Armando Muñoz Garcia needed money. “La Mona,” his famed 58-foot, habitable concrete sculpture of a nude woman towering over run-down homes and streams of garbage in a Tijuana gully, requires steady maintenance and upkeep. Plus, the self-taught artist needed to fund his newest creation, “Eve of the Sea,” a sculpture of a mermaid sprouting up from a hillside in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.
Perhaps it was the border region’s ubiquitous Bart Simpson coin banks or the plaster surfing monkeys that gave Muñoz the idea. He made a 23-inch mold of “La Mona” (officially titled “Tijuana III Millennium” because she was built in 1990 to mark the third millennium and Tijuana’s 1989 centennial) and began the laborious process of churning the miniatures out en masse, then selling them to tourists for $20 to help fund his larger-scale ventures. He’d leave his workshop with 10 freshly molded sculptures in tow, but by the time he’d driven several miles on pothole-ridden roads to get to the kiln, he’d have only three or four left intact to fire.
“But I just kept doing it,” Muñoz said. “One thing I recognize about myself… when things turn really difficult, I’m comfortable there. When things are really easy, I’m bored.”
That unyielding drive and willingness to take on seemingly absurd challenges is part of what San Diego artist and arts educator Bob Matheny likes about Muñoz.
Early one April morning, Matheny led me to a packed storage room he calls his art vault. He dug through shelves filled with his diverse works of art and soon found a miniature “La Mona.”
“This is one of the first ever made,” said the retired Southwestern College arts professor, holding up a beautifully detailed statuette.
Dozens of modified “La Mona” statues stand on the shelves. There’s a gluttonous version of actress and singer Lillian Russell with a corn cob in her hand and several more stuck to her belly; samba singer Carmen Miranda stands out with a tall headdress made of fruit; and Betty Boop looks dazzling in her red-sequin gown.
Matheny first met Muñoz in 1996, when he tagged along on a trip to Mexico with then-San Diego Union-Tribune staffer Welton Jones. By that time, Muñoz was already receiving worldwide attention for his sculptures. They visited both the mermaid and “La Mona,” and an impressed Matheny went home with a miniature as a souvenir. On a subsequent trip to see Muñoz, Matheny impulsively bought another 25.
“I liked Armando,” Matheny said. “I just wanted to help him economically so he could continue with the mermaid.”
Matheny helped Muñoz buy his own kiln (a loan that Muñoz paid back), and he helped organize a fundraiser in La Jolla, selling the statues for $100. Matheny bought even more and ultimately got an idea for an art project. Together, Matheny and Muñoz decided to transform the statues into famous women, both real and mythical. They titled it “Infamous Babes, Chicks, Dames, Dolls, and/or Statues of Liberty and Freedom,” a humorous, somewhat controversial title that Matheny thinks might have banished the modified statuettes into relative obscurity.
Matheny transformed about 100 of the “Babes,” and Muñoz, busy with the big mermaid, managed to finish just six, including a surrealistic version of French educator Maria Montessori. After about 200 sculptures, the mold finally broke; not one blank has been made since.