A series of interviews with some friends of BAGGU.
Our Friend Mimi
Mimi Moncier, local artist and beloved yoga teacher, opens her studio to share stories—from childhood dance lessons to her departure from architecture and her move toward a more contemplative practice.
Keep an eye out and you'll notice Mimi shows up in some of our photography on baggu.com, modeling things like this STANDARD BAGGU:
ANNA: When did art and art making come into your life? Has it always been a part of your life?
MIMI: It's always been a part of my life. Even when I was practicing architecture. I was attracted to architecture because of drawing architecture and that you could represent three-dimensions in two-dimensions. I was and still am fascinated by how a line could also be a plane or a wall. You can build three dimensions out of two or create a completely ambiguous space. The tension between abstraction and representation is common to both the making of art and architecture.
I practiced architecture for about 10 years and had the opportunity to work on many wonderful projects. The Getty Antiquities Museum, for example, was one where exploration through the arts of drawing and model-making were encouraged. I believe I left the practice of architecture because I didn't like working until 11:00pm or later every night. It was so intense because of the deadlines, and it was so exciting and wonderful because of the design work. Thankfully, the firms in which I worked all held the tactile arts of drawing and model-making as invaluable. Otherwise, I probably would have left the practice much sooner.
ANNA: So you weren't just on AutoCAD all day.
MIMI: I refused to learn how to computer draft. And luckily by the time AutoCAD became the predominant mode of representing building design, I was in more of a leadership position and was not having to draft on the computer but instead working through design sketches and models.
ANNA: Based on what I know about you, I can’t picture you sitting at a computer all day.
MIMI: Yes, it is true. Think about this—we used to draw everything. I recently saw a photo from the 1960’s of a drafting room and was reminded that the tables were huge! You would have to lie down on the table (stretches out) to draw a perspective because the vanishing points would be beyond the table surface. Then, when drawing became primarily confined to the computer, people would have this much (contracts arms) space. But you used to have these enormous desks front and back, your layout space and then the drawing space, these giant, parallel bars. All that was very physical. And of course model-making is also in the physical realm. We used to build study models that were very quickly made and very rough but they would convey enough information that you could clearly read the three-dimensional qualities of the spaces you were designing…. I loved that part. When I first started working at Machado & Silvetti in Boston, they were working on a full model of the Getty Antiquities Museum site and buildings. I think they had twenty-five grad students building the model. It was so huge that they were building it on top of the office pool table… so amazing. Now, from what I understand, most studies are modeled in the computer and physical models are relegated to expressing a final design rather than design explorations.
ANNA: So the transition out of architecture for you happened...
MIMI: That was in 1997. Although it has been a while since I practiced architecture, I do believe it informs everything that I do whether it is teaching yoga or making art.
ANNA: So in ‘97, then you decided, OK, I'm done. Then what happened?
MIMI: I began attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and focused on figure drawing/anatomy for artists. I love drawing the figure. The program was a couple of years, and then I did their Fifth Year Program in which you compete for a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was one the chosen artists and was in the show Traveling Scholars, 2001. I got a nice big scholarship to travel. I was really interested in Aboriginal painting for its seeming modernity and abstraction. Come to find out, they are often maps of their spirit animal’s paths through their country. At the time, I was mapping color in my world and our world of culture so the resonance was powerful. I had many shows with this five-year long project, Persona Project, of mapping colors. I mapped everything from the colors of my paintings in my studio on a given day (My Studio Today) to the colors of the food I consumed for lunch (My Lunch) to a larger cultural scale of all of the ubiquitous signage colors on any auto strip anywhere (The Strip).
Persona Project became a representation of my crisis of the self that resulted from the transition from drawing by hand to the computer. Is a computer printout mine? Is it mine like a drawing that I had made by hand? My process was to fluctuate between making handmade collages to photographing them and manipulating them on the computer. I would then own them again by painting them on linen. The paintings would look like blobs of color not unlike many of the Aboriginal works that I saw in Western Australia. At first the paintings look like something that is machine-made but on closer inspection you can begin to see all of the imperfections that could only be created by something that was made by hand.
MIMI: I had several shows in Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans and one at the Cheekwood Museum in Nashville in their Temporary Contemporary series. Then I became tired of making these paintings. The thing about the art world is that they want you to keep making the same thing over and over again.
ANNA: They find something they like and it’s like, “ok can you keep doing this again?”
MIMI: I just couldn't do it anymore. And so that'll kill your career in the gallery market for sure, but I was fine with that. It was fun, but I was ready to move on. I began to explore other means of expression, for example, in Slow Death I am still exploring color but through the lens of food packaging trash. The consideration of diet on our health and the effects of producing packaging for food on the environment are simultaneously thematically present in the work. Graduate school came next with a year at UNO in New Orleans and then a two-year MFA at San Francisco Art Institute where I continued to paint but also studied sculpture, installation and video.
ANNA: So, you grew up in Pensacola and went to Boston, then New Orleans and then you came out here. What year did you come out to San Francisco?
ANNA: So you've been here for 13 years now. Are there ever things that you miss about the South?
MIMI: Yes, I miss New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
ANNA: What do you miss about them?
MIMI: People that we know, the warm weather and the beaches. I'm still in touch with our neighbor, Lorraine, who is ninety six. I did a whole project about her after Hurricane Katrina called Where is Lorraine?. We did not know if she had evacuated and could not find her for several months(eventually we did). She is still in New Orleans, she's lived there her whole life. I fell in love with her and would spend every afternoon around five o’clock on her porch hanging out with our dogs. She lived across the street from us and she had a dog named Friend, a Belgian Shepherd who just showed up at her place one day and she said, “you look like you need a friend”, so she adopted him (hence the name).
She lives in one of those antebellum mansions with a huge front porch where she rented an apartment. We would sit on the porch and chat while the dogs played in the yard. She is like a relative, like my grandmother, you know? For her entire career, she worked at Hibernia Bank and got to know everybody in the Garden District. We would walk the dogs and as we would pass a home of someone she knew, the stories would flow. For example, “I knew this woman who lived here(pointing) and she had this thing for exotic birds and she died of the bird flu!” or something like that just totally off-the-wall. It was really fun and I became super inspired by her awesome spirit and her willingness to just keep on going even despite physical pain and hardship from growing old. I just talked to her over the weekend. A few years ago we flew her out here and toured her around. We went to many bars so that she could sample the sazeracs which is her favorite cocktail. She once told me that they used to serve them at the pharmacies in the French Quarter. Truly medicine!
I do miss a lot about the South, but I love it out here, too.
ANNA: How have the past few months been? Obviously it's been a crazy upheaval for everybody, this whole experience of the pandemic.
MIMI: I realize how valuable it is to be in the same room with people. Body language and reading the energetic body of others is quite different [over Zoom]. In the online yoga classes that I teach to Baggu, for example, I can't do physical assists which can be super helpful to a yoga practice. I know your practices really well, so I know how I can help verbally, how I can give you all cues, what's going to come up for you. But, practice changes and things change, and I can't read your energy as easily. So that's hard. I have several sanghas that I meditate with and I've taught meditation classes online, but people are just fried in relation to technology. People have serious Zoom fatigue and I feel it, too. The electromagnetic spark that exists between people is difficult at best to experience online. There is a sense of flatness online compared to being in a three-dimensional space. It is interesting to consider relative to the crises of selfhood that I experienced in the technology revolution in architecture.
Sometimes I just want to go to a museum. I just want to go out to dinner, and just be around other people, even if I don't know them.
ANNA: What is the thing that you're most looking forward to doing when it's over?
MIMI: Going to a dance class. I've taken a lot of the dance classes online through ODC and Lines, and you just don't get the same depth as you do from an in-person class. For one, they have to design the classes for small spaces because people are in their homes. They can't have a movement combination that's going to go across 60 feet of a room, so really opening up movement is impossible. I really miss that and I miss the people that I danced with for so many years. Some of those people I’ve known since I’ve been in San Francisco but I would only see them regularly at a dance class.
ANNA: How did you get into dance?
MIMI: When I was six years old, my mom took me to a ballet class. I took to it immediately and was really encouraged to continue. There was a couple from, I want to say, Czechoslovakia? Ballet dancers who were running the dance program and company at the University of Alabama. The classes and rehearsals were housed in an old church sanctuary in downtown Birmingham. It was quite a beautiful space. Stefan and Melanie were very encouraging to me. I was dancing quite a bit and my Mom would drive me downtown for the classes several times during the week. I was very committed and performed in their Nutcracker as a soldier and an angel. After four years in Birmingham, my dad got a job in Pensacola and we moved. There, I continued ballet, with Madam DeMarco. She was really old and a very experienced ballet madam. I remember, she would demonstrate with her hands. Like *clap* tendu *clap* this way, ronde de jambe, battement *clap* (moving hands like feet).
She had a dance studio built on the back of her house. We had recitals and classes. Then in college, I continued taking some dance classes while in architecture school, which was challenging due to the incredibly demanding nature of my course of study. After architecture school, we moved to Boston for work. I started taking modern dance classes from Cheri Opperman, who is a very talented choreographer, teacher and dancer. She and four of her colleagues opened Green Street Studios. I faithfully took her classes three times a week and did several repertory series, as well.
ANNA: You probably really looked forward to that though.
MIMI: Yes, I felt so free in her classes and my spirit cracked open. I always wondered what it would have been like if I had dedicated my life to dance, and then I injured myself in the early 90s, and that's when I started doing yoga. It was very healing and it actually helped my dance practice.
When we moved to New Orleans, it was really difficult to find modern classes. Eventually, I found I could take dance classes at Tulane, they have a really good dance department there. It's always been part of my life, always. It's spiritual too, and I didn't realize how spiritual it was until I didn't have it.
ANNA: I'm interested to hear about how you got into your contemplative practice.
MIMI: I was having a lot of panic attacks when I was a young woman, and started doing yoga. I've always been very physical with dancing, running, biking but with yoga, there was something about it that was a little bit different. It definitely reached me at a much deeper level than dancing does, even though now I connect those two a lot. I was seeking help for something that I couldn't understand—having panic attacks, which, I have found through teaching a lot of young women, is really common. So many young women came to me at our yoga seeking help for their panic attacks. For me, I started meditating as a way of connecting more closely to myself in an effort to stop the onslaught of an attack. And it worked!
There's this wonderful technique taught by a man named Shinzen Young, a scientist and longtime monk/meditator. In this technique he teaches you to separate the physical component and the mental component of any particular emotion so that it doesn't compound the experience and become an uncontrollable snowball or ginormous knot.
We have feelings in the body that arise for absolutely no reason at all and if you have a propensity for anxiety, it is natural to attach some sort of narrative to those emotions. When the two become intertwined the experience can spin out of control. That’s when you have a panic attack. Or maybe not a panic attack, but you just have a lot of anxiety all the time. Understanding this was so helpful for me. It was revelatory to consider the mind to be a sixth sense, which is how the mind is viewed in traditional Buddhism.
Realizing, too, that with the breath, we have a powerful physiological tool that can help to calm the body when we take long exhales. That, with the knowledge of the connection between emotions and stories, can stop any panic attack in its tracks.
I couldn't stop meditating after that. Contemplative practice changed my life for the better.
ANNA: When in your life was that?
MIMI: I started doing yoga in the early 90s and then I started meditating really seriously right before Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when we were living in New Orleans.
ANNA: That seems like you were anticipating something almost. I bet that was extremely helpful for you, right?
MIMI: It was. And I got a huge insight during that whole process where it was so clear to me that if we clung the way we thought things should be and the way things were before the storm, that it was going to kill us or make us really sick. I realized that we have to let go and go with the flow that was taking us. And so that process of just letting go was so liberating, it was so clear. That's basically what meditation is all about. Not clinging, so you don't suffer.
And that's the idea, that you create a continuum through your practice. It just takes time. It does not have to be religious. I believe it was David Batchelor in his book entitled “Buddhism without Beliefs” where he says that meditation and the Buddha’s teaching is really a call to personal action, not a religion. That resonated for me with my background growing up in the Southern Methodist Church and my resulting suspicion of religion.
ANNA: To find something that sort of offered the richness of contemplation and spirituality?
MIMI: But that didn't have to be religious. It's all about my own direct experience and my meditation practice in my daily life. As a call to action, it is up to you and not some mediator who claims authority or lies embedded within some hierarchical structure. The power is within you. It was very powerful in that way for me, like, “wow, I can actually have a spiritual, contemplative experience and not have some old white man telling me what to do.”
ANNA: You opened the yoga studio in the Dogpatch, right?
MIMI: Giggling Lotus, yeah. It was 2012 when we opened it. We also had an art program there, called Scrawl Center for Drawing which consisted of artists’ residencies and performances. During the 6 years we were open, we had six different artists do a residency. They would work in the yoga space in between classes and take free yoga classes. The yoga students would see their works in-progress. It was a really interesting juxtaposition of activities. Maria Teresa-Barbist did a series of drawings and then she would dance the drawings. They were pretty amazing. She published a little book as part of it. Then different artists came in, Cathy Fairbanks and Laura Boles Faw did a project called We Are the Field. And these would happen intermittently over the whole six years, some performances, including Animal Projections, by Sasha Petrenko and Navigating In a Whiteout by Renee Rhodes. It was a really fun aspect of our programming.
That was how my art was expressed, through the studio community and hosting artists. The harsh reality of the difficulty of running a business and trying to maintain an art practice began to sink in. I was sharing studio space with four other artists at the time in a space in Bayview. I never had time to get out there and work. At one point, I was teaching 17 classes a week, it was crazy.
ANNA: What prompted you to open the yoga studio?
MIMI: I went to yoga school to deepen my own practice and my spirituality just blossomed. I wanted to share yoga and meditation with everybody. I love teaching and helping people become embodied. It was very fulfilling and a project of building community around two three things that I love: art, meditation and yoga.
ANNA: Is there anything else that you mention, or anything that you want the world to know?
MIMI: I love life. I love life and I think that—and this is something that Rilke says that is so beautiful—when you really open to death, you really see the fullness of life. And it's so true. What an amazing thing.
We share elemental qualities with everything. The qualities of earth, water, fire and air are ubiquitous. Those qualities are within us, are in everything we consume, and are in everything outside of us. And then when we die, we feed all of that back into the earth. Everything's right here right now just waiting for us to realize the interconnectedness of it all.