Armando Muñoz Garcia needed money. "La Mona," his famed 58-foot, habitable concrete sculpture of a nude woman towering over run-down homes and streams of garbage in a Tijuana gully, requires steady maintenance and upkeep. Plus, the self-taught artist needed to fund his newest creation, "Eve of the Sea," a sculpture of a mermaid sprouting up from a hillside in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.
Perhaps it was the border region's ubiquitous Bart Simpson coin banks or the plaster surfing monkeys that gave Muñoz the idea. He made a 23-inch mold of "La Mona" (officially titled "Tijuana III Millennium" because she was built in 1990 to mark the third millennium and Tijuana's 1989 centennial) and began the laborious process of churning the miniatures out en masse, then selling them to tourists for $20 to help fund his larger-scale ventures. He'd leave his workshop with 10 freshly molded sculptures in tow, but by the time he'd driven several miles on pothole-ridden roads to get to the kiln, he'd have only three or four left intact to fire.
"But I just kept doing it," Muñoz said. "One thing I recognize about myself when things turn really difficult, I'm comfortable there. When things are really easy, I'm bored."
That unyielding drive and willingness to take on seemingly absurd challenges is part of what San Diego artist and arts educator Bob Matheny likes about Muñoz.
Early one April morning, Matheny led me to a packed storage room he calls his art vault. He dug through shelves filled with his diverse works of art and soon found a miniature "La Mona."
"This is one of the first ever made," said the retired Southwestern College arts professor, holding up a beautifully detailed statuette.
Dozens of modified "La Mona" statues stand on the shelves. There's a gluttonous version of actress and singer Lillian Russell with a corn cob in her hand and several more stuck to her belly; samba singer Carmen Miranda stands out with a tall headdress made of fruit; and Betty Boop looks dazzling in her red-sequin gown.
Matheny first met Muñoz in 1996, when he tagged along on a trip to Mexico with then-San Diego Union-Tribune staffer Welton Jones. By that time, Muñoz was already receiving worldwide attention for his sculptures. They visited both the mermaid and "La Mona," and an impressed Matheny went home with a miniature as a souvenir. On a subsequent trip to see Muñoz, Matheny impulsively bought another 25.
"I liked Armando," Matheny said. "I just wanted to help him economically so he could continue with the mermaid."
Matheny helped Muñoz buy his own kiln (a loan that Muñoz paid back), and he helped organize a fundraiser in La Jolla, selling the statues for $100. Matheny bought even more and ultimately got an idea for an art project. Together, Matheny and Muñoz decided to transform the statues into famous women, both real and mythical. They titled it "Infamous Babes, Chicks, Dames, Dolls, and/or Statues of Liberty and Freedom," a humorous, somewhat controversial title that Matheny thinks might have banished the modified statuettes into relative obscurity.
Matheny transformed about 100 of the "Babes," and Muñoz, busy with the big mermaid, managed to finish just six, including a surrealistic version of French educator Maria Montessori. After about 200 sculptures, the mold finally broke; not one blank has been made since.
The "Infamous Babes" were shown at the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) from Dec. 7, 2001, through Jan. 14, 2002. After that show, Matheny shopped the exhibition around to several venues in the U.S. but was never able to generate much interest. He declined one offer for a show in Northern California that would've been rushed and offered no compensation for shipping. A curator from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego stopped by to see the Babes, but Matheny said she left after commenting on the size of their breasts. In the end, he showed a few of them at the Southwestern College Art Gallery, which he helped found. After that, most of the Babes were stored away indefinitely. The best catalogue and exhibition of the work continues to be Matheny's own online gallery.
After Matheny dug out more of the "Infamous Babes"—Olive Oyl, Dorothy Dandridge and lucha libre wrestler La Ultima Dragona—we headed down to Puerto Nuevo so he could give his longtime friend the mermaid Babe that had been stored in the art vault for years. Matheny was also curious to see the big mermaid, which has been in-progress since 1995.
"He's almost done," Matheny laughed. "Well, we joke about the date. He's been talking about an unveiling every year for five or six years now."
As we pulled up to the mermaid, Muñoz greeted us with a smile and zipped us around on a tour of the five-story, hollow sculpture he currently calls home.
"I used to have my bed over there in one breast before the rest was finished," he laughed.
Muñoz told us the sculpture was almost done. On April 27, he said, he'll open it as a restaurant, celebrating with a public photography show and party. He'll run the restaurant for awhile, but he eventually wants to sell the mermaid to fund his next project—a 150-foot piece that would be the largest habitable sculpture ever made. He calls the U.S. "Upstairs America" and said his next project could help overcome the recent drop in tourism, brought on by the drug wars and the negative perception of Mexico among tourists.
"I don't want to say I'm the savior of Baja or that I'm the only one who has the salvation," he said. "I'm just going to propose my work as something that could be iconic for Baja I'm convinced that this kind of creation is very attractive to foreigners, because people keep coming to see [it]. Besides, what else can I do? There's nothing else to do in this world. Why not?"
At lunch, a multi-course meal overseen by Muñoz, also a skilled, self-taught chef, Matheny made fun of his friend for being a sissy wine sipper, and Muñoz teased Matheny for being a macho-man tequila drinker. From friendly quips to art philosophy, they shared the kind of banter only old friends can.
"This project has lasted 17 years already," Muñoz said, looking up at the bare breasts baking in the afternoon sun. "Seventeen years. Can you believe that? It's a lot of time, but I enjoy it because . now I have all these stories and interesting friends.
"Like Bob," he added, patting Matheny on the back.
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