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May/June 2006
Creativity, Times Three: The Arts-Inclined Mendez Family
Washington County's Palette Colors the World for the Artistic Mendez Family.

by Joanne Kaldy + photos by Travis Pratt

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Along a gravel and dirt road in the Southern Washington County countryside sits one family’s private paradise. Lush green hills, shady trees and outbuildings surround a charming rustic home. That this is the home — and workplace — of artists is no surprise. That these artists — two of them, at least — are former Central Intelligence Agency operatives, and the fact that one of them is known as the agency’s original “Master of Disguise,” sounds more like Hollywood fiction than local fact. This reality is even harder to believe when you walk into the home, where there is no sign of mystery or intrigue — but the love of family is apparent in every room.

This is the residence and studio of painter Antonio Mendez and his photographer wife, Jonna. Tony’s sculptor son, Toby, who lives nearby in Frederick, also has space at the beautiful Pleasant Valley Studios in Knoxville. While they choose to explore different media, the Mendezes share a passion for artistic expression, enjoy financial and critical success as working artists, and appreciate each other as artists and individuals.

From Spies to Country Squires
Tony and Jonna, authors of Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War, each spent more than 25 years with the CIA. Tony served as a chief of disguise for the agency, where his activities took him around the globe. He worked with many dignitaries and, at one point, rescued several diplomats out of Iran. He received the CIA’s Intelligence Star of Valor and the Trailblazer Award before he retired in 1990. Tony and Jonna are founding board members of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., which features a number of their gadgets and disguises.

While there are no overt signs of the couple’s affiliation with the CIA in their warm, comfortable home, an alarmingly lifelike mask of a man’s face stares sternly down from a shelf in Tony’s studio. He confessed that there are other souvenirs of his CIA days that are less obvious. For example, in the “tower room” where Tony writes, he keeps a tin cup from a hostage negotiation course that prepared CIA officers for the torture, deprivation and mental torment they might have to endure if taken hostage or otherwise imprisoned. Back in his studio, an ordinary looking brick actually is a device that Jonna made to secretly pass information or supplies. “These things don’t look like much, but they have some pretty interesting stories behind them,” said Tony.

Jonna: Tiny Cameras Lead to Grand Photographs
Jonna, a 27-year veteran of the CIA, started out as a secretary and eventually rose to fame as a technical operations officer and chief of disguise. Her specialty was working with cameras so small they could fit into a lipstick canister.

It was her work with cameras in the CIA that fueled Jonna’s interest in photography. At the same time, her travels to exotic ports worldwide presented her with beautiful and unique subject matter. However, even her photos of seemingly mundane scenes — such as the front of an Italian grocer or a Parisian hat shop — are filled with appealing composition and vibrant colors.

While Jonna and Tony each had an interest in the arts, it actually was work that brought them together. “Tony and I first met in Bangkok, where I was a secretary at the American Embassy and Tony was the disguise officer,” recalled Jonna. However, they were just colleagues and friends for several years. Eventually, after Tony’s wife died and Jonna was divorced, the two discovered that they had more in common than just work. They were married in 1992, and Jonna moved with Tony to the Maryland hideaway he had built several years before.

Tony: Born an Artist
When Tony was just a child, his mother declared that he would be an artist. Tony was good with his hands and as easily could have been an engineer. He eventually received a fine arts degree — but an art career was not yet in the stars. Tony supported himself as a plumber before working as a technical illustrator. Eventually, he answered an ad for an artist willing to work overseas. That job turned out to entail working for the CIA on counterfeiting and forgery activities. Creating forged documents enabled Tony to flex his creative muscles. He explained, “It required art skills where you could do tight, detailed work. I became an espionage artist.” The move to work creating disguises was a natural one — and one that made for some interesting colleagues. “As chief of disguise, I was hooked up with a leading Hollywood make-up artist.”

All the while, Tony continued to paint in his spare time. Then in 1971, he decided that he needed more open space for his artistic pursuits and his family, which included three children —Ian, Toby and Amanda. While Tony knew he wanted to be out in the country, he didn’t start out looking at property in Washington County. However, the area’s beauty and history eventually drew him — and he was hooked.

Toby: Sculpting His Place in the Family
As a child, Toby Mendez watched his family paint and his mother sculpt. “When we moved to this area, I was almost 11, and I started doing small sculptures and carvings.” A product of Washington County Public Schools, one of Toby’s teachers recognized his ability and recommended him for a talented/gifted program for the arts.

“I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and I really started focusing on sculpting,” noted Toby, 42. To date, he has produced hundreds of sculptures, working primarily in clay that gets cast in metal. He’s gained a national reputation for his work, which includes a sculpture of Thurgood Marshall that stands in front of the Maryland State House. Toby’s Nolan Ryan Monument graces a Texas ballpark, and he sculpted three bronze reliefs for the U.S. Naval Memorial in Washington, D.C. Closer to home, he has two pieces on the grounds of Hagerstown Community College.

Family That Creates Together, Stays Together
While the three Mendezes have studios on the property and hold shows together, they have developed a formula to ensure continuously harmonious relationships. “We respect each other’s work, and we’re attuned to each other’s feelings,” said Jonna. For example, she explained, “Tony will critique your work only on your request. He is very good about not offering constructive criticism unless you ask for it.”

In addition to their passion for art, the Mendezes share a love for community service. While they have donated their time and works to several charitable causes, their pet cause is breast cancer research and awareness, as Jonna is a breast cancer survivor. The family also has held children’s art workshops on their property, where Tony taught painting, Jonna provided photography instruction, and Toby taught sculpture. The two-day, hands-on workshops also included an art appreciation session. “We’ve exposed hundreds of kids to art,” Jonna proudly stated.

She, Tony, and Toby are happy to be Western Maryland residents, and they expect to stay for awhile. In addition to their comfortable home and studios, successful careers, community involvement, and many friends, the area provides a ready source of inspiration and subject matter. As Tony said, “I could spend the rest of my life just painting things on my property here or along this lane.”

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Spring Art Show at Pleasant Valley Studios
June 3–4
Saturday: 1–8 p.m.
Sunday: Noon–7 p.m.
19419 Frog Eye Road, Knoxville, MD 21758
301-834-9771
For directions to the show or to learn more about the Mendezes’ artwork, visit the Pleasant Valley Studios Web site at www.pleasantvalleystudios.com

   view more articles from the May/June 2006 issue >>

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