, and even if nobody else will ever know about it, I know about it.’ ” There’s a scene in “Argo” where the hostages are back home and safe and the CIA gives Tony an award — then moments later takes it away. Classified. SOMETIMES TONY PAINTS in plein air, and often from imagination, but generally he uses a camera to capture elements for a painting — not to copy and record, but to reacquaint him with the emotion of the moment, the inspiration of some experience he’s had. Jonna makes the same case for being a photographer. “You’re basically freezing the moment, and in some ways, you’re doing the same thing with painting  — capturing and making it permanent. “Sometimes when we’re out, Tony will say, ‘See that? I don’t have my camera. Will you photograph that?’ And I’ll do that and bring him some prints. He will paint that moment, and it never looks like the prints, because what he saw is never what I see. “That double painting from Fletcher’s Boathouse (behind Tony’s director’s chair in the photo above)…. If you look at the photograph from the day we were there, very little of what’s going on in that painting PHOTOS Hannah Swindoll. Artwork provided by the artists.

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was going on in the picture. He sees with different eyes than I do,” explains Jonna. He says the same of her: “She can see a photograph in the environment and put the crop marks in the camera. When she’s taking photographs and I’m doing my thing, you see what she sees.” They laugh at that, together. They both love reflection — something you see in her photos and in his paintings. Before she was a photographer, she never saw them, she says. “Reflections are kind of invisible.” She also loves the work of Annie Lebowitz, adding that she has never really studied the classic photographers. Her school of photography was CIA: “mechanically, technically how to get the picture you

want, how to get it in focus no matter what, no matter how little light you had, getting information and getting it in a form that you could copy and send off.” Her assignment to India was “an explosion in my head of color and light,” and where she really started shooting the color photography that defines her current work, and developing and printing color on her own. “I don’t know how you could not photograph it,” she recalls. “Since CIA, I’ve been a photographer,” says Jonna. “At CIA, I was a secret photographer.” Never scared by her work, she says, but sometimes paranoid. She uses an old film Nikon F3 but admits it’s getting harder and harder. She has a Nikon digital camera as well. “It’s this guy — she points at Tony  Jonna’s photographs, left, below, right and far right: “Bistro Chairs,” “Vineria Florence,” “Poster Art” and “Chinese Urns.” She likes to take pictures of smaller, tightly constructed things, color or shapes, and to shoot in natural light. Today, you won’t find more than a handful of images lacking color in her portfolio. Tony loves to paint from her photographs. “I can hardly wait till Jonna gets the next roll  home,” he says. “For years, artists hid the fact that they were using the camera as part of their process. Norman Rockwell really developed the technique of taking pictures for reference and even had a professisonal photographer working in his studio with him.”

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— and Toby who have pushed me into it, kicking and screaming.” What model? “She doesn’t know!” chimes Tony, ratting her out, but good-naturedly so. She likes digital, especially that she can look at the pictures at the end of the day and go back if she didn’t get what she wanted. “My next book is going to be on Cambodia,” she notes. “Given the digital camera, I can almost plan the book when I take the pictures.” OF THE THREE ARTISTS, Jonna considers herself the introvert, noting that each is a bit different. “Tony is probably the most social of us when he’s working, I’m probably the least, and Toby is probably somewhere in the middle. “Tony doesn’t mind having people in his studio,” she says. “No, that’s fine if they want to watch me do what I’m doing.” “And you don’t mind having a conversation while you do it.”

It is an easy back-and-forth, these words, with little pause between. On a normal day, they don’t call each other, don’t interrupt the work. Well, maybe for lunch. Tony is comfortable in the skin of a painter. “One of the mural jobs I had as a young artist was in a Denver high-rise hotel where they wanted to ‘spiffy’ up the premises. I got a commission to do murals on each elevator stop and so I got to know everybody in the hotel when they went out to get groceries or do errands,” he tells. No wonder that he can work on seven paintings at once. He creates them one at a time and lines them up along a wall. “And I go like this.” He gives each an air stoke. Jonna: “You can do that but you don’t do that all the time.” Tony: “I don’t do that all the time. But when we had the first art show once we built the studio, I was building not painting, so I had to figure out a way to paint at the same time.” Jonna: “So you were hammering together the rails on the deck and finishing up the last painting and people were walking up the road?” This is a man who was Chief of Disguise at the CIA, who made up stories for a living. It is unclear if this is fact or fiction. But it doesn’t matter.

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His favorite painting is always the next one. Her favorite is a serendipitous one that Tony paints quickly, alla prima. Like “The Empty Throne” (framed right). He walked by the garden, saw the chair with Jonna’s hat and the light, immediately went to get his camera, took several shots and painted it on the spot, in an hour. “The ones that are fast are always spectacular,” says Jonna. “Why is that?” “Because you don’t get in your own way,” says Tony.

Above: Tony’s pallete, with brushes rather than palette knife. Started in the 1940s, it weighs about 40 pounds. Once on display with Tony’s paintings at an art show at the Javitts Center in NYC, the palette and table were much admired and much in demand. “Everyone wanted to buy it,” says Jonna. Below: Tony paints in his light-filled studio, where the walls are lined several layers deep with both his paintings and Jonna’s photographs, evidence of their very active work as artists.

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ABOVE TONY’S PAINTING STUDIO is the Tower Room. Before it was his writing studio, it was where the family celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, so there is good karma here — and a refrigerator. It’s secluded and no one can wander by; they have to wander up, and it’s a steep stairway. Jonna wonders aloud if the room was modeled after a room in one of Ernest Hemingway’s two houses — outside Havanna or down in Key West. Having been to both of them, she recognizes “an admirable arrangement” similar to Tony’s, with towers, lion skin rugs on the floor (though somewhat more exotic), and where an exit from his bedroom permitted him to walk to the tower and begin work. “Yes, absolutely,” says Tony. Again there is the question of truth in appearances and a tiny smile. The two have written a book, Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War. What’s it like, writing a book together? Jonna: “Fun.” Tony: “Harrowing.” The first time, they divided up the book and had alternating voices for alternating chapters. “So Tony was Chapter 1 and I was Chapter 2 and so on, and it worked well,” Jonna explains.

“Doesn’t everyone need a painting above their kitchen sink?” Jonna asks, this one painted by Tony of a goat wandering in a Southeast Asian jungle.

In their new process, they write on the go —  pack up the electronics and write poolside under an umbrella. Argo, their last book, they wrote in Cambodia and going across Europe.

Jonna and their dog, Cole, in the Spy Library in the Mendez family home. The wall behind contains first-edition books on espionage that Jonna collects and gives to the CIA. The opposite wall, also lined with bookshelves, contains copies of Argo in languages around the world. Both she and Tony are founding board members of the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where Jonna’s cameras are on display. Ballpoint pens, lipsticks, Bic lighters, buttons on a man’s blazer—any of them could contain a camera.

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In the end, they found the best place to write was in bed. “We’d wake up, get two steaming cups of coffee, get the pillows fluffed, get the computer, the iPad, the iPhone, and Tony would talk,” says Jonna. “I can go pretty fast, faster than Tony talks. He was remembering things he had forgotten he even knew. And we’d do 5 or 6 pages a day. It’s a good way to write a book.” Pleasant Valley is a working studio, and so a lot of people come through, like the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Pleasant Valley Elementary School just across the road. They’ve hosted art workshops for children with instruction in painting, sculpture and photography, and classes in art appreciation. Exposing kids to art is something they like doing. There’s curiosity about what makes it a successful studio. Says Jonna: “The thing that I know that sets you two” — she is talking to Tony and Toby — “apart from everybody else is this work ethic. You go to work Right, Toby Mendez works in his studio. Below, his gallery of projects, with “maquettes,” small versions of some of his sculptures, and works in progress. As a sculptor, Toby needs to be able to see 360°. Sometimes, it’s easier to do an impression of his own hand in a particular pose and use that as his model. Note the row of “hands” — all are from different projects. Mendez has created more than 20 public monuments.

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each morning… and it is your work.” That they must be skilled artists is a given. And there is a third element, marketing. “A lot of people produce beautiful art and they can’t sell it,” says Jonna. She points to Toby: “He’s never sitting around waiting for the next job. Antonio Tobias “Toby” Mendez credits his father for that, and his mother, Karen. “It becomes a habit at some point,” he says of his work, “or just one of those things that if you don’t do you feel miserable because you’re not doing it.” He began studying sculpture in 1978 at a gifted and talented program at Mount St Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, conducted by the state of Maryland. Right

out of high school in ’82 he went to Hollywood and worked for 6 months with John Chambers, the makeup artist in Argo — it was an opportunity to find out if he really wanted to be a sculptor. Chambers encouraged him. From there, he went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a bachelors program that took him to Spain, where he studied the processes used in creating large public monuments and memorials, and returned to the Maryland area in ’88. He emerged from that decade of school and work and study abroad with a body of work in bronze and an important knowledge of process — working as assistant in the foundry during school he had cast somewhere between 70 and 100 pieces, all with different

Thurgood Marshall Memorial on Lawyers’ Mall / State House Square at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Maryland by Toby Mendez. The memorial was unveiled in 1996.

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problems to solve. “I know what’s possible,” he says about casting, “how to make good choices to design something so it casts easier, what you can and cannot cast, what needs to be fabricated — made directly in metal as opposed to casting.” Most of his work takes place in the studio­. About 80 percent of his time is spent on a work before casting, and 20 percent of his time — maybe even less, he says — after, in finishing. He’s been working with the same foundry, New Arts, since ’86. “If the really great technicians and artists there do their job well, there’s not much for me to do in the end,” he says. “It depends on the piece.” With the Major Taylor (below), where he was under a tight deadline, “I was in there working with them for a couple of weeks, helping them do all of the chasing — grinding away all the welder and matching textures — going over everything, so I was just part of the team.” While most of his work is by commission, and a lot by referral, he still competes for open calls for artists. He tends to work in many different subjects. “I think of it as being a leading character actor not typecast into one role, able to bounce around,” he explains, noting there’s a business part of that, too. “In my field, if all you were doing was architectural sculpture when the recession hit, when building stopped, you’re out of work.” The range of work he’s been doing the last couple of years — sports

art, working class, historical, an upcoming agricultural piece — it keeps him employed and in the studio. There are sculptures of people he hasn’t done that he would like to. “I still haven’t done Martin Luther King, I’d love to do something for Obama,” he says. More Civil Rights things — “I loved doing Gandhi and Thurgood Marshall.” And more animals. Toby’s “Grace Movement” in the Gallery at He also teaches Pleasant Valley Studios. graduate students every other year at Hood College. “I go kicking and screaming,” he admits, “because it’s hard, and you have to be prepared, but once my mind’s in the game and once I’m there, I really enjoy it.” He likes how teaching makes you

Major Taylor Monument, a life-size figure set against the relief of a bicycle race, in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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break down things that you intuitively know.” There’s a saying, he thinks by a jazz artist, that “you don’t know it until you can teach it.” He’s proven that’s true, by teaching himself anatomy. He was studying in Spain during the time he normally would have taken anatomy at the Art Institute. To compensate, almost right out of school he began working with models. He would sculpt from a live model during the day, then get out the anatomy book at the end of the day and break down what he was doing. “It’s a lot easier to explain to somebody what’s going on, what they’re seeing, if you can break down the anatomy for them,” he says, “where the muscle originates, and where it attaches, what your bones are doing if you’re running like that (he points to one of the sports figures).” When he did the C&O Canal Mule, he got out anatomy books on horses. “I think intuitively, because I see things and I recognize things — and I can recreate what I see.” In that case, he could see what muscles and bones are similar in a human being and an animal, but that the proportions are just different. He is a tough critic of his own work, “probably harder on myself than I am on somebody else’s work,” he admits. The one thing he doesn’t want his figures

to be is like one you would see in a wax museum. He wants the details correct, authentic, but he doesn’t want a figure to get bogged down in them. He wants the right number of buttons on an Orioles jersey with the proper spacing between them. “I want the weight of the fabric to have the same detail as the wrinkles in the skin, so it has a feeling to it, a kind of poetry in it.” He suggests things. “If you look at the shoes, you could figure out what kind they are,” he says. But he doesn’t put branding on them. “I don’t go that far.” People tell him there’s a warmth and a sensitive aspect to his figures, that they get a sense they know the person. “To me, these are the good things to hear.” fluent “I don’t neccessarily feel happy about everything I’ve done,” says Toby. “The Orioles project, I was really happy with all six of those pieces, but I had them in my life for a long period of time, and there were a lot of opportunities to revise and edit them and get them to where they needed to be. It was a unique project.” Below, Jim Palmer, Baltimore Sports Legend, located at Camden Yards.

Gandhi Memorial, Hauppauge, New York.

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