Costa Rican-born and Mexico-based designer, illustrator, and digital artist Monfa builds charming, child-like worlds from basic geometric shapes. His series of works illustrating remote, worn, and sometimes seemingly uninhabitable habitats, Monfa creates a lore without clearly drawn characters. In these pieces, the characters are implied by the place they live the same way footprints imply a certain species was here.
A sense of mystery and wonder pervades his body of work, whether it be peopled or un-. An astronaut fishing off a cliff. A floating lamppost. A humanoid 808 drum machine. A world-touring cardboard box named Henry.
“The subjects of my drawings are many, but I think I can summarize them as fantastic and almost real places, borrowed memories and almost forgotten dreams.” — Monfa
MP: I read that you only started seriously pursuing art and design after your son, Santiago (aka Santy), was born. Can you tell me about that decision?
When my son was born, I made contact with my childish side, and it was like an explosion of inspiration that gave me new ideas every day. It allowed me to focus on sincere themes that I’d ignored and forgotten. In the beginning, I thought I should look for external themes that were “saleable,” when in reality everything was inside me.
Clearly, it is difficult to see a children’s theme in my work because, like my son, my approach has changed, but the key that I have maintained is to allow myself to see the world from a simple perspective, like a child admiring the world for the first time, like when my son came into the world
From that moment, when he was a few months old, I realized that I had to give more of me in all aspects and that art was the right way to demonstrate my abilities. I do not consider myself someone who was born with talent. I formed my talent based on effort and extra work.
During that time, I had an office job far from my house, and it was heavy days, but even so, I decided that I had to give it my all and more, and every morning, I got up at 3:00 am to draw a few hours before going to work.
I was very clear about my goal: I wanted to be an artist, not for fame or money but for having the passion for doing something and teaching my son that if you do something you like, you will be happy with yourself.
MP: Can you explain your obsession with habitats?
I think the day I find the answer to that question will be the day I stop drawing habitable structures. There is a certain need to feel comfortable with a subject or technique in order to explore other areas, be it artistic exploration or pushing boundaries further.
Habitable structures are a childhood memory. In fact, the way I draw houses is the same way I drew houses as a child from simple geometric shapes. Now, after going through different techniques, schools of art, and academia, I have taken up the theme as an instrument to tell stories, incomplete stories that need to be completed by the audience.
The Habitats are postcards of those stories that I don’t dare to tell but try to sneak into the mind as a memory; it’s like telling a story without telling it.
Many times I have tried to get away and draw other things, but I feel that I have not finished exploring those faraway places yet. Even when the theme seems post-apocalyptic and they look like the remains of civilizations, they are just isolated objects from the rest of the noise of the world. Like when you travel by train, and you see a detail in the landscape and it remains engraved in your head, floating isolated from the rest of the things around it. A memory, a persistent fixed idea. It could be anything else, but in this case, living spaces comfort me, they make me feel at home.
MP: Henry the Box strikes me as a challenge to readers (presumably children) to wake up their imaginations instead of letting a storyteller do all the talking. Can you tell me about the inception of this project? Is it complete?
Henry the Box. Thanks for bringing that to mind again. In addition to drawing, I write tales and stories, which I have never published and that only my son or my wife know, but from time to time I share them with the world but only as images.
Henry was a personal experiment, a personal challenge to tell a story with as few elements as possible, to tell stories of fantastic places without saying a word, and having a simple box as a personal character.
During the creation of Henry the Box, I was looking for precisely that, that the young readers would use their imagination to complete the story of how a box had reached a forest, the arctic, or Mars. It was a small project that ended very soon, but he will always have many possibilities to return and explore new places, he has even been to the beach and the top of a mountain.
MP: Your work has a storybook quality to it — can you speak the narrative side of your process?
All my works are stories, short stories and chapters of a great novel that has not been written with letters but with images or landscapes.
When I draw, I need to think about the story behind it, to justify why an element is in that place or why there is a light on in what seems to be an abandoned house in an inaccessible place. Sometimes they are stories that come from long ago and other times they are written while I draw. As if you saw the scene of a great castle and a dragon flying over it, you could imagine an epic with knights and princesses, but in my case they are just small houses where ordinary people who have lived many stories live (or not).
MP: What’s the story behind Astro and his adventures?
I always wanted to be an astronaut. Since I was little, it was my dream and my goal to reach space and see the majesty of the universe. But little by little that dream seemed distant and my shredded notebooks full of drawings and my bad grades in math were a clear indicator. But I never let go of the idea, and even though I couldn’t physically go into space, at least I would let my mind and imagination travel far into deep space and distant worlds.
Astro appeared for the first time back in 2010 when I drew the silhouette of an astronaut on my first business cards when I was a freelance designer. Then I kept drawing the astronaut in different places and in different situations. Astro is a self-portrait of my dreams that I did achieve, at least in my imagination.
MP: There’s something about your work that feels like there are Gabriel Garcia Marquez-sized stories contained in each one — for instance, Citabria, Coast Town of the East. You describe Citabria as “a large network of tunnels [that] are home to the Cibaritas.” Is there more to Citabria to come?
That story has always been there. I have told it in parts for many years: planets, landscapes, characters, and descriptions are there scattered throughout many works. Citabria is the place where the heroine of this story emerges: ANIMA, who, from a small coastal town, manages to prevail and save not only her town but what remains of humanity on a distant planet far from the lost Earth.
It’s a work of science fiction that I have been writing since I was a teenager and that one day maybe I will finish and share in a more orderly way. Meanwhile, there are many places, corners and characters that will continue to be shown in landscapes and settings. Science fiction written by a Latin guy, I don’t think it’s possible to avoid feeling tropicalized and therefore I try to keep that magic and realism.
MP: If you could teach the world about one tiny corner of the totality of your artistic influences, what would you turn them on to?
My influence is a wide mix of genres, artists and everyday life. From great artists like Vincent van Gogh, Picasso or the small artists from my country Costa Rica who drew typical houses in idyllic landscapes, or the influence of modern illustrators or comic artists, or unknown artists who sell their art on the street.
I studied fine arts and although I did my homework in art history, I think that beyond the names, the images that were recorded in my head are the source of my inspiration, but for that you have to see a lot of art and know how the artists have managed to find a way to express themselves.
You can see a Renaissance painting by an unknown painter and find your inspiration and influence there or you can be a famous and current artist and appreciate the way he resolved an interpretation. You learn more about an artist by appreciating how he draws a line than by reading a biography.
MP: What’s your advice to artists just now entering the space?
Share yourself with the world. Be sincere and loyal to what you are passionate about. Learn to draw a line between yourself and the outside world but not as a barrier that does not allow anything to come in or out, but rather filters and feeds on the world to seek inspiration.
The art world is not made to be a millionaire or a business, that’s just a secondary factor that is appreciated even when the gain is just a Like. Art is a path, a personal process that seeks an objective of improvement and a challenge to create, each work is part of that process, and that is why the path must be enjoyed without waiting to reach a destination. Art will always be an unfinished process.
Entering the NFT world is an excellent opportunity to make yourself known but mainly a reason to create and a platform to share your art and reach that person on the other side of the world who has been waiting for that representation of that feeling.