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5 Questions with Monica Cioppettini

NEW JERSEY native Monica Cioppettini isn’t your typical painter.

Instead of oil or acrylics, she works in jewelry and other found objects, a passion she’s had from an early age.

Ever dedicated to her work, the SCAD grad student even has a jewelry guy who sets her up with bulk bags of pieces.

We caught up with Cioppettini last week.

1. How did you get started in the work you do?

I’ve always been interested in other people’s stuff. I think it stems all the way back from when I was a kid. My father owns a moving and storage business, so when people don’t pay their bills in storage, we get their stuff. My whole life, they’d have these big garage sales and go through other people’s things. All the furniture in my apartment is from that; I rarely buy new things. We find some strange stuff. We found an entire box of chicken bones individually wrapped in newspaper [laughs].

But I think the jewelry thing started because I have a really big collection of jewelry of my own. I’m obsessed with it. I could tell you where I got everything, what I paid for it. When I got here and started the program, I was doing a lot of collage work and abstract painting. A lot of my collages I adorned with chains or rhinestones and jewelry to accentuate the work. I started collecting the jewelry and realized I needed to push my work a little further in this program. I realized maybe painting with paint isn’t the right way to do it, but using the language of paint with these objects.

I started using clothing at first, and then I found my jewelry guy. His name is Nathan; I met him at the flea market and he gives me a really good deal by the pound. I’m there once a month—I’m a good customer.

2. Why do you think you’re so drawn to other people’s things?

Jewelry is such a personal thing for everybody. It shows your identity to people. That’s what you choose to represent yourself through these things, and people just throw it out. It breaks or the chain breaks and they just don’t care about it anymore. It’s often really expensive, it’s often gifts, it’s often from loved ones—it means something to someone. Just the history of jewelry is so rich. Certain crosses mean something. You’d be blown away by how much religious stuff I find. Rosaries, pendants, crosses, the fish thing—it’s crazy to me.

I am also fascinated by the mix of really cheap stuff I find with the really expensive stuff. I find a lot of gold. Not like chains, but stuff with gold brackets on it. I really should be saving it and cashing that in, but in my head I’m like, I need to glue it with hot glue!

3. What’s your process like for these pieces?

It’s been very much this contrast of these expensive things and these cheap things, and I show that through the materials I use. I won’t buy panels, but I find panels or people give me panels of cheap wood that I use cheap glue to put these expensive things on. I’m speaking more about the [pieces] that are big accumulations. The way those start is they’re usually on a used panel or someone else’s paintings, but a mix of these expensive or inexpensive things on top. Any texture I build up, I use plaster and it gets stuck down with hot glue. You might not know it, but I know where everything is on that motherfucker! It looks like I just poured it, but I’m really careful about where I put it.

The resin cubes, those are just a chance dump. I don’t control those. The liquid moves them around while they’re setting. People often think I do [intentionally set them], and these I don’t care to plan. On the accumulation ones, they do have resin too. Once everything is hot-glued where I like it, I will do a layer of resin on top just to solidify everything, because if it falls it’s going to break. They get really heavy! My newest one is really heavy.

One of the problems I’ve faced with these pieces is that it’s sensory overload. You don’t know where to rest your eyes. That’s something I really was struggling with for a little bit. For one piece, I added chains, so it comes off about six inches from the canvas. That was a really big breakthrough for me. To find that place of rest, there’s no way I could take anything away. I have a really hard time subtracting from my work. I realized that putting the chains gives a breath of relief through an additive process.

4. What was the transition out of painting like?

I was doing a lot of abstract acrylic paintings and a lot of collages. I also like to collect old magazines, so I have a collection of mostly Life Magazine, Playboy, and Good Housekeeping from the 30s to the 80s. I was doing a lot of magazine cutouts and photo transfers, and I was working very small. Not to conform to SCAD, but they love big stuff and they want you to work big. I couldn’t translate it. So I had this idea of, “Alright, you’re in grad school. Do something different. This is the time to experiment.” People will be honest with you if it’s working or not working. My first quarter, I had a professor tell me to stop painting. And you know what? I kind of did stop painting—but I’m still bitter about it [laughs].

5. What's next for you?

I'll be done [with school] around Christmas. I love school, I love the routine of it, the environment. I would like to teach when I'm done. Not right away, but I'd like to do some artist residencies, travel, get my name out there.

My mom put it really well once. “This graduate degree that you’re getting in painting is different than any other graduate degree because you’re basically doing a degree on yourself. It’s all introspection. You’re all really just asking yourself questions you really don’t ever ask yourself and force yourself to recognize.” In this grad program, you learn things about yourself you don’t want to know!