Just say yes and good things happen.
For most of us, radical changes can be a daunting prospect. Leaving old habits behind and reinventing yourself someplace new definitely requires courage. But there are a few others who have mastered adaptability to a degree that changing becomes second nature. That is the case with Monika Gerber, 62, who has recently quit a two-decade career to move to Madrid and focus full time on her painting.
“It wasn’t hard at all to quit,” she tells me. “I always felt my real job is my art.”
Art has indeed accompanied Gerber her whole life, through twists and turns and continental moves that would leave some people exhausted just at the thought, but which have always energized Gerber: “I never understood how people can be bored; life is an adventure and I love it!”
Gerber’s adventurous spirit is immediately palpable when I catch up with her over Skype. She is speaking to me from her LA loft, her blond hair dyed purple at the tips, green eye-liner on her bottom eyelid, and a soft German accent revealing itself occasionally. I am immediately curious as to what brought the young art student from the small town of Mundingen, in Germany, to downtown LA, and what is now taking her from LA to Madrid. As the conversation progresses, I find out that every adventure in Gerber’s life has been a consequence of her free-spiritedness and natural ability of saying yes to things.
As a young woman, she would throw herself at every opportunity to travel, ending up doing solo hitchhikes across Malaysia and Cambodia, and even living briefly in Indonesia. “I wanted to go out and see the world,” she tells me.
From Germany to Dinner with Steve Jobs
It therefore comes as no surprise that at 29, when her then husband asked her to accompany him to America for work she said yes. The couple settled in Santa Cruz in California with Gerber’s husband working at nCube, a company making computers at the very start of the computer revolution in the ’80s. At the time, Gerber was meeting some of the masterminds of the field over lunches and dinners.
“Once we had dinner with Steve Jobs, and I remember the people at the table were talking about this ‘information highbrain.’ I wasn’t understanding anything,” laughs Gerber. “They were talking about the internet before it existed.”
When listening to Gerber tell her life stories, there is a tendency to think that her encounters were a matter of “right place, right time.” The truth is that the ability to say yes, as simple as it sounds, can often have incredible outcomes. In a karmic loop of sorts, having an openness towards life makes life respond with the same openness to you in the form of opportunities.
Motorcycling in LA
When Gerber’s marriage came to an end, she moved down to Los Angeles, finding a home at a storefront on Venice Boulevard.
“I ended up living there for 13 years. It was a very raw place. The front was all glass and I would jump on the sidewalk with my motorcycle and rode it straight in and parked it inside,” she recounts.
Gerber’s motorbike was how she would make a living in those early LA years, as a bike messenger, riding fast through traffic delivering parcels. “I was kind of wild and crazy at that time. I had this leopard leotard suit and high heels, and I would drive my bike like that,” she reminisces.
This was Los Angeles in the early ’90s, right when the OJ trials were happening, and Gerber found herself somewhat at the sideline of that too, riding her bike around the city to deliver documents to lawyers. “It was great, I made a good living and the best part of it is I met people. There were lawyers who I met who ended up buying my paintings too,” she says.
Living in commercial spaces and riding a bike are not habits Gerber has fully abandoned. The property she has just bought in Madrid was a former commercial space which she is converting into her home and studio. She has also only recently purchased a Ducati Monster — not the kind of bike you’d expect to see a 62-year-old woman riding. But so much of Gerber’s life is, at 62, unfolding not as “you’d expect.”
As people get older, there is a tendency for them to make less expansive or disruptive decisions. There are a lot of fears and “what ifs” that come attached to age. For Gerber however, giving up the stability of her former job and the comfort of her home and moving to a country where she is not even fluent in the language is a thrilling prospect: “I love the challenge of having to communicate in a different language in my daily life,” she tells me.
Falling in Love with Japan
Back in LA, it took four years and eight bike crashes for Gerber to decide it was best to choose a job that would use her abilities as an artist. She got connected to Disney, which would, at 41, become her first real job. It was a full-time employment, but far from a regular nine-to-five job. Being hired as a mural maker designing and building theme parks worldwide, Gerber was immediately sent off to Japan on her first assignment, “then the whole adventure began” she says, and I laugh wondering what the years before had been.
Gerber worked a total of 19 years at Disney, marked by several moves from LA to Japan for projects. “I really fell in love with Japan — the culture, the artists,” she says. She worked on artificial volcanoes, designed under-the-sea-themed attractions and a roller coaster inspired by Mayan temples.
Exercising Imagination at Disney
During her years working for Disney, Gerber had been creating, with the utmost attention to detail and craft, whole fantasy worlds, exercising her imagination to extremes.
“There was this one attraction which had a music room, with all these amazing instruments that exist in different parts of the world — the Mongolian arp, a piano… I had to train people how to paint certain things, such as marble, or jade. There were so many different techniques involved.”
“People are The Most Interesting”
In between work hours, Gerber would take every opportunity to explore the country, traveling up and down to all the less visited regions, meeting natives and learning about their culture. “The owner of the factories would take me to visit the paper makers in the mountains. I got the real local experience,” she says.
Gerber’s disposition towards meeting and engaging with people means that till this day she has friends spread from Venezuela to Bhutan. “People are the most interesting. They are probably the most important aspect in my life after art. The moment of these encounters, that stays with you your whole life.”
Engaging with the World Around Her
There was a time in Japan that, while having dinner on her own, she struck up a conversation with the couple at the table next to hers. “As I found out later, the man was the head of the Goi Peace Foundation and from then on they invited me for all kinds of events in Japan,” she says. “There was one event with Gorbachev, and all these different ambassadors from all over the world.”
Engaging with those around her, and saying yes to things has opened whole worlds for Gerber, and it was at that very event that Gerber also ended up meeting the German ambassador, who would later invite her to exhibit her art at the German embassy in Tokyo.
Love of Languages
Japan has had such an impact on her life that till this day she takes weekly Japanese classes in Los Angeles. Being able to immerse herself into different worlds and cultures has always been a defining aspect in Gerber’s life, so languages — a way into those worlds — have been fundamental. She also takes weekly Spanish classes and studied Bahasa in Indonesia when she was young. To be able to communicate in her work trips to China, she took Mandarin for three years and when traveling to Brazil she fell in love with Portuguese, also learning the language for two years. But Japan would be the country that most captivated her, and when Gerber turned 60 she celebrated the milestone in Tokyo.
From LA to Madrid
Turning 60 wasn’t just a milestone for Gerber, it was also a pivot point. She had just lost both her parents and remarried at 58 to Joe, whom she met at Disney and who she describes as “the love of her life.” That’s when Madrid came into the picture: “I felt like taking a radical step and changing my life,” she says.
Despite all the moves and adventures of the years before, Gerber feels far from settling down, and is in fact more focused than ever on her art. After quitting her job at Disney she now paints full time, five days a week.
“I feel like this return to my artwork was about following my destiny, being back on track where I am supposed to be in my life,” she says.
Gerber is about to leave to Madrid in a couple of days to oversee the final adjustments to her new studio space. She is also slowly getting her bearings in the city before the move, and making contact with local galleries to showcase her work: “The art world has changed and I am still trying to figure out how it works,” she says.
But the unknown has never scared Gerber. If anything, it has always sparked her curiosity and imagination. “I always felt safe and secure by myself in the world. There is so much to engage with and be happy about,” she tells me.
And so off goes Gerber on another adventure, filled with the same child-like wonder and lust for life she has carried since she was a girl, and proving that sometimes simply saying yes to things is what keeps you young at heart.
“I love putting myself out there and seeing what happens! I never want to be on autopilot or a creature of habit.”
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