When I transferred to Warren Wilson College as a junior I was assigned a room with Lesley Numbers, who is a printmaker. Ever since that first afternoon we spent together, unpacking our belongings, Lesley has connected me with inspiring people—musicians, organizers, and artists. These creators span disciplines, countries, and time periods, but they tend to share a common belief: that art has the power to bring people together and to create change.
When she heard about Two Create, Lesley suggested that I reach out to Nina and Sonya Montenegro. Nina and Sonya are sisters, housemates, and partners in both creation and business. They live together on a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Their collaboration is called The Far Woods and together they make illustrated posters, quilts, printed cards, mobiles, and much more. Their work is stunning—simple, sweet, profound, and grounded in their ethics as artists and human beings.
The relationship that Nina and Sonya describe is a true collaboration. They are one another’s sounding boards, offering support and critique. But their collaboration doesn’t end with them; it extends to their broader community and the natural world through gardening, workshops, and their commitment to place-based values and work.
Nina and Sonya’s words remind me why Kelly and I are so passionate about this exploration of collaborative work. The lessons we learn through these conversations offer profound opportunities to grow as individuals and communities.
What do you gain from your relationship?
Our relationship is incredibly reciprocal and multi-layered. As sisters, best friends, business partners, and housemates, we offer support to each other in myriad ways. Artistically, we challenge each other to go places we may not have gone individually. We are sounding boards for one another when hammering through an idea. We live on a farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Although we are just 20 minutes into town, we tend to stay on the farm most of the time; the farmwork and animal-tending require it and our creative business is also based from our home. Needless to say it can be difficult to cultivate community. It is an interesting balance we are trying to navigate towards—a self-sufficient home within a supportive community. On the farm, we keep each other company when we have tasks we dislike and if one of us is studying up on how to do something, she often teaches the other. It’s a very enriching relationship that we are forever grateful for.
You work as a team but also as independent creators and artists. How do you decide when to work together and when to work separately?
We sit around with tea and talk about ideas a lot. Any idea that springs up during these brainstorms might become a collaborative project. Or one of us might come up with the idea but we both become excited to do it. More often than not though, ideas that we come up with independently stay "personal projects." Sometimes, we offer these projects under the collective umbrella of The Far Woods. But there are no rules: how we determine what to work on is pretty organic. Really, the driving force is excitement. If we are both excited to create the same thing, we often collaborate on it.
Sonya, we were so excited to see that you have also created a postcard project. Can you describe this idea and where it came from?
I have always loved sending and receiving snail mail. A piece of mail is a little gift—touched, written, made, by a person that has travelled great distances. After college I was working as a waitress in Chicago and searching for my own rhythm & schedule for making art, trying to develop some diligence and keep making art even when I felt uninspired. Somehow I found out about Postcrossing—an online network that facilitates postcard exchange between random strangers all over the world. It works like this: you're given an address of someone somewhere in the world to send a postcard to and when you send it you are then eligible to receive a card from someone else from somewhere else. I decided I would draw my own postcards and this would be the "assignment" I needed on a regular basis to keep my creative juices flowing. It was a really good exercise as an artist to practice letting go of my art and because I didn't hear from the other person on the other end I didn't have the chance to get hung up on what people's response to the art would be (kind of the opposite of Instagram these days).
If we're working on something and we're not really getting along, or it feels like we're forcing it, we usually break and go eat something.
In what ways do conflict or jealousy show up in your relationship?
We try to avoid situations where our individual work is in direct competition. Because we’ve created a collaborative modality of working, we rarely have to face that situation. But we are still independent artists, close in age and sharing interests, so there is alway the potential for a situation like that to arise. But as we get older it has become much easier to be happy for the opportunities that arise for one another. If we’re working on something and we’re not really getting along, or it feels like we are forcing it, we usually break and go eat something. Impatience can often be attributed to “hanger” (hunger + anger).
How do you go about sharing feedback with one another?
We greatly respect each other’s senses of color, composition, detail, and individual perspective on the world. We feel really lucky to have each other as critics. We also know each other so well, as sisters and best friends, sometimes it feels like we are able to offer critique to each other in ways that are especially sensitive. And because we live together, it is very easy to check in on a project and get feedback at multiple points in it’s creation. The project is always improved after integrating the other person’s feedback.
The project is always improved after integrating the other person's feedback.
Your work seems closely linked to a set of values. Can you describe these values and how you came to hold and share them?
Yes, intuitively our art is closely linked to our values. In the face of so many planetary crises, we feel an ongoing urgency to do something, to act. Our values are many, they include reverence for nature, human dignity and equality, providing for oneself and treading lightly on this Earth. We’re sure our values were shaped by our parents and their choice to raise us in the humble neighborhood of a diverse community, as well as their ongoing commitment to creativity and equality. Nina was influenced early on by the artwork of Ansel Adams and the activism of Julia Butterfly Hill. We have both participated in direct action and activism and this has further solidified our values. Art is our skill set, and comes naturally to us. We believe that it can be a powerful tool for changemaking. Kurosawa said “the role of the artist is never to avert the eyes.” Sometimes this comes in the form of creating a piece of work that directly addresses social and environmental issues. Other times it is creating a serene, beautiful work, which counters negativity and hardship, and exhibits sensitivity or compassion, positive human attributes. It has a subtle way of giving us hope in the human race. More recently, our art has taken the form of learning to provide for ourselves—learning to mend, to grow food, etc. This is a direct reaction to the destructive situation we are in as humans.
Art is our skillset, and it comes naturally to us. We believe that it can be a powerful tool for changemaking.
Nina Montenegro is a Chilean-American visual artist, illustrator, and designer. She is a wilderness guide for Signal Fire, an organization that provides opportunities for artists and activists to engage in the natural world. Montenegro's practice crosses disciplines to advocate for an ecologically-viable and socially-just future. Her work has been featured in Orion, Art in America, The Guardian, Grist, and printed and distributed by publications worldwide. She lives and works on an organic farm outside of Portland, Oregon.
Sonya Montenegro: I was born in the Chicago area. Although I'll always hold a special place in my heart for the buzzing industrial humanity of the Big City, my recent path has meandered further and further into the Rural, and sometimes even the Wilderness. l now live/work on a small organic farm just outside Portland, OR and run an Etsy shop called The Far Woods with my sister, Nina. Most of my work is pen & ink, gouache, collage, linocut and wood. I have always loved to sew, but I've recently started to hand quilt - without formal instruction, using just intuition and freeform sewing - and I've fallen in love all over again. I am currently available for freelance work in illustration & design as well as quilt & portrait commissions.