Texas Tech University

Fine Arts Alumnus Returns to Texas Tech to Debut Unique Exhibit

Heidi Toth

September 22, 2015

(VIDEO) Philip Monaghan worked as a graphic designer and marketing executive before returning to his first love – painting.

Philip Monaghan

Andy Warhol once gifted fellow artist Philip Monaghan with a signed bottle of Marilyn Merlot.

The wine, named for iconic actress Marilyn Monroe, joined her perfume and a signed Marilyn print from Warhol on Monaghan's shelf.

“They were just kind of funny things,” said Monaghan, an alumnus of Texas Tech University who calls Warhol a friend. “He had a very ironic sense of humor.”

Monaghan is full of stories about Warhol, the salons in New York City and Milan and growing up in Houston with its rich artistic history. He does not leave out his alma mater either. He remembers walking into the fine arts program at Texas Tech and being told to forget everything he knew about making art.

“I learned very quickly everything I knew up to that point was being erased and it was time to start completely over,” he said. “We received a really far-ranging kind of approach.  “Everybody I know who has continued in the arts refers back to that period and says it was a very important time in their lives.”

He's made a living first as a graphic designer, an art director and a marketer, crisscrossing the globe, creating imagery for iconic brands and working the arts scene. But he never lost his love of fine art, and when he burned out on the corporate world in the early 2000s, he hearkened back to his roots, opened a studio and started painting again.

Monaghan will return to Lubbock this year with a number of new paintings for the debut of his exhibit “‘Why Are You Doing This To Me?' Philip Monaghan and David Trinidad.”

The show is a collection of original paintings all based on a poem by Trinidad, a well-known poet and longtime friend.

It's a different sort of collaborative experience, both for the artists and the viewers, and one Monaghan hopes sends the message he wants to share.

“I want them to understand the idea of collaboration,” Monaghan said. “I also want them to come away with a sense of the sadness that we find ourselves in when situations in our lives sometimes seem insurmountable. Maybe there is hope of learning from other people's struggles.”

Texas Tech and beyond

Decades removed from his time in the Texas Tech School of Art, three lessons stand out for Monaghan. The first is the need to let go of everything he knew and start over. The second was his need to describe a work of art – his own or someone else's – with some academic acumen.

In Front of Skipper's Hut
"In Front of the Skipper's Hut"

Courtesy: School of Art Alumni

The third taught him what being an artist really meant.

“I learned the concept of what you are working on was more important than the product,” he said. “That was a very big part of discipline – not to fall in love with the work but to fall in love with the process of doing the work.

“The discipline that was instilled in me at Texas Tech is a very big part of my life, and that's a big reason why I wanted to come back and do something there,” he said.

When he finished his master's program at the Pratt Institute in New York City, he found a job as an art director in a boutique agency. While he loved fine art, he said, he needed to eat, so he went corporate.

That job led him to opportunities to work in New York and Milan, Italy, as an art director, then he got a job at Limited Brands, which owned brands like Express, Bath and Body Works and Victoria's Secret. He eventually moved from creative director to vice president of marketing despite having no background in it. He spent the next several years creating brand identities still seen today.

“Someone has to create that imagery, and that someone was me,” he said of these themes. “There was some success in the brands I worked on. I love walking through a mall and seeing work I contributed to 20 years ago still being used.”

About a decade ago, tired of corporate life, Monaghan returned to fine art. He wanted to work in a studio again and create art not for the sake of selling a product but just for its own sake. He traveled, renovated a house and settled on a 30-year-old commission as a way to get back into the art world.

The show

While exploring the 1970s New York art scene, a poet friend, Tim Dlugos, asked Monaghan to create a visual statement of his seminal poem “Gilligan's Island,” which was slated for an exhibit at New York University. He wanted the art to stand alongside the poetry.

Doris Day
"Why Are You Doing This To Me?"

Courtesy: School of Art

Dlugos died of AIDS in 1990, and the show never happened. Monaghan, however, never forgot his friend's request.

“I carried the thought through the years that one day I would like to fulfill that commission,” he said.

He reached out to his friend's estate for permission to use the poem. David Trinidad, the estate's executor, was cooperative and gave Monaghan all the support he needed to make the long-delayed show happen, and in 2011, two decades after his friend's death, 54 paintings that told the story of “Gilligan's Island” debuted at NYU.

The relationship between Trinidad and Monaghan didn't end at that point, however. Trinidad also is a poet who made a name for himself through structured poetry that reflected popular culture. One such example was an entire book of haikus describing every episode of the 1960s TV series “Peyton Place.”

Another of his works is a poem called “The Late Show,” based on late-night movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, which Trinidad watched with his mother. The 46 lines of the poem present scenes from 19 different films in which a woman finds herself in a Hollywood predicament – being a jilted lover, having an alcoholic husband, not having enough money.

The most iconic is a line Doris Day speaks in “Midnight Lace,” when she answers the phone and a voice on the other end tells her he's going to murder her. “Why are you doing this to me?” she cries into the phone, before dropping the receiver and running around the house in a panic – and a negligee.

“It's so campy and so Hollywood, but the interpretation of these circumstances can go deeper, and you understand how horrifying this would be,” Monaghan said.

The poem highlights the nature of victimhood women of this time embodied on the big screen. It also has undertones of what the gay community experienced 50 years ago, including a line from “The Children's Hour,” in which Shirley MacLaine's character confesses her love for Audrey Hepburn's character, which is not reciprocated. At the end of the movie, MacLaine's character killed herself.

“This exhibition affords us an excellent opportunity for cross-disciplinary programming,” said Joe Arredondo, director of landmark arts. “Along with the exhibition of paintings, we will be able to collaborate with the English department in the presentation of poetry reading by David Trinidad and staging a film series of some of the films from David's poem and Philip's paintings.”

As both Trinidad and Monaghan are gay, reflections about the movies they watched with their mothers provided a deeper understanding of the world at large and their place in it. Monaghan attributed at least part of his coming out process to these films. They helped him understand who he was back when being gay wasn't part of normal conversation.

“There is so much hope now, and I hope people will feel some of that as well,” he said.

Monaghan's paintings bring to life the campiness and almost cartoonish angst Trinidad highlights in his poems, along with the courage of these early feminists who weren't always seen as feminists.

Being a Red Raider

Although “‘Why Are You Doing This To Me?' Philip Monaghan and David Trinidad” will be exhibited in New York City in 2016 and other cities the following year, it's debuting at Texas Tech. Although the South Plains Mall was part of his marketing route, this will be the first time since he graduated that Monaghan's works of art will be on display at his alma mater.

It started with Carol Edwards, former dean of the College of Visual & Performing Arts. When she went to New York City, Edwards looked up alumni and visited them. Through her, Monaghan met dozens of other Red Raiders who'd moved to New York to be part of the art world. One of those is Grant Billingsley, who earned his master's degree of fine arts at Texas Tech and now assists Monaghan in his studio.

 “I never dreamed there were so many people from Texas Tech in New York,” Monaghan said. “We Texas Tech people have to stick together when we get out into the world.”

The exhibition will be in the Landmark Gallery at the School of Art from Oct. 2 to Dec. 13, and Monaghan and Trinidad both will attend an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Oct. 3.