The Art of Espionage

Tony & Jonna Mendez
June 20, 2013

Tony & Jonna Mendez

Author and Subject of Oscar Best Picture "Argo", retired CIA Officer

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Mendezes live in a rambling, barn-like red house with an adjacent studio and gallery.

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Mendezes live in a rambling, barn-like red house with an adjacent studio and gallery. 

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who inspired Argo, pursues a lifelong passion for art in his remote Maryland home

By Jeanne Blackburn (HomeandDesign.com) | Photography by Bob Narod

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. 

Tony and Jonna Mendez share a moment in their studio with their dog, Cole. 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. 

A French chateau-inspired fireplace occupies the living room, which was once a greenhouse. 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.” 

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE MENDEZ HOME HERE

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.

For information on how to book Tony Mendez for your next event, visit PremiereSpeakers.com/Tony_Mendez.

Tony & Jonna Mendez

Want Tony & Jonna Mendez for your next event?

Find out more information, including fees and availability.
Find Out More
Keep Reading
Interview | Jonna Mendez + PRI
Tony & Jonna Mendez
Tony & Jonna Mendez
July 14, 2016
Jonna Mendez served for 27 yeras as Technical Operations Officer and Chief of Disguise for the CIA, which earned ...
Tony and Jonna Mendez Honored for 'Argo' at America Abroad Media Awards
Tony & Jonna Mendez
Tony & Jonna Mendez
November 05, 2015
Congratulations to former CIA officersTony and Jonna Mendez on being honored ...
Tony Mendez Awarded Presidential Challenge Coin From Barack Obama
Tony & Jonna Mendez
Tony & Jonna Mendez
August 20, 2015
"Tony Mendez received this Presidential challenge coin from Barack Obama ...
Interview | Jonna Mendez + PRI
Jonna Mendez served for 27 yeras as Technical Operations Officer and Chief of Disguise for the CIA, which earned her both GS-14 rank and the Intelligence Commendation Medal. She took on the daunting role of properly training agents to use spy cameras and efficiently gather intelligence. In collaboration with her husband Tony, Jonna has contrib...
Read More
Tony and Jonna Mendez Honored for 'Argo' at America Abroad Media Awards
Congratulations to former CIA officersTony and Jonna Mendez on being honored at this year's America Abroad Media Awards! The Power of Film "honors outstanding leaders whose work exemplifies the power of media to inform,educateandempowercitizens about the critical social and public policy issues of our time.";A total of four people were recognize...
Read More
Tony Mendez Awarded Presidential Challenge Coin From Barack Obama
"Tony Mendez received this Presidential challenge coin from Barack Obama when visiting the White House. While he was not there alone - he visited with about 20 other people receiving recognition for unique government service - he was the only one who was presented with this coin. The group received the Sammy Award, the government's equivalent ...
Read More
Tony & Jonna Mendez | UT Dallas AETC Lecture
Source: UT Dallas What do Ben Affleck, Tony and Jonna Mendez have in common? They were all involved in the making of the Academy Award (for Best Picture) winning film Argo. Tony and Jonna are both retired CIA officers after over 20 years of service and the fascinating stories to go along with it. Tony chronicled his involvement in a rescue op...
Read More
CIA Hero Reveals he has Parkinson's Disease
Tony Mendez, the retired CIA agent played by Ben Affleck in the hit movie "Argo,'' has revealed that he is battling Parkinson's disease. Mendez and his wife, Jonna, spoke about his condition during a four-day symposium run this week by the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, as well as in an interview with the Washington Post. The couple revealed Me...
Read More
CIA spymaster, 'Argo' mastermind speaks at NGA headquarters
Written by Jason Moll Antonio "Tony"; Mendez, retired Central Intelligence Agency officer and mastermind of the caper that brought six American diplomats out of Iran following the 1979 embassy takeover, addressed National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency employees and Commonwealth partners at NGA headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, June 9. To...
Read More
A Conversation with Argo's Tony and Jonna Mendez
Written by Ibtisam Ahmed The University of Warwick book festival returned to the Warwick Arts Centre for its second edition over the weekend of the 17th and 18th of May. Among the many writers who spoke at the event was Tony Mendez, the former CIA operative who masterminded the "Canadian Caper";, an exfiltration mission to save the lives of US ...
Read More
Former CIA Officer Talks About Being a Real-Life James Bond
Written by Catherine Vonledebur Former CIA agent Tony Mendez spent a week writing Argo with Hollywood screenwriter Chris Terrio. Shortly after the script was written a shiny new yellow pick-up truck pulled up along the rocky road to his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Maryland, DC delivering a bottle of Cristal champagne and a h...
Read More
Secret Service Agent Gives Diguise Tips
Former Secret Service Agent, Jonna Mendez, gives disguise tips to Fox News for quickly hiding in plain site. Jonna, wife of Tony Mendez, focused part of her career on disguises and aided other agents to go incognito. To view the video, click the image above or follow the link here. Source: Fox News
Read More
CIA's former 'chief of disguise' has a new holiday job: 'Kids' Gift Detective' for Target
Written by Amrita Jayakumar What does it take to get your children the perfect holiday gift? A professional sleuth, apparently. As the pressure to win the holiday shopping battle builds, marketers are inventing creative ways to help parents strategize. Enter Jonna Mendez, wife of Antonio Mendez. After a 27-year career at the CIA, the former ...
Read More