Mona Superhero is a case study in up-by-the-bootstraps success. The duct-tape artist was born in Abilene, Texas, raised in Austin and made a living as a stripper in Portland before turning to art full-time. Without formal training or the benefit of gallery representation, she's landed high-profile commissions, is the staff artist for Voodoo Doughnut and has kicked a drinking problem that threatened to derail her career. Scrappy yet sophisticated, she's an artist with moxie to burn.
It was back in the early 2000s that she first came to duct-tape art. She was dancing at clubs around Portland, billed as "Miss Mona Superhero." (The name, which she has tattooed across her fingers, "is a better fit than some of the other colorful things people have called me," she says, declining to go into much more detail.) One day, while at a hardware store, she thought to splice, dice and layer multi-colored duct tapes into sprawling, neo-surrealist tableaux. The pieces were, and still are, a potpourri of influences: advertising and the graphic arts, the pagan religions of the Caribbean and, above all, album covers and porn from the 1970s. The imagery is sexy, compositionally dense and chromatically bold.
Superhero eventually quit the night job and started making art full-time, exhibiting at spaces like Gallery 500, Berbati's Pan and coffee shops. It's notable—and more than a little damning of Portland's sometimes shortsighted gallery culture—that, like prominent local artists such as Bruce Conkle, Jacqueline Ehlis and Damien Gilley, she isn't represented by a Portland gallery, even though her work, like theirs, is exhibited far beyond the Northwest.
"To be honest, being represented by a gallery has not been my priority," says Superhero, who still has a mix of Southern swagger and sweetness beneath her inked-up, punk-rock style. "I received some attention for my early work, but it felt undeserved and uncomfortable. I felt I needed time to accrue experience and refine my technique."
Which is exactly what she's done. At 44, she's now the in-house muralist for Voodoo Doughnut. Her large-scale pieces for Voodoo's Eugene and Denver locations—each a whopping 8-by-16-feet—are the largest commissions she's ever done and took months to complete. Her Northeast Portland studio is piled high with raccoon-sized wads of wadded-up tapes and the X-ACTO blades she uses to sculpt them into dazzling relief. The studio is also littered with empty Coca-Cola cans, evidence of her caffeine-fueled creative sprees. And while her images still incorporate skulls, snakes, bogeymen and devils, she has banished her greatest personal demon: booze.
"I was continually dealing with wreckage in my personal life from my alcoholism," she says. "There were times when drinking sabotaged my career and professional relationships, and it probably compromised my work more than I would like to admit."
In sobriety she says she's found no recipe for holistic happiness, but rather a path toward greater personal and artistic authenticity. "It's led to even more questions, unpleasant truths and uncomfortable feelings," she says. "But it's preferable to the alternative."
Superhero's latest work is technically and thematically her tightest ever. Her most recent show was in August at Side Door Cafe, and she has a Bill Murray-themed show coming up in November at Good: A Gallery. She's also begun making prints, cellphone cases and stationery, which she sells on Etsy. It gives collectors a more affordable alternative to her duct-tape work. (Prints range from $10 to $35; duct-tape pieces average $800.)