Meow Files: Madeleine Tonzi, Mural Maker

There’s something about sticking to this dimension that doesn’t quite work for us. Nor does it for Oakland-based artist Madeleine Tonzi, who returned to her hometown of Santa Fe to create a mural during Meow Wolf’s annual exhibition upgrades.
May 31, 2018

There’s something about sticking to this dimension that doesn’t quite work for us. Nor does it for Oakland-based artist Madeleine Tonzi, who returned to her hometown of Santa Fe to create a mural during Meow Wolf’s annual exhibition upgrades.

Cast in Tonzi’s tell-tale hues, the 600-foot mural spans a wall on the mezzanine overlooking our venue space. Simple, flat planes of greens, blues, and reds conjure thoughts about landscape rather than dictate what that is.

One gets the sense of looking indoors and out at the same time in Tonzi’s work. Using gouache acrylic, she overlaps mostly cool-toned, opaque colors in contemplative natural scenes that are activated with surprising elements. There are window frames, but also pools of textured earth. Jagged rock silhouettes give way to slices of the cosmos. Landscape becomes internal. Imagined.

“My selection of plants, stars, and portals all stem from my experiences of various places. The palms and driftwood, desert skies, and even loose architectural shapes string together a story,” Tonzi says. “It’s both an obscured memory and something that provokes adventure and curiosity.”

As alien as it can be, Tonzi’s work is really about our world. She’s interested in the concept of Solastalgia, the idea that people experience emotional distress because of our shrinking relationship with nature. Coined by environmental philosopher and psychologist Glenn Albrecht, Solastalgia refers to how tied we are to nature, perhaps more than we think.

Madeleine Tonzi paints with acrylic gouache, paint that allows for highly opaque colors. Tonzi’s characteristic style emerged from using this medium, and she creates flat planes of overlapping colors and shapes to conjure landscape.

Tonzi is less interested in talking about environmentalism, though, than she is in exploring how we relate to nature.

“Change is certain in our lives and in the environment, whether that’s manmade or natural,” she says. “But the ways in which we hold our memories close, how we tell our stories, and what role they play in understanding our world—these hold incredible value in how we shape our future.”

Interestingly, though Tonzi’s work is so suited to the large scale, it’s only recently that she started working in murals.

“I saw it as kind of a boys’ club,” she says. “My experience was that the scene was heavily male dominated.”

She saw women doing incredible large-scale work, she says, but more men getting representation and opportunities to paint large, visible walls.

“I think that’s changing now,” Tonzi reflects. “Especially with social media providing a platform to show the work we’re all making. It’s important for not only women, but also for other underrepresented communities to make murals,” she says. “A mural makes for a very accessible art form. It’s often in heavily trafficked places, where your voice can be visually expressed to many people at a time.”

No better place to do that than at our House, which, as trippy as it gets, constantly takes us back to nature by way of a portal or two.

Madeline Tonzi, visiting artist at Meow Wolf

Madeleine painted around the clock, alongside five other guest artists who created other murals and installations during our upgrades this year.

“Spending two weeks inside the exhibition, I started to feel that the place itself was alive. There’s an energy pulsing through there that is its own. There was always a different installation activated during points of the day, different lights twinkling, sounds I couldn’t place,” Tonzi muses.

Most importantly, she says, “It was good to feel so supported by the people who make up Meow Wolf. Artists trust other artists to create. It was inspiring and humbling to witness so much creativity and freedom of expression in one place.” 

Ultimately, Tonzi concludes, “I hope the mural makes people feel a sense of both calm and curiosity for what lies beyond.” Indeed, wandering the mezzanine, outside Scott Hove’s popular new Cake Land room, we’re presented with a portal to wondering about nature, ourselves, our memories. “It’s a bit reminiscent of the Southwest,” Tonzi says, “but also abstract enough that it could be the West Coast—or somewhere else, somewhere in a distant universe.”

Video and photographs by Kate Russell.