About A Girl: Monica Ahanonu
It didn't take long for us to develop a slight obsession with this Los Angeles based DreamWorks animation artist and style guru. Monica Ahanonu demands our attention in the softest and most humble of ways. From her impeccable street style to her beautiful unique animation work, we can't seem to take our eyes off her. A life full of colors, shapes, and patterns, we knew we had to dive a little deeper and see the world through her eyes. After sitting down to speak with Monica we left feeling refreshed and inspired by her story. This little starlet is on the rise, she's going places, and she doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and where you are from?
I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. I did competitive gymnastics throughout my childhood up until my Junior year of high school. I had to stop because my parents felt I had too many injuries (which I did) although at the time I didn't think so. I have two brothers and one sister. My sister is the oldest, then my older brother, then me and then my younger brother. I was a very active child because of my intense gymnastics schedule / natural crazy energy as well as a creative child. At the time I didn't realize that, but looking back I was always making calendars or brochures or cards for friends on the computer. I loved taking photos, making up dances, writing my own TV scripts and then filming my own TV shows with our video camera, or drawing my own magazines.
2. Did you study art? How did art become a part of your life?
I studied Animation & Digital Arts at USC's School of Cinematic Arts - I hadn't taken any art classes in high school, but I applied to the program using some of the work I had done in my free time outside of school. I liked photography and took endless photos growing up. I built my first website when I was in middle school because I wanted to create a website for party planning (never shared it with anyone but I just enjoyed putting the concept together I suppose). In middle school I was obsessed with a lot of disney channel stars, so I made a few fan websites which taught me how to use some other web design programs as well as minor things in Adobe Photoshop. But I think art and design became a larger part of my life the summer between middle school and high school. I had surgery on both of my feet that summer and was in a wheelchair for about two months. It was a drastic change going from 4-5 hours of gymnastics a day to zero. To occupy my mind and use my energy, I started playing around on the computer and teaching myself how to edit some of the photos I had taken. That summer is when I really became proficient in Adobe Photoshop and made some of my first attempts at animation. I would animate gymnastics routines - since I couldn't physically do them - and go through photoshop tutorials to match a vision I had I my head for my fan site, or just adjust a photo to something I had seen on TV. Throughout the remainder of high school I continued doing designs in photoshop and simple animations of gymnastics routines when I had free time.
3. Did you draw inside the lines?
I don't remember if I drew inside the lines as a child, but I in some ways I drew outside of the lines when we were asked to create our senior thesis at USC. I didn't want to do a narrative piece although that was the norm for those graduating from the program. Somehow though, I managed to get the approval from my professors to create a commercial type animated piece combining my passions of motion graphics, color and the Olympics. I really wanted to get people excited for the upcoming event and show the distinct movements that athletes are required to perform and perfect to succeed in their chosen Olympic sport. So in that way perhaps! You could say.
4. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as an artist, and how that eventually lead you to a job at DreamWorks?
One thing I've always done since I was very young is follow my interests at the given moment despite the many risks or challenges. The first step that got me to DreamWorks Animation was landing an internship. If I hadn't explored my many random interests throughout my first year of college and in high school such as - playing around with various computer programs, creating cards and small advertisements in my free time, joining a few clubs around campus, interning at an advertising magazine and working some other service type jobs at USC - I wouldn't have been fit for the my internship position. Those experiences are what qualified me for the internship position and as I was doing these various things, I had no clue where they would lead me but simply just enjoyed the various experiences. My first internship at DreamWorks Animation wasn't entirely artistic but more of a combination of my various skills, experiences and knowledge. Throughout my time as an intern I met with a lot of the full-time artists and production team members to find out what I would really enjoy doing as my everyday job at the studio. I had fallen in love with the company culture and campus and was determined to get a job there. One of my mentors, Christophe Lautrette, (I really thank him a lot because I don't know where I'd be currently without his guidance and exposure to the craft), really helped me to develop my artistic style by encouraging me to explore and create things that I liked rather than what I felt was necessary to get a job. By doing this, I began to understand what was in my head solely and how I liked my designs to looked finished which in the end became my style - as it was clear to others looking at pieces I had created that it was my personal design taste coming out in the art. After graduating from USC, I worked as a Production Assistant at DreamWorks Animation because I also had a strong interest in being a Creative Producer. Throughout my time as a PA, I spent a lot of hours outside of work developing my art further and learning from the artists at the company to get myself to a level that would allow me to work professionally at the studio. Creating small assignments and deadlines based on what I learned from the artists at the studio throughout my time as a PA allowed me to smoothly transition into an artist position when one opened up. Towards the end of July 2015, I started my first day as an artist at DreamWorks Animation.
5. Who are some of your design heroes?
Ah so many people but to name a few - and I'm sure I will forget some names since I am such a visual person but - I love Eyvind Earle, Maurice Noble, Charley Harper, Lou Romano, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Robert Valley, Ramone / Chris Zibach, Devin Crane, Donald "Drawbertson" Robertson, Kevin Dart, Max Boas, Christophe Lautrette, Ryo Takemasa. I find a lot of inspiration on Pinterest and Instagram these days.
5. Do you have any creative patterns, rituals, or routines?
I don't really have any creative routines, usually I will see something and I'll be inspired by the lighting or the composition or simplicity of something. I'll notice the colors or the pattern combination and will want to explore or create my own take on it. When I am creating a piece I always start by designing the silhouette and the largest shapes then get smaller and smaller with shapes to show more detail. But usually my goal is always to use the least amount of shapes to show what I need to show or am hoping to show in the piece. Often if I am working on a piece and I am not liking the direction it is going it will be because the silhouette is off or the values are off, so I will usually turn the photo black and white - or remove any small details/textures and return to the simple silhouette and it will help me figure out what isn't working. I do like repetition I noticed in terms of patterns. I also like to explore using different colors together that I wouldn't normally combine and then try to make them work together. For some reason, when I make two colors work together that aren't usually seen together I get a weird satisfaction and excitement. I feel insanely accomplished - then I usually look around the room to nod my head at someone who agrees but quickly realize I am alone in my apartment.
6. We love that your own personal style is also reflected in your work. Who/what are some of your greatest inspirations for your own personal style?
My personal style really developed out of me not knowing how to draw very well when I was first starting out. Since I hadn't taken any art classes in high school I struggled with showing what I wanted to show or draw because I physically couldn't draw it. I also am usually in a hurry when doing my work or trying to finish it as quickly as possible. So many times I start by thinking about a art piece for awhile and simplifying it in my head then I will lay down lines or shapes one by one until I can see the image or I know that an outsider viewing the piece will be able to understand the visual. I definitely learned a lot about design and composition from the design classes I took at USC.
8. How has living in Los Angeles influenced your street style?
Living in LA has exposed me to a lot of loud styles and colorful styles that have inspired me to introduce more color into my wardrobe. I used to be someone who would really only buy black clothing and wear very neutral colors. But a good friend and mentor at DreamWorks Animation urged me to explore color with my clothing since I love color so much, and use a lot of color in my art. My style also developed a lot when I was a PA and working in positions that didn't allow me to be very creative. I would get my creative energy out in the mornings by basically playing dress up and trying to create a new outfit with the pattern and colored clothes in my closet. I don't really wear the same combination of clothing twice - it creates a challenge in the morning- an exciting problem solving challenge that allows me to play with color, pattern, design, and silhouette. Another thing I am grateful for about LA and my style is that you can basically dress up as much as you want everyday and people won't question why you are dressed up because the entertainment industry is full of so many creative people - nothing is entirely out of the ordinary rather just labeled as "creative".
9. What is your favorite thing about living in L.A.?
Favorite thing about living in LA is that there are so many places to explore. Every week I discover a place or activity in this city that I hadn't heard of which keeps me away from a monotonous life. I love that you can basically cater to whatever mood you are in each day because of the many cities that overlap - each having it's own personality and energy.
10. What are some of your favorite places in L.A. ?
Food: Din Tai Fung, Nobu in Malibu, Umami Burger
Dancing Bars: The Den on Sunset, Warwick, Bar Lubitsch, Harlowe
Fitness: Prevail Boxing, One Down Dog Yoga (I love their hot yoga class), Metamorphosis Pilates in Pasadena is great as well.
Shopping: Rosebowl Flea Market, Long Beach Flea Market, Wasteland, American Vintage, Owl Talk (Vintage Store in Eagle Rock), Jbrand Factory Outlet (but I think it's closed now), Instagram allows you to find a lot of great vintage/thrft stores in LA as well.
Art: Gallery Nucleus has a lot of great gallery shows as well as Center Stage Gallery in Burbank, Wacko is a great bookstore in East Hollywood
11. What are your plans for the future?
Continue working at DreamWorks Animation as well as make a name for myself as a fashion illustrator outside of the work I am already doing. Possibly get into the world of styling for photo shoots since I love dressing people up and mixing/matching clothing. I would love to collaborate with some online magazines with my art while still working my job at DreamWorks because I really enjoy my team / position there and the company culture but definitely have separate interests that I want to continue exploring.
12. What advice do you have for someone who wants to explore their creative side but isn't sure how to?
I would say be open to creativity in various forms and try out as many things as you like until something sticks. If you are too focused on one type of creativity/art and maybe it isn't for you but you keep forcing it then don't stress about it, try something else. Try cooking, playing dress up, dressing someone else up, writing, dancing, making up a dance, reorganizing your room or apartment or a friends apartment, adding designs to your nails, making your own jewelry, knitting - I feel like so much creativity comes from putting yourself outside of your comfort zone and then then living through the discomfort or going so crazy that you can't force anything and your natural creativity whatever it is comes out. Hope that makes some sense!