Making Mistakes: Ben Muñoz on the Grant Opportunity that Launched His Career

by Jessica Fuentes June 15, 2024

Over the last few decades, society has gotten more comfortable with the concept of failure, perhaps because the tech industry has highlighted that it is often a necessary step in the process of success. While mainstream society has come to better understand this, artists undoubtedly have known this to be true since they first embarked on the journey of making art. It is rare for a person to pick up a pencil, paintbrush, camera, etc. and make something beautiful, innovative, and powerful with their first attempt. Instead, we are all continuously developing our skills and improving our work; it is an endless endeavor. 

And still, while we know failure is inevitable and essential, artists do not typically air their failures publicly. A notable regional exception is Christopher Blay, current curator of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, former News Editor at Glasstire, and an always practicing artist. In recent years, Blay, who by all accounts is a successful artist with shows across Texas, has been posting his rejection emails via social media. The first time one of these posts popped up in my feed, I was a little surprised, both that he was getting rejections and that he was sharing them. It’s endearing to see that he, like all of us, faces slews of nos, and it’s encouraging that they don’t deter him.

Similarly, at the opening of Soy de Tejas: A Statewide Survey of Latinx Art at Arts Fort Worth, I was astonished to find myself speaking with printmaker Ben Muñoz about how he bungled his first major grant. But, as the story continued to spiral, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Though he made major mistakes along the way, ultimately the grant project propelled his career. Below, Muñoz generously went on record to tell his story.

A photograph of printmaker Ben Muñoz.

Ben Muñoz in his Dallas studio.

Jessica Fuentes (JF): What was this grant that you applied for and what were you hoping to do with the funds?

Ben Muñoz (BM): It was this grant that doesn’t exist anymore, and I hope that it’s not because of me. It was from the Arts Center of Corpus Christi, which is where I’m from. The Center has this wall on the west side of the building — a lot of traffic comes by it, so it gets a lot of publicity. Mayra Zamora is a very popular artist in Corpus, she’s Corpus through-and-through, and she was the inaugural artist to receive the grant to fill this wall. 

A photograph of muralist Mayra Zamora in front of a seven-panel mural installation.

Mayra Zamora and her Chicano Pop mural at the Art Center of Corpus Christi. Photo by Omar Arellano.

The project consisted of seven eight-foot-by-four-foot panels. Artists painted them, and the Center installed them in archway grooves that are built into the building. Mayra got it, she did really great, and then the Center was like, “This was a great project, let’s get another artist to do it.” So they announced an open call and since Mayra was the first artist selected and she painted them, all these painters came forward to submit applications.

I’m living in Corpus and teaching printmaking at the Art Center, so I was hanging out there all the time. And because I was there all the time, I knew they wanted something different. I realized the panels that they put up were wood and I was like, “I bet I could carve them, instead of painting them, and I bet that idea alone would set them off.”

JF: What was the grant amount?

BM: Not even that big! I don’t want to get this wrong, but I want to say probably like $3,000.

JF: Did you feel confident that you could get it?

BM: At the time, I’m in my early 20s — a kid, and the people who are applying for this grant, are established muralists, people who know what they’re doing. I have never carved anything that big in my life, let alone seven of them. I was broke and young and I needed the money. So I was like, “I can carve them.” Also, bear in mind, there’s a two-month turnaround time on this — two months! That is doable for a painter, sure, but to carve seven eight-foot-by-four-foot panels in two months is impossible.

JF: How long do you think it would take you now to carve exactly what you carved before?

BM: I would say six months.

JF: And how long did it actually take you at the time?

BM: Over two years. 

JF: Wow. Okay, so go back in time… you submitted your application and what happened?

BM: They love it, immediately. They have a board meeting where they were going through the application, and the director, God bless her, Diana Bluntzer, loves me. Diana is pro-Ben. She goes to the board meeting, supporting me, and the board pushes back, naturally, because, they don’t love me. They don’t know me and they’re like, “You want to give this grant and all this responsibility to this kid? Look at his CV. There is no CV. There’s nothing. You can’t give him this money. You can’t trust him to do this.”

Humbly, I’ve always had this ability to be a good speaker, and to be very convincing and somewhat charming. It was going really bad and Diana texted me while the board meeting was happening. She was like “You need to get in here and defend yourself.”

I’m in my early 20s, hot-headed, like, “Let’s go!” I go to this board meeting. I don’t know who these people are. I just go in there and I’m like, “Diana said you had some questions.”

They are grilling me with all this stuff, and I’m answering the questions, or I’m just making it up — confidently, going back and forth with them. I mean, we’re battling; we’re weaponizing the English language and hitting it back and forth. Eventually, they stopped throwing these verbal punches, and it seems like everyone is satisfied. I was so arrogant and so dumb that I just dug in on another person, I was like, “Did I see your hand go up?” And I convinced them to give me the grant against their better judgment because even then they were like, “This is a bad idea, he’s gonna blow the money, he’s not gonna be able to do this.” 

JF: So what happens? How quickly does it go wrong?

BM: They give me the grant, they buy me the supplies that I need, and I hire a bunch of my friends. I spend the money and of course, blow through it. I don’t finish on time. I miss the deadline. I consistently miss deadlines. For a very long time.

JF: Originally it was supposed to be done in two months. How did that stretch out to two years?

BM: The first deadline is two months. The two months comes and I’m not even done with one panel yet. I’m halfway through it and I run out of resources and can’t compensate my friends.

JF: Wait, what exactly were your friends doing? What were you hiring them to do?

BM: They were helping me carve. So they were coming in because it was a huge project… I was drawing and they were coming behind me carving the texture. 

We were supposed to be done, but I mean, we’d show up late, we’d go out to lunch, we were just goofing off in there. We were kids, most of us were still students. They were coming after class, so our work time was limited. Pair that with the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. I hadn’t carved that large ever in my life. 

I did a whole drawing, and I was so ill-prepared for what I was doing that I didn’t realize that an eight-foot drawing skews — of course it does. I drew it laying down and it looked perfect. Then I stood it up and was like, “Oh, this whole thing is off.” I had to erase and redraw the whole thing. An eight-foot drawing. There were just so many learning moments like that that threw me off. 

So two months passed and the director was like, “You’re not going to make it.” And I was like, “No, I’m not.” She said, “I’ll give you two more months.” 

Two more months go by and I finished one panel. Then she gave me six months. I couldn’t do it. I kept missing the deadlines and it got to a point where my wife and I decided to move to Dallas — we had our first daughter and my wife has family in Dallas, the art market was bigger, and I had kind of grown as much as I could in Corpus.

JF: How did the move affect the project?

BM: I had to go in there and be like, “I’m moving. I’m not done, but I want to finish them.” The director, who defended me in front of all these people and who’s probably having to answer questions every time they have board meetings says, “Okay, I guess move. Leave the blocks here and I will drive them up to you in Dallas.”

So I moved to Dallas and then maybe two months later she drives the blocks up for me, delivers them to my studio, and I start working on them again.

A photograph of seven large-scale panels in process.

Ben Muñoz, “The Endless Endeavor” panels in progress

JF: So, now, in Dallas, how does the project get done?

BM: Another year goes by and they’re still not done. Maybe three more panels have been completed. I don’t work on them every day because, mentally, I’m cooked, exhausted. Sometimes I just faced them against the wall, didn’t touch them for a week, and then I’d turn them around and keep working on them. 

It got to a point where every once in a while she’d call and ask “How’s it going?” I’d say, “They’re not done.” She’s like “Two more months.” Not done. “Two more months.” Eventually it got to a point when she called me and she assertively said, “So, when you bring the finished blocks here next month…” And that was like, “Okay, that’s the real deadline.”

I did a printmaking workshop at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center and another Dallas artist, Braulio Lazon-Conde, just happened to stumble in, and he carved a block for the first time ever. I really enjoyed it and we started talking, and he asked, “Would you teach me printmaking?” And I said, “I really don’t have time for that… but I’ll tell you what, I need a lot of help right now with this project I’m doing. I will teach you how to carve for free if you come and help me finish these blocks.”

On all of the days he’s not working, Braulio comes to the studio to help me finish. I would buy him lunch and his girlfriend Paloma would come; she was a printmaker. They helped me push these blocks over the edge. I get them finished. I take them down to the Art Center’s Arts Alive Festival and we steamrolled a couple of them just for fun. Part of the arrangement of this grant is that they own the blocks and I get the prints. 

A photograph of the installation of Ben Muñoz's "The Endless Endeavor" panels on the exterior of the Art Center of Corpus Christi.

Ben Muñoz, “The Endless Endeavor” panels installed at the Art Center of Corpus Christi.

JF: What was the printing process like?

BM: Originally, we ordered really big rolls of paper, because one of the goals of this project, this grant, is that it helps launch an artist’s career. The Art Center exists to empower artists, so they want you to do something grand and large. Part of that was that they wanted me to print at the Flatbed Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Austin because Flatbed has such an established legacy of printing with artists like James Surls, Julie Speed, and Luis Jiménez. That’s where they wanted me to go. They buy paper to run on a press and they call Katherine Brimberry, and she doesn’t know who I am, and why should she? So, she doesn’t want to co-publish it. She wants to charge us, and it’s going to be about $18,000. And so Diana Bluntzer is like, “There’s no way we are giving you more money because you already haven’t delivered on these things. We’re not giving you more money. You are going to have to print them by hand.”

I can’t even really do that because the paper we bought was so thick, because it was for the press. Now I have to figure out all this stuff because I need those prints. So I come back to Dallas and I just start hitting everybody up. Printmaking is very communal, everyone helps each other out. I hit up Matt Bagley of Iron Frog Press — he makes these glass barens (a tool used by printmakers to apply pressure to paper that is laid on an inked surface) — and I’m like, “Matt, I got this big project, I gotta print a bunch of stuff by hand.” Each one of those barens costs around $200, and I didn’t have money for that. I asked if I could borrow them and tag him in all the stuff that I post on social media. At this time, I’ve been posting the journey of the blocks and I’ve gained a lot of followers on Instagram, who are like, “What’s this crazy person doing with these giant blocks?” So Matt donates all the barens. 

Then, I go to Paper Arts. Terri Thoman has big ink rollers. I tell her my situation… so she lets me borrow two rollers. I put it all in the back of my car and now I gotta drive down to Corpus and print these blocks by hand. They’re eight feet by four feet — impossible to print by yourself. You need a minimum of four people to pull these prints to even handle the paper. And really, you should have more than four. You should have clean-hands people and dirty-hands people. 

I have no one lined up to help me. I’m driving down there with materials and that’s it. I make a post on Instagram, “Hey, guys thank you so much for following the journey of me making these blocks. I really appreciate it. I’m driving from Dallas to Corpus Christi right now. I’m gonna be there all this week printing these blocks. If anyone has time, please come to the Art Center to help me print. I have no money, but I’ll buy you pizza, and we’ll hang out.” I just posted it and figured I’d see if anybody comes. 

The only person that I had lined up to help me most days was Ben Sorrell — we went to art school together. The printmaking community is so incredible. Literally, every single day we had somebody just show up unannounced. They were like, “We saw this thing on Instagram!”

We had two print students from UTRGV drive two hours just to show up. They were like “Hey, we saw your posts on Instagram, we came to help!” They printed for however many hours they could and then got in their car and took off.

We had students from A&M Corpus Christi and Del Mar. We had people from all over just show up every day. I had friends on Instagram come, who aren’t even printmakers. They’d ask, “Hey, can I do anything?” They helped me print them.

We printed three a day and it took three hours to pull one, so we would start really early, and end really late. We ran the whole edition. We could have printed more, had I had more time. But I didn’t, and my hand was locked up afterward. I remember my hand was destroyed just from gripping and applying pressure every day. It was crazy but we were able to run the prints and that literally did what they (the Art Center of Corpus Christi) wanted it to do. It really did launch my career, as dumb as that seems. I still get requests to show that body of work, The Endless Endeavor. I’m actually retiring it after Soy de Tejas because I have so much new work that I want to show, but that body of work has done so much for me. The first time I got gallery representation was because of those pieces. I ended up getting to print at Flatbed because of those pieces.

A photograph of artist Ben Muñoz in front of his large-scale print series "The Endless Endeavor."

Ben Muñoz with “The Endless Endeavor” at the “Soy de Tejas” exhibition in Fort Worth.

JF: So, even though you missed the deadlines and you spent the money in the first few months, the grant was transformative?

BM: There are so many opportunities that that grant in Corpus gave me. Grants are so important, specifically for artists like me, artists who don’t come from money, and who can’t afford college. We need those connections. We need those advancements somehow, because we can’t afford to get them through the university. Things like that are dramatic. Even with talent, it’s sometimes impossible to go the traditional route. Grants and programs like that can launch your career when you just don’t have the money to go to RISD or Yale. You have the talent and you could get in (I got into RISD), but you just can’t afford to go.

JF: What happened to the blocks? 

BM: They got installed. They were up for years because they cut the program after I turned them in.

JF: Well, they had to get their money’s worth… it took you years to finish the panels so they had to put them up for years. 

BM: This is by no means trash-talking them, but what sucks is that the blocks were MDF. Corpus is a coastal city, they have hurricane season, and MDF swells up if it gets wet. So those blocks, sadly, after years, literally rotted off the wall and they’re now fully destroyed. There’s nothing left of them. But, perhaps that’s also part of the cycle. They were always made to go outside, not to last forever.

Learn more about Ben Muñoz’s The Endless Endeavor at the Art Center of Corpus Christi’s website.

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1 comment

John June 19, 2024 - 10:41

What a story! That saga is excruciating to read and imagine, but the outcomes (both tangible and intangible) are rich indeed. Incredible life lessons. Thanks for sharing, Ben (and Jessica).


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