David Montelongo has been making art for 56 years. In celebration of his first-ever gallery show—a retrospective of his work spanning six decades–I recently sat down with him to learn how his interest in art developed, how his practice evolved over the years, and how he maintained his passion for art as his life and career took turns in different directions. My biggest take-away? If you never stop learning, you’ll never stop creating.
Rose Eason: How long have you been creating art?
David Montelongo: I graduated in 1962 from University of Texas-El Paso and I was an art major there.
RE: So you’ve been creating art for many decades?
DM: (Laughs). I suppose so!
RE: What first got you interested in art? How did you start?
DM: Basically when I got out of the service in 1956, I decided to go to the University. I had to make a decision about what to major in. I went on an interview and talked to a counselor. I first pursued Business Administration, but so many people were doing that—it was so crowded. I decided that I should do something I preferred, and that I really wanted to do, which was art. While at University I focused on ceramics.
RE: What happened when you graduated? Did you try to make a go of a career as an artist?
When I finally graduated, it was hard to find a job. At that time I said to myself I’m not that great of an artist to make a living off of it, so I decided to apply for a teaching job. I had experience teaching adult art classes at the YMCA as a side job while I was in school.
I first had a job with the El Paso School District and started teaching art and Spanish at the elementary level. Then eventually I started teaching art full time at the junior high level.
RE: What motivated you to keep up your own art practice throughout the years?
While I was teaching, I was doing art all along, working and working. I didn’t have the equipment myself for ceramics, so I’d go to the lab at the University. And I was still taking art classes myself on the side.
Then, when I came to Zuni to teach in 1966, the best way I knew to connect with the students was to make art with them—to make time in the schedule to do art with them. Working with the kids helped me stay in touch with art and different art forms.
One thing I discovered in Zuni is that the kids were really artistic—it seemed like it was almost inherent, passed down from their parents. They were very good, really talented. Teaching in Zuni was so different from a big city. The kids were so respectful, and so easy to work with. They also really enjoyed creating art and took pride in themselves.
When I got a job in administration in Gallup in the early 1980s, I became totally divorced from making art. But I wanted to stay involved. That’s when I started doing watercolors. I took some classes at the
UNM-Gallup branch and some classes in Albuquerque. And once I’d learned the basics and a few techniques, took it from there.
Every chance I got I would take off in the hills and park my car somewhere, especially on weekends.
When I’d be traveling with my wife, she’d be driving and I’d be water-coloring as we were moving down the road. Traveling between Gallup and El Paso, or anywhere else, I’d take my watercolors with me.
RE: Did you know that Georgia O’Keeffe would also paint from her car?
DM: I didn’t! But that’s another thing: every chance I’d get I’d go see different shows and museums to brush up on different techniques and different artists. That was always very inspirational.
RE: What does art mean to you after all these years?
It’s a mode of expression. Working with kids, you could always see the kids when they’re depressed or having a hard time—it’d show up in their artwork. If they were cheerful or happy, you’d see bright colors. The art would manifest the way they felt. If they were frustrated, you could tell. The idea was to try to inspire them, make them comfortable and give them a chance to express themselves above everything else.
I always enjoyed being out in the open. Gallup is so scenic. There is a lot of countryside with different rock formations. To me, art is kind of like therapy—to be out there by myself, taking it easy and enjoying all the sites.
RE: What’s your preferred medium to work in? You’re good at so many!
Ceramics are more difficult to do. You need equipment and a space. And it’s messier. I set up a home studio, but eventually just decided to stick to watercolors. I just wanted to make art.