“I love the band because it’s great to make communal art together.”
I grew up in central Kansas in Hutchinson. It’s on the main highway near Wichita and Salina. My parents both grew up on the farm. We visited my grandparents on their farm but we were always in the city. My father was in the grain business and worked all over the state. He worked in a grain business that had the world’s largest grain elevator in Hutchinson. It was eventually bought out by Cargill.
We lived in Tribune, Garden City, Dodge City, and finally stayed in Hutchinson. I was born in 1950, the oldest of six and everybody but my youngest sister is still in Kansas. She lives out in a suburb outside of Houston, Kingwood. My dad passed away in 2002 and my mom in 2011.
Hutchinson is the salt capital of the world, they say. Morton’s Salt is there. The Plains were originally the bottom of the ocean so we had these salt mines. Now they’re used to store Hollywood celluloid films and all kinds of stuff because it’s a dry climate. You can take a tour of the salt mines and go down in the deep dark caves.
We also have this space museum that a woman Carey worked on. It was her vision. She collected all the space suits and other stuff that they borrowed for the Apollo XIII movie. And an exploratorium, a planetarium, and other artifacts –even space ships. It’s an interesting place.
My mother Pat Potucek was an artist. She was a muralist and she did portraits and landscapes. She did murals all over the state. She’s in a book about Kansas muralists.
It’s a Czech name. That was my father’s name. He was half Swedish and half Bohemian. In the last few years we visited Sweden and we visited Prague and we even found the home of my great grandfather who came over from Bohemia. So it’s been fun to explore that family history.
And on my mother’s side it’s English and Irish and German and we visited her grandfather’s town in England too, Yeovil in Somerset. My mother’s maiden name was Pudden. She didn’t like that name. I wish we had kept it in the family somehow. It’s such a cute name. Or a nickname. “Hey Pudden, come over here.” That’s why she didn’t like it.
We visited my husband’s family in England as well. It goes back many, many generations there.
I went to two different high schools. When we first lived in Hutchinson we lived close to a rural high school bus so I could just get on this bus and go to Beuer High School. It was a small high school but it was wonderful. I played clarinet in the band and I sang in the choir. The band director needed an oboe player and he gave me an oboe to play so I played oboe part of the time. And then my parents bought this big beautiful house in the middle of town so I transferred in my senior year to the high school there and that’s where I met my husband. We met in a physics class. But I didn’t continue the band.
When I graduated from high school in 1968 my dad gave me tickets to fly to California to stay with my aunts and it was supposed to be a two week thing but I got a job and I stayed. They were in Seal Beach and Claremont. So I rotated between my aunts and I got a job in Claremont and stayed all summer and they said, “Monica, why don’t you just stay for a year and keep working and then you could go to college free out here.” But I was the oldest child and my parents had sent me off for a couple of weeks and it was already the whole summer, so I went back home and I went to the junior college. But I kind of wish that I had followed their advise.
I graduated from the junior college in my local town, in Hutchinson, and then I moved to Kansas City to go to Rockhurst College which was Jesuit. I was an English major though I had been in drama and art. I was the first child and it was very expensive to send me to this private school so I got a Christmas job at Hallmark at the Hall’s Department Store which was owned by the Hall family who started Hallmark. The plaza in Kansas City is such a beautiful place. When I would have been starting my senior year, Hallmark offered me a full time job with benefits and told me they would pay for schooling if I wanted to go to the art institute. So my dad was like, “English major . . . you don’t really know what you want to do. This is good. You take this job.” So I did. I worked in the folk art department where we sold turquoise jewelry and folk art from around the world. It was nice. All kinds of people would come in. Joel Grey came in. It was just such a beautiful store. They has wonderful art displays in the store including the Boehm sculpture of swans that Nixon gave to the Chinese.
And when I worked for Hallmark I took some night classes from the Kansas City Art Institute.
Then Michael asked me to marry him that year.
I had a lot of boyfriends but he wanted me from the very beginning every year so he asked me to go to the Naval Academy for their June week and finally in his junior year I went and that was the real turning point. I was totally impressed by the place and all those midshipmen.
In the ’60s and ’70s when he was there it was not a prestigious thing to be a naval officer in the middle of the Vietnam protests so they would put on wigs because people would throw things at them because they were in the military. It wasn’t the same as other generations had imagined it. Gloria Steinem spoke at the Naval Academy.
Initially I was pretty naive though I was always inclined to be a feminist. And I was upset with the Catholic Church, with the patriarchy, but my husband and I voted for Nixon because we were both from Kansas. We were outside of the protests that were going on. But over the years we’ve become more and more liberal. My mother became a Democrat over time and my father’s family were Democrats in a sea of Republicans. My great uncle John Potucek was a Democrat, one of the few in the Kansas Senate from 1945 until 1960. He eventually became a judge. He would joke that when he would go to the bathroom, he was going to go caucus. But he helped pass legislation that required all schools to have indoor plumbing for the State of Kansas in the 40s or maybe 50s. My one grandparents still had outdoor plumbing when I was real little.
But that was the situation politically. I think everyone was infused with Eisenhower Republicanism. We went to the Eisenhower museum for my eighth grade field trip. Bob Dole was a neighbor growing up.
My dad was on the Kansas wheat commission and vice president of Vamarco Industry when I was in high school and at that time there was all this grain surplus. He developed different products with wheat other than bread like bulgur, like what is used in pilaf. Food for Peace was a thing then and he went back and fed Congress pilaf to convince them to convince them that they should buy bulgur wheat and give it to these poor countries in Asia. It was about ’68 or ’69. He traveled over to Vietnam and other places to see the results. He was suggesting that it could be like a rice substitute for their diet. He found that most people were using it to feed their pigs. He realized that they’re going to keep eating rice; they’re not going to replace it. But he got to visit all those places and he came back all upset about the Vietnam war and all the corruption he saw and he told me that if I was his son, he would burn my draft card. People were making money off of it.
My husband and I got married when he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1972. Then he immediately went to graduate school. Our first tour was at Monterey; we lived in Monterey. That was our honeymoon year. It was really fortunate.
I was 21 when my parents divorced, right after we got married. It was hard and counseling wasn’t as prevalent. I just kept it all inside.
They had a lot of difficulties and my dad was a heavy drinker. Cargill had bought his company. He was a vice president when the company was bought. He lost his job. It was similar to right now when men are laid off work at the prime of their life. He found other work; he continued to work but it was a setback.
He was real angry with the lawyers that handled the divorce and disagreed with all the things . . . but then he was not paying child support. My mom had five children still at home. The whole family went through terrible times. Eventually my dad remarried. . . and divorced again and moved back to Kansas. He wanted to get back into my mom’s good graces but she didn’t want to marry him again. The friendship was there. He was included in family things. They actually visited me in California together a few times because his sister lived out there.
From Monterey we went to Hawaii and I graduated from the University of Hawaii. Because I was transferring credits it took three semesters. It was a great school. By that time I had switched my major to art. I had been doing mostly two dimensional painting work. But I had one class in materials and techniques where we got to do egg tempera and frescos. This old man who was teaching it was retiring and he was afraid it was not going to be continuing and he wanted me to advocate it because I loved the class. We were all aware that we don’t have apprenticeship in this country. Meanwhile there were younger professors that were also very good. They were saying that art needed to be of our time. We need to be using the materials that are out there. So I had both of those experiences there that I appreciated.
By the time we lived in Hawaii my parents had been divorced a while and my mother came to visit us by herself. It was like a big fun trip for her. She would meet people and she was still young; she was only in her 40s. I thought she was so old. She had me when she was 25. She enjoyed the company of all these men who were flirting with her. And I was like, “MOM!”
I graduated from art on the Manila Campus, the main campus on Oahu.
I think as a country we are so lucky to have Hawaii as part of our country. We were there three and a half years. Our daughter was born there.
We went from Hawaii to Annapolis where Michael taught at the Naval Academy and where my son was born. I did some art commissions and loved being there. Someone from the Naval Academy chapel was retiring and I did a commission of a pastel drawing of the chapel. And I did some commissions of paintings of row houses. And I went to the Maryland Institute of Art to take some figure drawing classes.
When we go back to his reunions, it’s pleasant for me because I actually lived there for a while.
When he got out of the navy, he took a job with Teledyne –his first non-military job–and we settled in Mountain View and bought a condominium. At first he was going to do postgraduate work at Stanford but he took the job instead. We were lucky in terms of the real estate thing. We sold it for more than his annual salary when Michael took a job at Hewlett Packard and we moved to Santa Rosa in 1979. We bought a house on Leaf Green Drive.
We were lucky to get to move to Santa Rosa. When my kids started at a Montessori School I volunteered to teach art there and eventually they hired me to do the art program. So I decided that to get my teaching credential and went to Sonoma State. And I took all their art classes . . . forever. They recently honored me in their alumnae exhibit even though I graduated from the University of Hawaii.
Hewlett Packard sent Michael to Singapore from ’96 through ’99. Singapore was wonderful. I loved it from the minute we were there. We made many good friends within the ex-pat community and also the local Singaporeans. Our kids were in college then. There was this empty nest group of the American wives club. I came back thinking, “Every community should have an empty nest group.” You make your friends through your kids but empty nesters don’t have that connection that would bring people together. So that was a fun group to be a part of.
I was in exhibits in Singapore. I did an exhibit at a contemporary substation, a far out place of art, though it was supported by Singapore. Singapore knew that if they wanted to be a first class place, they had to have the arts, so they were cultivating it. I taught at an art college and had an exhibit at this substation that was called “A Singapore Diary.” It was a watercolor that folded out into the street. And I was writing of my experience in Singapore. What people liked was when I was real and vulnerable, where I would reveal glimpses of myself that people responded to. Like I said that I thought of myself as being too old to be having this experience.
I had a Mandarin teacher and she gave me this beautiful chop and made my name into Mo-Ni-Kai. Monikai–That was from Singapore. The Mo character had its roots with the horse; it was a really cool family name with a horse. And Ni and Kai are feminate affectionate things. So I loved that and kept it.
I had a house guest in Singapore who came back to Marin County. He was taking a hike and ran across someone who was selling all of his father’s carousels of slides, travel photos. And there was a carousel labeled Singapore. He emailed me and said, “Would you like these?” and I said, “Yes, yes.” So he sent them and they were immensely fascinating because they were taken in the ’60s but there were so many similarities between what was happening all over the world and what was happening in my life–the VW bus and Coca Cola and Tony the Tiger and all those things. And the people, there was so much continuity between the Chinese people then and now. Generationally we do the same things. I’ve been doing these over painted photographs ever since. Photography has always influenced everything, all of my work.
I got my MFA at Berkeley in ’93. One of the highpoints of my life was to be accepted at the UC Berkeley for their graduate programs. I commuted down there when my kids were in high school. It was a typical woman’s story. You can never be 100% one thing. You’re missing some of the back-to-school nights and you’re torn because you can’t go to every visiting lecture at grad school. But it was a great experience.
I had an exhibit in San Francisco of those photographs that I printed on canvas and then painted over them. I started getting emails from people inviting me to be in photography shows. I didn’t really see myself as a photographer. And they also would assume that they were my photographs. Even a lot of contemporary artists work with found photographs and nobody’s even doing anything with them. They’re throwing away family photos and stuff.
Lately I’ve used either my own photography or works in the public domain that I paint into. I have a recent painting called “This land is your land.” I took a picture of the TV screen with Trump and Netanyahu and then I painted in other people.
I was part of a feminist project in Berkeley called The Beauty Project. We did an exhibit at the Richmond Art Center called WAY IN. We had bathroom scales making a path, a commentary about the obsession with weight. Other people had cosmetics selling for more than gold.
And this Asian artist in our group had a profile with one side being straight hair and the other side curly, like trying to be not Asian but it was also like becoming water. (editor: Gigi Janchang was born in Shanghai, China. Her family fled to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution, and Janchang moved to the Bay Area in 1987, earning a MFA in new genre and conceptual art at San Francisco Art Institute. Her internationally-acclaimed work investigates appearance and identity, challenging assumptions about scale and perception. She presented a mural-sized photograph, Facing the West where the profile of a long-haired Asian woman morphs into an abstract linear texture created by hair.) It was really cool, amazing. We had a reunion exhibit two years ago called “Glass slipper to glass ceiling” at the City College of San Francisco. And we did another show called GRAVITY in San Jose. It was fun and nice to stay connected to them.
One of the artists–a great artist –Kerry Vander Meer, moved to Healdsburg. A lot of her work now was purchased by the Kaiser building at Mercury Way.
I feel like we’ve grown up with feminism. There was a time when there was such anger at the patriarchy but I feel like my husband’s a partner. My daughter is just so wonderful. She went to Barnard in New York City. She studied theater and economics and then she got an MBA at UC Davis and now she’s one of the vice presidents at Wells Fargo. And she has two wonderful daughters and a great husband who went to the same MBA program. They met there and he was like, “Well, why wouldn’t you want your wife to make the same amount of money. Your want your partners to be successful and succeeding.”
But there’s a constant bump up against the deeply ingrained patterns that can hold people back. And I don’t like to make waves; I don’t like conflict; I don’t like to upset the boat; I want to make people happy. I don’t like to be in conflict. I’m not one of the most strident. I am strong about it. But certainly it’s good to have all of us at our potential.
I have four grandchildren. My daughter has two daughters and my son has a daughter and a son. The oldest is 13 and then 10, 8 and 6. And they’re just great. My sister’s daughter just had a baby last night and it’s so exciting. It was daytime in London where she was born. It’s thrilling. The whole universe is expanding and they think how exciting to start this new life but it’s like a separation from the womb, from the comfort of the womb and then you’re always like moving out.
My son is working for a couple in Palo Alto called Confident Cannabis. But he lived in Santa Rosa for a long time. His son from his first marriage is still here.
My son worked for PNI and a lot of startups and local companies. He was one of the founders of Brewometer, a device he wrote the software for. It helps people make beer. He’s an algorithm engineer. He has his PhD in physics from UC Davis. He’s basically a mathematician but he’s also an artist. He’s got a piece of work at the Ross Perot Museum of Technology in Dallas and a piece of work in Walnut Creek. He’s been in a Maker Faire. And Adobe sponsored an art project recently that he worked with. His colleague, someone at he’s done a lot of things with, is now VP or higher in Adobe.
I taught at FIDAM, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco from 2011 to 2013. At the same time I was teaching at the Montessori School again and they were paying me and it was really close and my granddaughter was going there. I taught at Ursuline High School. I was the chair of the art department there for nine years until the school closed. So a big part of my Santa Rosa life was teaching there at Ursuline. The nuns just stopped it. It was the 2008 financial crisis so that the nuns that were aging were having to put more and more of their own money to keep the school afloat and they just couldn’t sustain that. And so they closed the school. They were always separate and this is where the feminism and patriarchal stuff was happening.
From the beginning . . . The Ursuline nuns founded that school before Santa Rosa High School was built. They had the first college in this town. The nuns had such a huge history. It was an Ursuline College for a period of time right downtown but the diocese would be condescending to them. The nuns let them have part of their land to build Cardinal Newman and they never paid for it; they just took it. The woman that did all of the academic schedule of the school–that’s really hard to do–they didn’t hire her to help. I can’t explain it.
Everyone was appalled by the sexual abuse scandals but there are a lot of wonderful spirits there. Great deep love, faith. They are wonderful. It’s kind of a puzzle of what’s the best way to deal with it. To withdraw and object or to say, “I’m part of this place to. You can’t just take it all to the conservative side.” My grandparents and great grandparents and generations of people have poured their lives and treasure into all this.
My father-in-law . . . He’s now 95. There’s a young boy that moved into the neighborhood who has a tragic story but my father-in-law has befriended him. The boy likes to come over and use his computer and stuff like that. At one point my father-in-law . . . he was saying he didn’t want anyone to think there was any kind of scandal. Wow! It’s in everybody’s consciousness.
When we lived in Singapore one of our best friends was from Ireland, Galway, and he worked for Guinness. She told me that her mother only had two children and the Catholic priest came by when she was younger. “Are you denying sex to your husband that you have only two children.” That they would even think that they could do that.
There was a really dynamic nun who came to give us a talk when I was teaching who explained the history of Catholic education in America and it was just fascinating because originally the Catholic church was teaching the immigrants who were hungry and poor and the schools were all staffed by priests and nuns that the church didn’t have to pay other than what they were already getting. One of my favorite friends who taught forever at Ursuline grew up in San Francisco. She said that there were social events everywhere then. Free lessons for kids.
The apex of Catholics in America was when JFK was elected. But then things changed. Nuns were declining. They didn’t have the free teachers anymore. They had to start hiring staff. Then they had to pay for that and they started charging tuition and the schools became something that rich people could come to. And the Ursuline nuns that closed the high school, they wanted to be more like that helping kind. And what moved in to Ursuline that then burned down was the Roseland Academy, a charter school, so it became a place where they were teaching kids like the original population that they taught and because it was a charter school, they were getting some money and they could pay the nuns. It was great for them.
In terms of Catholicism– there was this book I discovered by Matthew Fox called Original Blessing. A wonderful book. Matthew Fox was silenced by Pope Benedict along with Hans Kung who was also a theologian that I liked, all these more liberal theologians who were liberation theology, they all got shut down by him. I still like Matthew Fox. He’s getting old now. In that Original Blessing he said that if there had been a different idea of blessing instead of sin, we’d appreciate everything. How different it would have been like when Columbus landed in America it wouldn’t be like just a pursuit of gold, it would be like, “Look at these plants and these people and the smells and this gorgeous place.” It would be so different.
At this point I have more time with less distraction in the studio but I love the band because it’s great to make communal art together. It’s fun to be in my studio and focused on all this strands of my life but it’s just such good medicine, such a good place to be here. I quit the whole thing in high school. But now I’ve taken lessens from Roy Zajac. He’s such a musical spirit. I just want to visit with him and hang out, as much as I want to practice the clarinet. It’s like reclaiming a part of myself to play the clarinet again.
Monica’s website: www.monikaiart.studio