Editor’s Note: Despite the necessary adjustment to virtual instruction for part of this semester, more than 6,000 talented Fresno State students will earn their degrees in May and move on to become the next generation of leaders in the Central Valley and beyond. While every hardworking graduate deserves to be recognized, for the rest of the semester we will be sharing the inspiring stories of graduates like this one who have achieved at the highest levels or have overcome remarkable challenges. As University President Joseph I. Castro previously announced, the University looks forward to celebrating all of its deserving graduates at an in-person ceremony at a later date when it is deemed safe to do so.
Anabella Monzon had hit rock bottom. The decay began when the love of her life died.
“I felt like I could not breathe. I paced back and forth feeling like I could not survive without my husband,” Monzon said.
What started with drinking and self-medicating eventually ended with her being homeless in Fresno.
“I died, and I went to heaven. And then I saw the world. I saw myself stumbling drunk on the earth,” said Monzon.
In a deeply religious experience, Monzon said she pleaded with God to give her another chance.
“When I die, I want to be remembered that I did something good for the people, something good for the world. I don’t want to die like this — desperate,” Monzon prayed.
After that, she was able to kick her addictions and begin rebuilding her life. She started by moving into the Village of Hope at the Poverello House. She then enrolled at Fresno City College before transferring to Fresno State to get her bachelor’s degree in art, followed by her Master of Art in December 2019.
“Ms. Monzon’s art communicates a message of hope to the downtrodden, the addicts, the women fleeing abusers, their children,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, interim dean, College of Arts and Humanities. “No wonder then, that her picture hangs at Poverello House and that she was involved in celebrating founder Papa Mike’s life after he passed away: she is a part of the fabric of this city as a volunteer and an artist — a true citizen of our community.”
Before her husband passed away, Monzon had a storied career as an artist. A highly regarded muralist, her creations have graced public spaces in Kansas City, Missouri; Seattle, Washington; and San Diego for decades. In Seattle, she was a mural painting supervisor for the two-mile-long Interstate 90 pedestrian tunnel to Mercer Island who, with the help of 50 children, painted 10 of the 20 murals.
No stranger to making art on a large scale, as a Fresno State graduate student at the Graduate Art Studios at M Street in downtown Fresno, Monzon developed her “Mayan Monuments” exhibition depicting the story of creation deities in the first book of the Popol Vuh — or “Book of the People.” The text details the creators of the sky’s four corners; the four attempts to create humans, animals and the underworld. All of the pieces have Kʼicheʼ names.
“The Kʼicheʼ area is close to Quetzaltenango, midwestern highlands of Guatemala, where my family has lived for centuries, and my mother was born,” said Monzon. “She used to tell me stories from Popol Vuh Mayan codex since I was a child, and she used Mayan myth names to call our pets.”
The coils in Monzon’s sculptures represent the thunderbolts in the sky, called the “feathered serpents” by the Mayans. Thunder was believed to be God because the rain was vital to the survival of the seed that fed people. The coils also represent feathers from the Quetzal bird, which is the national freedom emblem of Guatemala and the name of the country’s currency.
“Ms. Monzon’s sculptures capture Mesoamerican mythology as powerfully as the artifacts one can see in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, yet she tempers her work with an intellectual curiosity that extends to Native American art forms from North America, creating hybrid forms that defy quick identification and mesmerize the viewer, especially with their ever-coiling snakes,” said Chapman.
The sculptures themselves are larger than life. The tallest stand around seven feet high, and the largest have weighed in at about 800 pounds. Molding clay sculptures this large presented quite a challenge for Monzon. In many cases, the sculptures were so large, they couldn’t fit through the opening of the largest firing kiln at Fresno State. Monzon used a variety of methods to get around this problem, including slicing the statues, firing the pieces, then reassembling them for the final painting. She has also experimented with using epoxies to slow-cook the clay in one piece.
Her graduate exhibition opened in October 2019. The scale and detail of her work were highly regarded by many in the local art community and was featured on several news channels and the local PBS station.
Monzon has applied to the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at Fresno State.
“We need to send the artists to the schools to work with children because they mold the souls,” said Monzon. ”In the Mayan culture, the artists are the translators of reality. So if you take the artist way from the kids in school, you are losing an important part of their development.”
She is also planning future exhibitions of her Mayan Monuments, including one at the Community Media Access Collaborative in downtown Fresno.