By Bridgette M. Redman

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

Death doesn’t have to be a depressing subject.

In the case of artist Victoria Mercedes Arriola-Monaci, artwork can inspire viewers to reflect on the cycle of life and the fragility of time.

Arriola-Monaci will exhibit works that explore life and death through a series of photographs featuring decaying plant matter and women who have been important role models from Jan. 15 to March 12.

The exhibition will run from Saturday, Jan. 15, to Saturday, March 12, at SPARC Gallery inside the Chamber of Commerce at 1121 Mission Street, South Pasadena.

“As It Is to Be” is filled with photographic still lives, something she calls “relic-like reminders of the fragile nature of human existence” and an ongoing tribute to key women in her life, both relatives and friends.

The series began with photographs she calls “botanicals,” pictures of decaying plant material that she shot in her sink.

Her white porcelain circa 1920s sink formed the perfect background, Arriola-Monaci said. She started taking photos during COVID-19 as a reflection on loss.

While in Europe seeking gallery representation, her works were printed in Copenhagen on beautiful fibrous paper.

External factors inspire a reflective show

SPARC — which stands for South Pasadena Arts Council — was founded in 2007. Arriola-Monaci helped to name it and created its original branding.

When she returned home from Europe, she contacted SPARC and asked to exhibit her work. She suggested January, which meant she had to kick into high gear to produce 25 pieces.

As she began work, she experienced two losses — Regine, a very dear friend of hers, and her great aunt, Dia Aida.

“They passed away in the same couple of weeks,” Arriola-Monaci said. “This is what the show is about. I felt like Regine and Dia Aida were channeling their energy through me. Regine and Aida were similar: tall, beautiful, independent women. I could feel them coming through me when I created this work. It gave me the courage to continue.”

Each piece is named for the woman it honors, and it combines a piece of their clothing and a piece of decaying nature.

The first piece was “Hannah,” which she created after she saw an old T-shirt hanging on a branch. She photographed it, and it inspired the series. 

“It’s not a regular T-shirt,” Arriola-Monaci explained. “It’s a top made out of wool with holes and stuff and an old tag on it. That made the statement. I went to the next garment, which was my own, and I treated it differently. The plant material I used within it was thorny, and I put it on the garment. I can be very soft on the inside and prickly on the outside — that’s kind of what happened.”

She said she can’t use just any plant material. It has to be relevant to the work and what she is expressing. She spends a lot of time figuring out how the two will interact, exploring the shapes and textures, how the garment folds and what the two look like together.

Most were shot in her studio, and it was important to her to use all-natural lighting, so she’d have to wait until certain times of day when there were no shadows.

“How does the garment say something?” Arriola-Monaci said was a question she asked. “It felt like the garment was telling me what to do. I had to listen. I realized in the process that they’re very delicate arrangements and the light was important.”

Arriola-Monaci said she is attracted to anything decayed. She even has a dead lizard that she removed from her friend’s pool last summer, put in a box and then recently incorporated into her art. She said her whole studio is filled with pieces of decaying material that she can draw from when creating. The results with this series of the combined garments and plant material came out looking like relics or specimens of life past.

“It’s about the beauty and the spirit of the person and how they are connected to the earth and how we return to the earth when we die,” Arriola-Monaci said.

“It speaks to loss and nature but also to their personalities and environment. We’re all a part of the same cycle. We all return to the earth when we die and replant to refuel the next thing. It was a very cathartic experience working on these pieces. I created them within a month.”

Not all the women featured in her photos have died. Pictures include ones of herself, her friends, her sister, her mother and her grandmother. She wants to honor women who had the biggest impact on her life.

That included her mother, who at 87 is still alive but experiences dementia.

“Your life is turned upside down when you realize that the person is not the same person anymore,” Arriola-Monaci said.

“My mother was a single mother, and I was a single mother. I really appreciate and respect the responsibilities and lives of single women. You have to be a very strong person to get through it successfully. These are people I wanted to thank and to show them the significance they have paid in my life.”

She is continuing the series as the relatives of the featured women send her garments. Dia Aida’s daughter just sent her aunt’s chapel veil.

“It is beautiful,” Arriola-Monaci said. “It just touches you. I come to tears because they are so meaningful. I want to treat them very gently. I want to pay respect to these women.”

Throughout the series, Arriola-Monaci explores the precious and impermanent nature of existence. Life is fleeting, but it is still a wonderful, beautiful thing. She wants her art to reflect that and to provide its viewers with a serene experience.

Viewers of her artwork have shared their impressions with her. Reactions included talking about the pieces’ ethereal nature; another said they looked like archaeological digs or images from crime scenes. Another friend said the undergarments inspired thoughts of sex and death.

“They are very personal,” Arriola-Monaci said. “The undergarments are close to the skin, and without the body within the garments, it takes on a different meaning. The folds give it life, then the plant material coming out of it shows there is a different kind of life. The object of nature represents earth and the combining and returning and recycling. We have to embrace it. That is something the pandemic did for me. It helped me to embark and go forward. We all have limited time. I really want to create things.”

Art is a second career for Arriola-Monaci, who is semiretired. Her artistic roots run deep in Pasadena. She worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory but gravitated toward geology. Once she started taking science classes at Pasadena College, she realized she wasn’t good at it and switched her major to ceramics — what she saw as the creative version of geology.

She said her boss at JPL supported her pursuits and created a job for her as the artist-in-residence where she created technical illustrations and display paintings.

“He made me feel confident about pursuing art as a career,” Arriola-Monaci said. “I was very inspired by working in the radar science and the atmosphere and earth scientists.”

She eventually went into design, art direction and teaching to make a living. She founded Arriola Creative, a visual communications studio that provides strategic branding solutions. She’s taught at several universities including the California Institute of Technology.

Arriola-Monaci is of Mexican descent and grew up in the Highland Park. Now she makes frequent trips to Denmark, speaks Danish and said she likes to identify as a MexiDane.

“The aesthetics I bring to my work, they say it is very melancholic, but it is very representative of the Nordic aesthetic,” she said.

Admission to the SPARC exhibit is free, but proof of vaccination status and masks will be required.

“As It Is to Be” by Victoria Mercedes Arriola-Monaci

WHEN: Opening reception, 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15; show continues through Saturday, March 12

WHERE: SPARC Gallery at the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, 1121 Mission Street, South Pasadena

COST: Free admission

INFO: By appointment only, 626-441-2339