|Sculptor Chris Menconi
Tucked away in his studio, behind his non-descript house in an upscale suburb of New Orleans, Chris Menconi is quietly fulfilling a mission. "The world needs more camp, kitsch and corniness," he said. "I'm fulfilling that need."
As his rich, buttoned-up, predominantly white Republican neighbors go to and from their jobs as futures traders, attorneys and car salesmen, Menconi whiles away the hours in Hawaiian shirts and hurachi sandals, methodically shaping clay into paws, penises and miscellaneous puppy parts.
The fruits of his labors are life-sized canine sculptures that range from whimsical to outrageous, not-necessarily anatomically correct, but decidedly entertaining.
Shown in about 20 galleries nationwide, and coveted equally by both the glamorous and the mundane, Menconi's canine sculptures smoke cigars, drink martinis, leer lasciviously, and generally entertain animal and art lovers through their incredibly human foibles.
Like stereotypical super heroes, Menconi is quiet, mild-mannered and not a face one would necessarily pick out of a crowd. However, it is a bit telling, perhaps, that he drives an orange car, takes great pleasure in having his sculptures do all sorts of naughty things and displays a huge collection of bobble-head dogs in his living room.
Walking through his home (the path to the studio) on any given day, one is greeted by sculpted dogs of every breed and size - welcoming, beckoning, watching - from atop shelves, an ironing board, windowsills, kitchen counters and virtually every nook and cranny. For 10 years the artist has lived in the same house, which he bought specifically for the 2,000-square-foot studio in the rear.
Faye, his WireHair Fox Terrier, leads the way, jumping and begging for attention. She exhibits no regard for the clay canines, but is completely focused on her human companions. "Faye has never really thought about my dogs," Menconi said. "She used to bite off their noses, but doesn't do that now."
Menconi said he looked for a dog with a short tail so she wouldn't knock things off of the shelves in the studio. He's always had small dogs because he likes to have them sit in his lap. "You can adjust them in the bed, too," he said.
Menconi, like most dog companions, doesn't "see" himself in Faye, except "when her hair is long and messy," he said. Menconi's dark curly hair seems to have a mind of its own, but, since it doesn't interfere with his work, the artist seems to co-exist with it peacefully.
Upon entering the studio, Faye gives up the comfort of her favorite perch (a rollaway office chair) to the visitor, in exchange for petting and scratching. "She's frustrated that she can't talk," Menconi said.
And what would she say to the rows of canine parts and pieces spread on every surface in the studio? Assistant Elaine Orr stands painting a huge tray of Dachshund hindquarters. The occasional chicken or bird, Menconi's latest diversion, breaks up the sea of dog parts.
Sometimes, he dabbles in different species, something he thinks the public will enjoy, but he always comes back to his first love, dogs. "I've done cats, but they always wind up looking like dogs," he explained. "Chickens sell, but they are so labor intensive because each feather is put on separately, and I have to charge so much."
The studio is quiet, very quiet. Menconi doesn't talk much unless prompted. "Usually, we listen to books on tape because it's like reading and it gives us something to talk about," he said. The cur
ent selection is Jimmy Buffet's "A Salty Piece of Land," which is on hold until after the visitor leaves.
Menconi has known he was going to be an artist "since I was in the single digits," he said. "When I was a little kid, I used to paint pumpkins. A lady who drove the carpool said, 'Paint one like me.' So I did it with curlers in her hair because that's how I always saw her."
He never does owners and their pets because people don't seem to lend as much artistic license with themselves that they do with their dogs. And the strength of Menconi's sculptures is in the faces. "You can forget a tail as long as the face is good," he said. His works are definitely caricatures, personifications. "I'll see an Elvis movie, and a dog comes out looking like Elvis, or I'll watch The Honeymooners and one will come out looking like Jackie Gleason," he said.
One of his greatest enjoyments is when he recognizes someone he knows in the face of one of his sculptures. "I have a cousin who comes up now and again," he said.
A New Orleans native, Menconi majored in art at Southeastern Louisiana University. He graduated in 1986 with a penchant for sculpture and ceramics and began making animal jewelry. "I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I couldn't spell," he said. "I couldn't even spell veterinarian."
While watching the Westminster Dog Show on television, Menconi was inspired to make his first life-size dog sculptures. Initially, he made individual pieces for commission but after a sculpting demonstration at the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1989, the orders started pouring in.
"I had some of my pins at the Rhino Gallery and the owner, Sandra Blair, was also the Jazz Fest visual arts coordinator," Menconi recalled. "I wanted to demonstrate because that's how you got a free booth at the time."
He's demonstrated and shown his work every year since, and the exposure has basically earned him a reputation with collectors and galleries nationwide. "I'm lucky because usually gallery owners chase me," he said. "I'm happy to make my living doing something I like. I think it's humorous, and art can be humorous. What makes you smile more than a dog?"
Although his work is definitely not "serious," Menconi has a cadre of hard-core devotees. Kristin Taulli, director of Gallery Rinard in the French Quarter has been collecting his work for nine years and began showing it in the gallery four years ago. "When we started carrying it, I said, 'This will be easy,'" Taulli said. "He captures that human, funny side that we see in our animals."
Taulli said the gallery is frequented by collectors from around the world who have as many as 15 to 30 pieces of Menconi's work. "We put them in pet box carriers and they take them on the plane and people think they're real dogs," she said. "They say things like, 'Yeah they stopped barking hours ago. I don't know why.'"
Collectors of Menconi's work are definitely a breed apart. In addition to high-profile purchasers like Barry Manilow, Louis Farakkhan and Mariah Carey, Menconi's work appeals to all sorts of people. "I get several requests a month from people who want a sculpture that looks like their pet," he said. And, for some reason, Pug people really like his work. "People who have Pugs really buy a lot of Pug stuff," he said.
Menconi has made a lot of sculptures in the likeness of a deceased companion, some with long necks, so the owner can don collars, and others that may be used as urns.
"The most unusual thing I've ever done is when a guy brought in a freeze-dried miniature Doberman Pincher," he said. "It was falling apart so I had to make him a dog as fast as I could."
He makes sculptures from photographs and has visitors to the studio for posings. "The saddest is definitely when I do past dogs because they will tell you the story of the dog dying," Menconi said. He related a story a woman told him about her beloved Chihuahua. "She was on a highway in Alaska and she stops the car so the Chihuahua can do his business. All of a sudden, she sees this big shadow looming overhead. An eagle swooped down, and her dog was bird food. She said she could never look at the national emblem the same."
He no longer does the dog show circuit because those people seem to want everything anatomically correct. "I don't want to worry if they only have three toes on one foot," Menconi said.
These days, he does ask people ordering sculptures of their male canines if the subject to be eternalized in clay is still intact. "I have to ask them if they want testicles or not," he said.
And people ask for enhancements of every kind. "I had one woman that asked for braces because her daughter has braces," he said. "It was a Fox Terrier with braces."
Menconi has made dogs holding up fingers in the peace sign, dogs flipping people off, dogs with blinking lights in their penises, dogs playing cards and dogs wearing crowns. "I made a lamp with a human leg and a dog humping it, and I came up with a Boston Terrier one time that looked like Bill Clinton. He had big lips and a proud stare."
He is forever trying to entertain, and each of his one-of-a-kind creations has a unique expression. "My eyes are the last thing I make," Menconi said. "I glaze them and the rest is dull (matte finish), so they just kind of pop out at you."
Sometimes Menconi thinks he'll take up painting, probably watercolors, but for now, he is happy tucked away amongst his canine companions, shaping the clay and listening to books on cassette. "It is pretty much a perfect world," he said. "Most days, Faye agrees."