We had the good fortune of connecting with Alexia Mentzel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Alexia, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
My work, whether it be creating or teaching, has been my main focus for many years now. Although the journey has not always been easy, I have found much satisfaction in my work, especially during those celebration seasons when I have had the privilege of seeing the fruits of my labor finally mature and blossom after many hours, days, and nights of hard work and struggle. Even on the difficult days, my work provides me with a sense of purpose and a reason to wake up and try again until I get it right. However, for the past several years, my work consumed my life. This past summer I left my high school teaching job of 6 years. It was a very challenging decision, but I know if I am to ever pursue my goal of one day opening up my own studio, I had to take a leap of faith. My current five year plan is to renovate my barn into a functioning art studio where I can continue to create my own work as well as host various classes, parties, and events for the community. This July, I also found out that I was pregnant with my first child, and since then, my mindset has become much more family-oriented as I prepare to be the best mother I can be for my future child. I do not believe that means neglecting my own dreams in order to fixate on her alone. I believe a great role model lives by example. I want my daughter to see what is possible through hard work and determination. However, I do want my child to also know she is a priority in my life, and I believe making and spending time with her is an important way for me to show her that. This is definitely a transition season for me in many ways, and it has required much more planning time, waiting time, and patience. For years I have stayed very busy with teaching and grad school, and I have linked my identity and worth to my work. This meant that when I failed at meeting the expectations of my administrators, students’ families, or professors, I often felt like a failure, and when I was able to exceed those expectations, I felt validated. I eventually realized that if I kept spinning around the hamster wheel, attempting to meet all of the expectations others had for me, I was going to miss out on some of the visions and desires set on my own heart. And, if I never stopped to take a breath, I might never even recognize what those desires are. Also, I think it has become very apparent over the last several years, especially through social media, that no matter how awesome and inspiring an individual may be, it is simply impossible to make everyone happy. Even the best have haters.
I am grateful for every season of my life; they have been formative and necessary. During this slower transition season, I feel that I am making less work for the sake of seeking balance and quality work and experiences, and that is ok. I had somewhat of an identity crisis at the end of last year, because work was not consuming my life and I felt I was not being as productive, but I now see as this new year begins that I needed that time to regain my sense of stability, identity, and focus toward a future that looks a little different than the past. I believe this has been a reality for many in a post 2020 era. I am now teaching after school private lessons at an Art Academy in Waxahachie, TX called En Route Academy of the Art, and I am loving it! I am also subbing for a couple of local districts during this teacher shortage when I can. No matter what, I believe I will always be a teacher and mentor at heart. I find much fulfillment in sharing my gifts, knowledge, and passions with others. These jobs, with more flexible schedules, have provided me with more time and energy to focus on my future creative work, goals, and renovations, while still making some income to fund those ventures. For the first time in many years, I feel like I have a healthy work/life balance again, and I know it has been good and healthy for me. However, change can also be scary. It has definitely taken some courage and a slow shift in my mindset to make it possible.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
When I began creating paintings as a graduate student four years ago, I was obsessed with the idea of the aura of place. Aura being the pervasive quality of an atmosphere and the sensation it evokes. After my father passed away tragically at our family home, I could no longer visit the property without feeling an overwhelming sense of anguish and loss. An imprint of grievous experience was left and an aura remained. All I could see in that desolate environment that was once my family’s dream home were grays and blues and sorrow. I believe others can connect with that feeling, that feeling when you walk into a certain space and you just feel fear or love, darkness or light, sterileness or whimsy. Memories or associations can be attached to a particular location to invoke that feeling, or the feeling can simply emanate from the colors, light, objects, and sounds that fill that particular space.
So, as you can tell, the ideas that inspired my body of work as a graduate student, originated from a very personal place, which is normal for artists and creators I think. Personal experiences and visions are what initially motivate many of us. However, as my work progressed and I began building and painting large-scale city scenes, my ideas and perspective broadened. As I researched and sought out the opportunity to allow others to critique my work and provide input, I realized that my work was not just about me expressing my own thoughts and ideas; the viewer’s perspective and interpretation had to be accounted for. I began painting urban environments, because the city scenes I encountered in Dallas, especially the Deep Ellum area, always enamored me. I loved everything about my visits to the city- the old buildings, the infrastructure, the mesmerizing high rises, the art, and especially people watching. I think I was particularly drawn to Deep Ellum not only because of the eclectic art and live music, but because something about old, beautiful architecture just speaks to me- the textures, the colors, the erosion and our attempt to restore or revivify what remains. There is a beauty to be found in the decay, and It causes me to think “if these walls could talk.” I use to tell my professors all of the time, “I don’t paint places, I paint settings.” I said this because, to me, the painting was not about the concrete scenes I saw, it was about all of the stories that occurred within that single location by various people over time.
My husband Clint is a Dallas Firefighter and paramedic. When we drive through the city together, he will sometimes point out particular buildings or intersections, and he will have a story to tell about the location. Clint’s stories are what inspired me to paint “The White House” in 2017. He told me about a murder that occurred in a white building I had photographed, and it rattled me. His story cultivated my perspective of the place. However, I also had to recognize that my husband’s story was simply one individual’s memory of a single story retold to the best of his ability after a high stress situation. His fading memories and perceptions of a single moment are simply one facet to the whole truth of the place.
Something I grappled with as an artist painting highly populated and ever-evolving scenes was capturing the whole of what was there as honestly as I could. I attempted to do this by deconstructing the objects and forms I experienced, and reconstructing them onto my surface in order to visually paraphrase what I saw and felt; my attempt was sincere, and I hoped it was effective, but I felt like there were more steps I could take to grow and do better. As I stated before, as my work progressed, my vision expanded from a personal perspective toward a place where I was seeking to grow and understand the experiences and perspectives of others. In 2020, just as I was finishing up graduate school, the coronavirus hit and several politically and socially motivated riots in Dallas and across the country, including the Black Lives Matter Movement, began transforming the face of the city. I was stuck inside watching, reflecting, and creating, trying to wrap my mind around it all, attempting to understand and learn.
In my final graduate school thesis I wrote…” All I am capable of doing is to capture what I see, feel, sense, and know about an environment with the information I have available. This means part of my responsibility as an artist seeking to create an honest portrayal of an ever-evolving setting that diverse individuals have experienced in various ways over time is to research the history of a place and to listen to stories told by a multitude of perspectives and people groups. Yes, my paintings are inevitably personal inferences and interpretations of places in their current or recent state. However, I seek not to present these settings in a biased and depthless manner, but to recreate these environments to the best of my ability in a way that induces curiosity and manifests closer examination and questioning…I am evolving and my work is evolving. A city is a shared environment; my individual perspective is no longer sufficient. I must continue to listen, grow, and consider the voices of others as I work. A city can be a tense and divisive environment, but an honest portrayal can lead to conversations that can initiate reflection, empathy, understanding, and, hopefully, unity. A city is a complex, multifaceted environment and my work is a sincere and open-minded attempt to portray it as such. I do not paint places; I paint settings.”
Now that I have graduated, moved homes, changed jobs, and started a family, my life and focus is evolving as well, which means my work is once again evolving, as it should. For now, since I have temporarily not had a set studio to work in, I have began once again creating smaller, personal pieces. My main focus right now is to transform my new home and future studio into warm, welcome, and productive environments that project all of the most positive auras. It has been an exciting endeavour transitioning from painting images of settings to actually creating my own settings that I can share with my family, loved, ones and hopefully one day soon, my community. It has definitely been an ivigorating process and journey that encourages me to focus not only on what is, but what can be. Everyone needs a meaningful aim to move forward toward, especially during those desert seasons. I’ve had to learn how to perceive my transitional seasons and desert seasons as foundational rather than futile. Below, you can see some of my work, past and present.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
If my friend was from out of state, I would probably take him or her to a really great Mexican food restaurant, like Wild Salsa or Veracruz Cafe, two of my favorites. I’ve eaten Mexican food in other states, and, in my opinion, the food has never been as delectable as it is here in Texas. We are blessed with some amazing food here! If they were not down for Mexican Food, I would ask my husband to smoke us a brisket or deep fry us a ribeye roast. I know there is some really great BBQ in the DFW area, but my husband’s is still my favorite. Sometimes he helps his good friend Derek, another Dallas firefighter and local entrepreneur, smoke various meats for his local catering business, Smoke Showin’ BBQ. The BBQ and southern sides are so good! I would highly recommend. For entertainment, I would prefer to take my friend to see some live, local music. My favorite venue in Dallas is the Majestic. I just think it is so beautiful, and I’ve never been there and not had a great time. There are so many talented and inspiring local musicians in or from this area. Some of my favorite that I have had the privilege of enjoying over the last decade or so are David Ramirez, Sarah Jaffe, Charlie Crockett, and Elaina Kay. Lastly, I would bring them to my home for a bonfire to unwind, catch up, and retell nostalgic stories. As stated before, I truly want my new home and future studio to be settings where positive and meaningful memories are made.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Firstly, I would like to give a shoutout to my husband, Clint Mentzel, who has supported and encouraged me through thick and thin. I graduated with my MFA in December of 2020, and the journey toward that goal was not short or easy. It required a great amount of my time and energy away from home, and he consistently remained my biggest supporter and fan despite the sacrifices. I would also like to thank my grad school professors, mentors, and peers from Texas A&M University in Commerce who pushed me beyond what I knew I was capable of. We grew into a community that challenged and supported each other, and my season with that community was a gift. I would like to thank my students, even the ones who challenged me, because I know being an educator has matured and grown me into a wiser, stronger, much more patient and empathetic human. I must give a shout out to all my family and friends who have continuously supported and encouraged me through various seasons in life, especially the tough ones. I would also like to thank my daughter who I will finally get to meet in April. My desire for you gave me the courage to let go of what no longer needed to hold me back from pursuing the future I desire.
Lastly, I want to give a shout out to a few authors that have inspired me and whose publications have guided me in very practical ways as I pursue my visions for the future. I want to thank Donald Miller, one of my favorite authors. His early books, especially “Blue Like Jazz,” inspired me as I navigated young adulthood and grappled with my faith and values. His most recent books have provided me with even more inspiration as well as some practical tools to use as I begin to dream up and pursue new and exciting entrepreneurial ventures. Gigi Rosenberg’s “The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing” and Matthew Hinsley’s “Creativity to Community: Arts Nonprofit Success One Coffee at a Time.” are educating me on various sensible and realistic ways I can possibly fund my future work and studio. Reading their books have made me feel much more empowered as I step into new and unfamiliar territory that can sometimes seem daunting, especially for an individual who is used to a 9-5 job controlling their routines and schedule and ensuring ther financial stability. Watching others take risks can be so encouraging and inspiring, but actually stepping out in faith yourself can be terrifying. What is known can be safe and comforting, even if it is unhealthy or holds you back from an even greater possibilities. It makes me think of that quote, “Good is the enemy of great,” but then I think Voltaire stated, “The best (or perfection) is the enemy of the good.” I think there has to be a healthy balance. I want to be brave, but I want to be smart about it as well. I believe resources like these are helping me to pursue just that. It is exciting.
The photo of me holding my belly was taken by my husband, Clint Mentzel. The photo of me next to my student, Madison, was taken by her mother, Christie Lee, at En Route Academy of the Art’s 2021 Winter Showcase.