Text by Adam Lehrer
The first time I met Miami-based artist Marilyn Rondon was at this year’s New York Art Book Fair. She was working at a booth under the tent section of the fair and it’s very hard to not be immediately drawn towards her: a fiercely petite Venezuelan woman in her mid-‘20s with painfully beautiful bone structure, deep brown eyes, jet black hair, Olympian fitness level, and a vast collection of tattoos including script on her forehead and an amazing battle royale back piece done by Brad Stevens of New York Adorned. Trying to evade a pervasive sense of shyness, I briefly chatted with her while perusing through her impressive display of self-published zines and other work.
I ended up picking up a copy of her ‘Selfie Zine’ and as I browsed through it on the train home I was struck by its raw depictions of human friendship and exuberance. The format is simple enough: throughout the book Rondon appears in selfies along with male and female friends in varying degrees of clothing. Rondon’s willingness to show her self sans modern filters is striking. Her ‘Selfie’ book is the antithesis of Kim Kardashian’s ‘Selfie’ book in which Kim appears 100 percent made up and perfect in every photograph. Rondon actually seeks to reveal herself. To be known. Not to peddle an idealized version of herself.
Curious, I started following her work on both her Instagram (@calientechica) and her Tumblr pages (totallystokedonyou.com). In photography, creative projects, painting, writing, zine productions, and more, Rondon shares her life with her myriad followers. Her willingness to let people into her life has resulted in inspired creativity and the occasional public debacle. Her “Latina Seeks Thug” project was the result of her jokingly saying to a friend, “All I want in life is a thug to have a baby with.” In a stroke of mad genius, she decided to post an ad on Craigslist asking for that exact thing. Without even a picture, she got 101 emails in 17 hours from gentleman looking to take Rondon up on the offer. On the more difficult end of her creative life sharing, Rondon wrote an article in Dazed about her cheating boyfriend that he would eventually ask the publication to take down. She simply goes with her emotions and does her best to let everything fall in place. That is what makes her an interesting artist.
The first time I spoke with Marilyn she had just gotten back from a silence retreat and she was still flying high off the experience, making it the perfect time for an interview. She is incredibly warm and open yet simultaneously self-aware. She discussed much of her artistic philosophy and the brazen harassment from perverted men she suffers as a result to her commitment to her work. The sheer amount of activity Rondon engages in is astounding. Along with her social media projects and experiments, Marilyn has also started painting commissioned murals characterized by bold repetitive patterns. As a working model, she has a rigorous exercise routine and strict eating habits. A couple days after the interview I was out celebrating my birthday and Rondon was DJing in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She literally does everything, and it all becomes a part of a rich and diverse artistic world. Marilyn Rondon is a contemporary artist to watch (on social media, and in her work).
Adam Lehrer: You work in so many different mediums. What was the first medium you messed with when you first felt an inclination towards creativity?
Marilyn Rondon: I was enrolled in a magnet art elementary school in the third grade. There, they teach you everything from ceramics to photography. I learned how to develop film when I was in the fourth grade. My dad was a musician. My mom is really artistic. My younger sister makes art and plays music. My older sister photographs and paints. I was fortunate. I always had my little sketchbook. I did ballet for a few years. Art was always my favorite. I could create my own world and distract myself from reality.
AL: That’s interesting that you say art distracts you from reality. When I look at your work, you put so much of yourself into it.
MR: I use myself as my subject a lot. Art should be about the human experience. I like to play around with the idea that this is my world, but it’s also collective… I really don’t know how to explain what I do.
AL: You’re great at illustration. You’re great at photography. But I also think your Instagram and Tumblr are really interesting. Do you consider all of it in the same domain of your work?
MR: I consider [social media] a reflection of my photography and my drawing. I’m just documenting my life and what I’m going through. I’m growing. I started documenting through photography really young. I would always take pictures with my Polaroid camera. I would take photos of my friends at school and on the weekends all the time. I was fascinated with holding on to the people I love and care about. It’s strange to call it art, but every photographer shoots what they want to shoot. I just want to shoot the moments I should remember. People always change; you never know when you’re going to stop seeing someone, for whatever reason. It’s really important for me to capture that.
AL: The mural stuff you’ve been doing is really amazing. How did that opportunity come up? Have you always been drawing in that repetitious pattern?
MR: Yeah. I always just draw the same thing. I feel fortunate, at such a young age, to have found that style which is so distinct. No one else’s stuff looks similar to mine. I honestly just do it because I love painting so much. The feeling I get when I put the paintbrush down—I’m in heaven. It’s so therapeutic. The most painting I did was in the past year, when I was getting over my breakup. I did 300 paintings.
AL: Do you think you’ll always continue with the multimedia aspect of your work, or are you shifting more towards painting?
MR: I haven’t painted in a month. It’s been really hard to not paint for that long, but I haven’t had a lot of inspiration. I was recently commissioned to do ten paintings in five days, which was really hard, because my paintings are intricate and cover the entire canvas. It was a shit show. I didn’t sleep for 36 hours. I’m literally the most determined person I know. I’ll sleep when I’m fucking dead.
AL: I love the “Latina Seeks Thug” debacle and subsequent show that you got into. Do you feel that your best ideas come from spur-of-the-moment things that happen in your life?
MR: Yeah, especially with that piece. I made that piece as a joke. In passing conversation, I said, “I’m going to do this, and it’s going to be hilarious.” I didn’t think it would have the amount of reach that it did. I didn’t think it would even be considered art. I totally forgot that I even put out the ad. My ribs hurt for the week straight after that because I couldn’t stop laughing.
AL: And there are guys that sent you dick pics?
MR: Yes. It happens to me on my Instagram too. I turn my phone on, and it’s just dudes sending selfies with, “Hi.” And then, immediately afterwards, it’s a picture of them jerking off. What do they get from this? These men that do this are clearly sex offenders. Any man in their right mind knows not to send a video of them jerking off to a stranger. They’re so sick in the head. It’s repulsive and scary. It’s all the time, too. And it’s not just me.
AL: I think it’s cool that you turned this disgusting habit of perverts doing disgusting things into something positive. You’re posting all of these guys’ pictures, but people still send them. Is it proving a point that these guys don’t learn?
MR: They’re brain dead. They see me as an object, and they don’t take the time to know me as a person. They just think, “Oh, she’s hot; I’m going to send her a picture of my dick.” Oh my god, you don’t know what I’m going to do with that photo? You idiot.
AL: Your conversations with other women reveal similar social media experiences. Do you find that the abuse women go through—on the Internet and in real life—is a common theme, or is it more extreme in some cases than others?
MR: It’s more extreme in certain cases than others. Or maybe not. Everything in life is constantly changing. We’re different people, in different environments, in different cities. I really don’t understand it. I want to know if men experience this. I want to interview guys who are on social media, to see if they have similar experiences with women. I’m interested in the other side of it, to see what it’s like for a guy who is posting a bunch of selfies on social media. Are girls sending him pictures of their tits? How common is this for a man? That’s where I want to go next.
AL: Well, I don’t know, if that happened to me, I don’t know if I would be bummed. Women have to endure all the time which makes it different.
MR: This shit also happens in real life. When I was eight years old, I was walking home from school one day, and some pervert flashed me on the street. It happened to my sisters and my friends. These men are obviously mentally ill. They don’t realize their behavior is not okay. They think that they are justified in doing it because women look a certain way or dress a certain way. There are boundaries in this world, regardless of how someone presents herself.
I understand that I’m an interesting-looking person, and I have to deal with people asking me questions about my body. People feel so entitled to harass me. I work at a bar, and these guys will be like, “Can I braid your hair?” I’m like, “Can you not touch me?”
AL: Do guys use your tattoos as an in, like a pickup line or something?
MR: Oh, yeah. And they think it’s a compliment, but it’s like—“Go away. I don’t want to talk to you.” And then they get upset and start to insult you if you don’t respond.
AL: When you are portraying nude women other than yourself, how do you navigate the male gaze?
MR: I basically have no ass, so I’ve always had this fascination with asses. Like the grass is always greener on the other side. So I approach my subjects with curiosity. I just play around with them in a way that I would want to be shot. I’m comfortable with my body. I think sexuality is totally okay. I’m very comfortable with my figure, and with the woman figure. It’s not something that should be shameful. We’re human beings. When I’m shooting girls, I’ll say, “Oh, I wish I could look like this, can you do this?” And they’ll do it. It’s like I’m playing out my fantasy.
AL: So it’s still a representation of you, even though you’re not the intended subject?
MR: Yeah, I guess.
AL: Have you ever had a moment where you shared something about yourself or anyone else that you regretted?
MR: Oh, all the time. Half the things I post on Instagram, 20 minutes later I’m like—I shouldn’t have done that. I feel like that’s natural for most people. That happened to me earlier this year, actually. I was on a trip with my ex, and I found out he was cheating on me. Then, there was an article in Dazed about it. He was very upset, and asked them to take it down. I didn’t do the piece as revenge. I didn’t want to hurt him. I had to use the words that I used to show him how we was treating me. I made the piece to raise awareness about the places we put ourselves in for the people we love. But it was totally taken in the wrong context. I was portrayed in the wrong way, and I suffered for a long time because of it.
I come from a family of abuse. I was abused for a really long time. When you’re abused for a long time, you think it’s normal. But it’s not normal. You need to be treated with love and compassion. Love should be unconditional. That’s what I wanted to get across.
AL: Do you regret any of the work you make?
MR: I don’t regret any of the work I make. But it can be exhausting. People judge who you are without knowing anything about you. I’ve put things out that have made me grieve. But that’s the life of an artist.
AL: I find it amazing how open you are with talking about mental illness and the things you have been through. It’s inspiring. Do you feel you have a responsibility to erase some of those stigmas?
MR: That’s why I do what I do—because of where I’ve been, what I’ve gone through, how I got out of it. I know how hard it is to be there. It becomes much bigger than it really is. I have people write me every day, saying, “I’m going through the hardest time. Can you give me some advice?” I make myself available. I’m not a therapist, but I try to help people through what I’ve learned. If I can affect just one person in a positive way, I’m happy. I don’t need money for that. We live in a world where people are so closed off. People don’t know how to love, how to love themselves.
AL: Did you move to Miami for a change of scene, or for work?
MR: I moved to Miami the day after I broke up with my ex, because I wanted to murder him. But I grew up in Miami. The only way I was going to get over him was to never see him again, so I uprooted my life. But it was the best thing ever.
I’m taking a break from painting, but I’m having my very first solo photo show in January in Miami!
AL: Do people ever interpret your intensity as coming off too strong?
MR: Yeah, but I kind of like it. I’ve learned to love without expectation. I feel so free because of it. I can tell someone I love him/her and I don’t expect to hear it in return. I just want them to know that they are loved. People’s ideas of love are so skewed because of the romance movies and books they read. No. Love is about sharing. It’s not selfish. And when you love yourself 100%, you can love freely.