Tony Mendez is an artist. He always has been. The red carpet he trod recently for the Oscar-winning movie Argo, which tells the story of his greatest achievement as a CIA operative, was, physically and emotionally, miles away from his daily life in the Knoxville, Maryland, home and studio he shares with his wife, Jonna—also a former CIA operative.
“It’s just not what we trained for,” Mendez says.
Training started early—art training, that is. His mother put a set of paints in his pre-school-age hands and told him prophetically, “You’ll be an artist.” In his early 20s and married with three small children, he answered a blind newspaper ad hoping to advance his career as an industrial illustrator. “They wanted an artist to work overseas with the U.S. Navy. I was intrigued,” he recalls.
It turned out the CIA was looking for an artist to replicate documents for their clandestine operations. Mendez got the job and moved with his family to Okinawa and Thailand for seven years.
The CIA then transferred him back to the States, where he forged documents, created disguises and performed other graphical work related to espionage. On his return, he searched for a remote parcel of land within 50 miles of DC and his job at the CIA. “I wanted to build my own home and be self-sufficient,” he explains. He found a peaceful spot nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While he built a Yankee barn-style house on the site, he and his family lived in a log cabin on the property “without water, heat or lights.”
It’s a serene location far away from the bustle of life in DC—let alone the espionage game. Called Pleasant Valley Studio, it now encompasses the family’s home as well as studio space for Mendez and his oldest son, Toby, who is a sculptor. It was Tony’s first wife, Karen, who inspired the building of the studios. “She literally kicked us out of the house, saying she was tired of the mess—my paint and Toby’s marble dust,” Mendez recalls with a smile. Sadly, Karen died of cancer in 1987 without seeing the completed compound.
Meanwhile, the Iran hostage crisis was testing Mendez’s creativity and nerve. Then the CIA’s Chief of Disguise, he was given the mission of extricating six Americans who had sought refuge in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran during the 1980 takeover of the U.S. Embassy—the story which would later inspire Argo. During this stressful time, home became a refuge where he could think, plan and create his art. “The nice thing about art,” he says, “is that no one is looking over your shoulder. Standing at an easel gave me an opportunity to think about the [jerks] in the world—and get over it.”
One of Mendez’s colleagues at the agency was Jonna, a photographer who would become Chief of Disguise after Tony retired. After Karen passed away, their collaborative business relationship became more personal and they were married in 1991.
The home’s remote location continues to fit the Mendez family, which now includes Tony and Jonna’s son Jessie, age 20. The couple is surprisingly soft-spoken, as Jonna illustrates in an anecdote about Argo. “Someone asked Ben [Affleck] why he played Tony so low-key,” she says. “He replied, ‘Do you know Tony?’” After so many years working behind the scenes, it’s the spotlight and celebrity that are foreign. “This is new territory,” Mendez says. “And a hell of a way to end a career. We do miss the cloak and dagger though,” he adds with a smile.
The Mendezes’ schedule is busy: book signings (Tony has written three), personal appearances for Argo, and the couple’s work at the Spy Museum, of which they are both founders and directors. “We are so amazed by what’s happening,” Jonna comments. “You hope that you can maintain your perspective.”
Reflecting on art versus espionage, Tony observes, “They are both all-consuming. The lessons you learn with art are directly transferable to the spy business. Risk-taking—you just push the envelope and see how far you can go.”
Twice a year, the Mendezes invite friends to an open studio to discuss Tony’s latest paintings, Jonna’s newest collection of photos or Toby’s most recent sculpture installation. Today, their compound includes the house, which has been added onto multiple times; a studio for Tony’s paintings; a gallery; photography space for Jonna; and a sculpture studio for Toby. Upstairs, “the shrine” as Mendez calls it, constitutes a wall of framed commendations, photos, plaques, awards and medals. Reflecting on his studio, home and their pristine surroundings, Tony notes, “The only thing wrong with this place is that I have to leave it.”
Jeanne Blackburn is a freelance writer in Montgomery Village, Maryland. Photographer Bob Narod is based in Herndon, Virginia.