Pioneer Spotlight: Monica Ahanonu
As you may know, at P.MAI we continue to feature “role models” rather than “fashion models.” Monica Ahanonu is no exception. It’s hard not to develop a girl-crush on Monica, the LA-based animator for Dreamworks. Her unique style is enviable, and her playful outlook on life is a reminder us all to make time for what’s important. We were thrilled to work with her on a shoot and sat down with her to learn more about where her talents came from and what’s next.
1. Tell us a little about yourself—where you grew up (family, environment) and how that helped shape who you are.
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Very grateful that I grew up in a smaller city which forced me to be creative to entertain myself. I have three siblings: two brothers and one sister. My sister is the oldest, then my older brother, then me and then my younger brother. My mom is very creative and I don’t think I realized how creative she is until I got older and began to question where my creative mindset came from. I definitely feel that my mom was a big influence in my creativity and staying a creative throughout my life. She was creative in the way that she would improvise and create new dishes for us kids such as making her own popsicles for us. When I was having trouble with my outfit, had to dress up for school, or struggled with a science project, she was always incredibly creative and helped me pull something together for whatever project or birthday party I was attending.
My dad built computers and had his own computer business throughout my childhood. I became very knowledgeable about computers, problem solving technical issues and learning many computer programs at a young age. Another part of my childhood that shaped who I am was my competitive gymnastics career. 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 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. What kind of career goals did you have growing up? How did they evolve? Did you always wanted to study art?
I wanted to be a photographer for many years. I also wanted to star in my own TV show and would often take my parents’ video camera to record myself. I would write the scripts and plan the locations around our house or neighborhood. I will admit, I did fake being sick a few times when I was in elementary school and middle school so that I could stay home and record my TV shows. It was quite a thing— I still can’t believe I did that.
My interests evolved towards animation when I got into graphic design and taught myself how to use Photoshop so I could build fan sites for various Disney actresses I was obsessed with. During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I had surgery on both of my feet. I had to sit around for 2 months while I was in a wheelchair. So during this time, I taught myself how to animate gymnastics routines since I wasn’t able to do them physically during that time. These were my first attempts at animation and I grew more proficient in Photoshop and Premiere.
3. What has been one of your biggest career challenges? How did you overcome it?
My biggest career challenges so far have been making the leap from being on the production side of the animation industry to the artistic side. Another career challenge I have been trying to keep on top of is seeing myself as a real person that is no longer in school. I did so many internships in school and am so used to being told what is right and wrong and that I often forget that I have control over a lot of the artistic decisions I am making while I am at work or doing freelance. I’ve gotten a lot better, but it is something I had to get used to when I was first hired as a full-time artist at DreamWorks Animation. Other than that, I am still working on a lot of career challenges of figuring out where my personal artistic style fits best and what I am going to do with it as I move forward.
4. Your animated work is phenomenal and we’ve been girl-crushing on your style. Where do you go for inspiration to keep ideas fresh?
I look at fashion a lot for inspiration whether from Pinterest, in the books I have at my apartment or on Instagram. If I see a pair of shoes that I think are super odd or interesting in the way they are designed, I may try to do an outfit based on some element from those shoes that stood out to me.
I often let my mind wander and daydream. I will look at an object around me and imagine it in a direction that would seem unnatural or odd such as, “What if this was the silhouette of a shoe, what would the shoe look like? How would someone be able to walk in a shoe that had such a silhouette?” Or “What if this silhouette was a face, or someone’s body, etc.” then see where it takes me.
I might ask myself what if a common object was a different color or texture. Sometimes I create a challenge where I try to design something seemingly unrecognizable by altering some of its details but leave enough clues so people can still able to figure it out. I definitely get a lot of ideas and inspiration from day dreaming and the dreams I have at night.
“A lot of my style is from intuition and working on things and playing with shapes and colors until they feel balanced or satisfy something inside of me that I really can’t fully pinpoint.”
5. Are there lessons or principles from art/design that you apply to your everyday life?
Being creative in the way that I dress, the way that I live my life and by not living a monotonous life, living it in color with variety, designing my days, designing a workout routine, staying curious about the world around me and the people I come in contact with. I don’t really like to wear the same thing twice because it gives me a challenge in the morning, forcing me to be creative and play with color, composition and silhouette which I love.
6. What are some of your favorite places to eat in Los Angeles? To shop? To learn?
SHOP: Wasteland, Crossroads, Rosebowl Flea Market, Fairfax Flea Market, Owl Talk
EAT: Umami burger, Nobu in malibu, Ysabel, Sugarfish, I recently got into ramen - there are some good places in the Sawtelle area of LA - then of course Din Tai Fung and Milk Jar Cookies are great as well.
LEARN: The Broad or any of the museums around town, Wacko’s in Silverlake has a lot of fun stuff, Gallery Nucleus has great art shows/exhibits. I also learn from those I meet at various activities around town; I am part of a small group for young professionals and entrepreneurs and learn a lot during the dinners we have each month.
7. What are you most excited about this year?
New opportunities, change, exploring and collaborating, continuing to expand my personal artwork and discover new areas that I am able to mix it with. Travel - I plan to go to Tokyo this year with my brother and possibly Cape Town as well. I am excited for new visuals and inspiration I can gather to create new art and perhaps take my style in a new direction!
8. Finally: How do you carry on beautifully? (This is our motto and can be interpreted in different ways.)
I carry on beautifully by continuing to make sure that I am happy and excited about life. If I am in a rut, then I work towards fixing it by exercising, which helps me clear my mind and allows me to be creative again. It’s also important to allow myself to play! I feel we forget to do so once we get older.