Monika Kus-Picco believes art is something people can keep in the landscape of their soul. Pioneering in her processes, Monika has found a new way to create beauty out of expired pharmaceuticals. Her quest to bring awareness to the issue of Alzheimer’s and it’s connection to the mis-use of pharmaceuticals, has brought about some of the most daring and beautiful pieces in her collections.
Interview with Monika Kus-Picco
by Kim Solomon
We know you are very busy, so thank you for taking time to visit with FAB L’Style. Let’s start off with your exhibitions right now.
At the moment I have an exhibition in Paris at Gallery Rx as well as in the Austrian Embassy in Paris. Here in Vienna, I have paintings at the Rivergate building and in Zürcher Kantonalbank. There is an exhibit in Brussels, together with a company. Later in August, I’ll have an exhibition in the Palace of Justice, here in Vienna.. At the moment, it is a lot of movement.
We’re here in your childhood home. Would you like to tell us a little bit about your decision to set up your studio here.
I wasn’t sure if I could move my studio here because of all the memories. In one way my project is about memories, but the decision to move the studio was unique because my father died in an accident involving electricity seventeen years ago in the basement of this house. So, it was a hard decision to come back. I wasn’t sure how it would affect the paintings. Would they suddenly be dark? Or would they stay the same? Would they change in some way? I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was a good thing to try because it fits together with the memory project. After some time, I’m feeling good here. I’m happy that I did it.
All of this fabulous sunshine must be wonderful for a studio! We would love to talk about the memory project and how that came about.
What brought me to this is that my mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s. It was early onset, for her. It was the end of her 60’s when you could recognize it. So I started to find some studies to understand why it happens. I found some studies that said regular use of some pharmaceutical products could cause early onset Alzheimer’s, especially some tranquilizers.
My mother is from Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro and came here at age thirty. My grandmother came at age sixty. My mother’s father died when she was only 11 and still living in Rio de Janeiro, so she and my grandmother had a very close relationship. When my grandmother became very sick with multiples myelom, which is cancer of the bones, she died within three years. My mother had a hard time with her death and became addicted to tranquilizers.
After finding these studies I went to the head of the Alzheimer Science Department here in Vienna at the AKH. He also suggested that tranquilizers could be the reason that my mother is confronted with Alzheimer’s at a very early age. So, I began to think about what I could do with this information as an artist. As an artist you have much more opportunity to say something. I think it’s also your duty to show some things and to start a dialogue. The thing is, Alzheimer’s is not in focus like it should be, because we are all getting older and so many of us are confronted with it in one way or another. I think there should be much more awareness, much more focus on it to promote the science which will help to find a solution.
Please tell us about your memory project and the medium you are using to paint these pictures.
I started with landscapes called memory canyons, because they are memories from the Grand Canyon. Then after finding the studies on Alzheimer, I started to think about what I could do with the knowledge of the pharmaceuticals. So I started to collect expired tablets while considering what to do with them. I started to experiment, making my own pigments out of them, and now, at the moment, that’s all I’m working with.
I first presented the collection in Paris with my curator, Robert Fleck. (I left one sentence out, because it was not correct)We sold some big pieces to private collections in France, so there was a lot of interest shown in the work. I think because this form is not known, by the teachers, the professors who were present or the audience, people are very, let’s say, enthusiastic about my new collection.
Please tell us about your biggest influences.
I studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and at the Kunst Academy in Düsseldorf. Of course, teachers influence you in one way. Herbert Brandl is one of my teachers at the Kunst Academy in Düsseldorf. I attended workshops with Hermann Nitsch who is also very unique in his work and one of the Wiener Actionists, a group of artists who developed in the ‘60s and are now well known all over the world.
Have they seen your new collection?
Yes, Hermann Nitsch is euphoric about it. He said it’s, in one way, like an ongoing of his own work. He’s working with blood, at times, and all the substances I’m painting with are also in our blood. You can smell his work and the same with mine. When you are close to the paintings they still have the smell of medicine. That’s one of the things Hermann Nitsch is known for – his Gesamtkunstwerk. (A German word accepted in English to mean a “total work of art” or “all embracing art form.”) He tells me the alchemy of it is great because it has impact on the visual sense, as well as our sense of smell and taste.
Herbert Brandl likes it very much because he hasn’t seen anything like this before, so that makes me proud. The feeling that I have found the right thing to communicate, not to just do an abstract painting, also makes me happy.
For me, medicine is something made for us, as human beings, to help us. If everything works out well, the drugs are positive. But, sometimes they can be negative. Using pharmaceuticals to influence us from a visual side is just another use I have found for them. There is also the issue of recycling. Using expired pharmaceuticals in art keeps them from polluting the water supply, the fish, and the earth’s oceans.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a painter?
I always liked to paint, but I was a very quiet girl. I wasn’t very popular. I loved nature and remember taking photos with my new camera. At age 17 I had a very good teacher who was very good at getting the best out of all the students who liked art. That was the first time I thought becoming an artist might be interesting. I didn’t start immediately after high school though, because my father was in banking and he wanted me to study business economy. It was very boring.
I started later with art studies at the University of Applied Arts. I think I was mid 20s, 26 or 27. That is when I knew I was really doing what I wanted to do. That’s the most important thing – to do what you really want to do in life. I think it’s the only way to be good in your job. If you are not passionate about what you do, nothing good or interesting will come from it.
I was really happy to find the right thing for me and at the right time. Sometimes, maybe it’s better to have other experiences first. I’m not sorry that I didn’t start earlier. I’m very happy where I am and one thing leads to another. So, it should be like that.
Would you say you paint intuitively or is your painting a more structured process?
It’s more intuitive. It’s not so structured. Even the landscapes which I’m doing are more impulsive. I work very fast. I’m not thinking a lot about what I’m doing and it’s interesting. My teachers were the same. They didn’t work with a concept. It’s more about working from your heart with your feelings, very spontaneously.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given in regard to your painting career?
The best advice is: don’t be thinking so much and don’t step back, just go further. I think that’s the best advice that I got for painting and for life. Sometimes, of course, you have to remember some things, but you do not have to get stuck. You have to go forward.
Just have a quick look at it. It’s good or not good. Take the best out of it and make it better without thinking, “Why didn’t I do this or why didn’t I do it that way?” With the paintings, it will never be good if you’re thinking too much or going backwards and doing it over again. I have some paintings where I did not go forward and later tried to start over. They are never good. I never finished them. Sometimes, two years later, I’m trying again to make another thing out of it and it never works. I think it’s the same for life.
We relate everything to fashion and you are always so fashionable. We like the story of the award ceremony.
Yes, it was 15 years ago when we got the degrees. All the students were standing there with a lot of people and visitors for the exhibition. Most of the students were there in their painting clothes, but I put on makeup, heels and a dress. Hermann Nitsch, he’s a bit of a rough personality, called my name. He didn’t see me, so he called again, “Monika Kus-Picco! Where is she?” I said, “Hey! I’m right here! I can also paint on my face, you know!” He was laughing out loud, so spontaneously. Everybody was laughing. He’s normally very serious, but laughing he looked like Santa Claus, with his long white beard.
You play different roles in your life. I love to have dirty clothes and go without makeup sometimes, but for evenings, I love to change. I love to wear high heels and skirts. I love to put on makeup. When I’m doing an exhibition I’m also making myself up. Why should I come with the clothes that I painted in? Everybody knows I’m a painter.
If you could trade painting for fashion design, what kind of designer would you be. Which designer would you be most like?
It’s not easy to say, but I think Karl Lagerfeld. The style is so classical. I don’t like all the flowers and prints… the things that are too crazy. I like the black and white timeless pieces, the classic pieces.
Please tell us about this piece. *White abstract painting in pharma – pictured here. No question presented, just the artist’s quote beside the image.
“Some colors are mixed before and some are chemical reactions. It’s interesting how the drugs interact with each other and how the colors are changing on the canvas. Some of the products are from plants, too, not just chemical medicines.”
This is the same technique? *Black abstract in Pharma – pictured here. Same-just her quote beside the image.
“It’s a black canvas before I begin, then I mix some tablets with medical liquids or a special liquid for oil colors. Everything I’m doing has some chemical reactions and it’s always different.
When you stand here and talk about your work, how does it make you feel? What is the relationship between you and your work? 31:11
It’s different. Some pieces you are more related to and some not so much. I don’t know what the reason is…maybe it depends on the moment you created it. Some old pieces I have I would never give away or sell, because there are really some special relationships in them, but there are always some things which you are more related to.
Using pharmaceuticals as a medium started with your mom having Alzheimer’s. When you paint and use the medicine, are you communicating in some way with your mother?
My mother sees a lot of my paintings. I have a room, a very little studio, at my home. I really love to show my paintings to my mother, because she sees things in a very different way. than we see things. She’ll say things that normal people would not say. She’s very direct and honest, so that’s the good thing. She’s very honest with me.
Alzheimer patients have a certain feeling, you know. There was an experiment done with some Alzheimer’s patients in regard to their relationship to art. They showed some paintings of Cezanne and other painters, and in between they showed art that was not very good. They put an Alzheimer’s patient in front of the paintings and he said which one was the best. The next day they put him in front of the paintings again, and just like the day before, he said the same thing, pointing out which one he thought was the best. So even though they forget things in five minutes, they still have preferences. These are the things I’m doing with her when I show her my work. I continue like I always did, showing her.
Are you thinking about the positives and the negatives of pharmaceuticals while you’re painting?
Of course, I’m thinking when I’m working, thinking about the products and of all the mistakes which can happen. I had my own health crisis, so I think of the good, also. In one way we have good luck, that we can use all these things. But, also, that these medicines have a different side in addiction.
Sometimes, I’m just thinking of colors. It may not be very healthy because I’m using dangerous drugs, so I have to put on a mask. That causes me to remember the other side of the drugs. But it’s all very energizing. It’s like an experiment. I have new ideas but I have to buy some chemistry equipment. It’s like science. It brings me to life.
Could you talk about the tree and the cloud series?
The cloud series was some years ago. That also deals with something that disappears. If you look at the clouds, they stay the same for a very short time. Then they will never be the same again. They disappear. So I started to photograph the clouds and hand paint some things inside. I called this one, “Do you want to fly with me?” *Photo of cup and saucer in the cloud. This is the one we are looking at with the cup and saucer like a UFO. I did it because I thought you have to keep the moment, to keep the memory and make it stay.
Did this series start with one of your children?
No, I think I did this when I was younger with my brother, right here in the garden. Our children are related to other things. This series was from other times.
The trees series… *photo of spinning trees.
It’s rotating photography. I did it because I wondered what what it would feel like to have Alzheimer’s. I imagined it was like this… everything is turning around in your head. Also, as the daughter or son of a parent with Alzheimer’s, it’s sometimes the same if you are with that person a lot, because it’s very exhausting, very intense to be with them. So it’s one way for the patient, and often the same feeling for the caregiver. Sometimes I’m using photography, but I’m more of a painter. You can use so many mediums to express yourself.
Can we talk about the hourglass piece. *Hourglass photo
I did this one first, before any studies at the University. It was very early work and I did it for my father’s 65th birthday. He died at 63. It has to do with the time passing …our life and death. I never had the time to say goodbye to him, so I did an exhibition for him. I did it for myself, to find peace and it helped me a lot. I did a lot of pieces for this collection and sold a lot, too. But this one, especially this one, I didn’t give away because I was more connected to this one than the others. I thought I would keep one. It was really good, like a therapy, to sit and work all the hours and to find peace. The only thing I was thinking about was life and death and what makes us. What are we? That’s what I’m thinking now sometimes, when I’m working. Sometimes it’s a different mood and all, but a lot of time I’m wondering…what are we without our memories? What’s happening then? What will stay? What is personality? What part of us remains the longest.
Who are we without our memories? It’s a fascinating topic to explore.
Yes, and what is the memory. Memory is very influenced by all the things we’re living through. The only correct memory is the first memory. All other memories, are memories of memories, and they’re influenced and changeable. Overtime, you don’t recognize it, but they are changed.
That’s the good thing about being an artist. You’re able to come to yourself. The more you have the time to think, the more you know yourself. The good thing about art is that you have more possibilities to search and connect.