Highs and Lows

An expedition to surmountable peaks with Filipina artist-designer Carina Santos

Interview Danielle Austria
Images Carina Santos

Carina Santos, Header: After, 2020. Oil on canvas, 30cm x 80cm.

Happy New Year, Carina! How did day one look like for you?

The first day was pretty uneventful, though I’m not at all upset about that. I was going to move out of a shared studio space I was briefly a part of but forgot that it was a holiday, so I ended up walking around Holborn, which is usually quite a busy part of London.

Holborn seems like a nice place to get lost in. Does it still feel bizarre to walk around a once packed space-turned-ghost town? Manila is getting busier each time I go out, but it doesn’t really feel like there’s “life” to that busyness.

It feels super bizarre, especially the time leading up to the holidays, because the U.K. is much like the Philippines when it comes to Christmas. I am in two minds about it. It’s sad when you see places you used to frequent and not knowing when you’ll be able to go out again, but at the same time it was a relief to see that a lot of people are taking the restrictions seriously.

It took incredible strength to have lived through the previous year.  Where did you draw yours? In a year that forced us all to be openly vulnerable, were there key moments in which you felt somehow formidable?

Honestly, I have been so lucky to have a small but very amazing support system. I always feel like there are other people whose situations are so much harder than mine. I feel incredibly lucky that I don’t have to put myself in situations where I’m put in danger, so just knowing that was already so helpful. Of course, it’s hard when you feel like you’re alone, but being open about loneliness and needing support or even just a quick chat was already helpful.

Sometimes, 2020. Oil on canvas, 30cm x 80cm.
Latent Fictions, 2020. Mixed media on paper. 20in x 20in.

How have you changed since arriving in London three years ago?

I think it’s close to impossible to not inhabit an entirely different place and way of living and then not changing. I really do like who I’ve become after moving, and can clearly see the points in my life here where I’ve had to pivot and adapt. So, while I do still often feel like I’m messing up, it’s nice to see how far I’ve come along and how I’ve changed (for the better), too.

Are there any differences in creating and experiencing art here and there?

It’s certainly more comfortable creating there because I have a more solid support system both in my family and the other artists and the community that I grew up around. Art-making here is a bit more solitary because I lucked out and found a studio space that’s just for me. The downside is I work by myself a lot.

I miss going to my friends’ exhibits a lot. In a sense, there’s a larger art community here, but it also feels closed to people like me, when I haven’t necessarily found an “in” if that makes sense. I can see a lot of shows by people whose work I’ve admired at a distance, but going to exhibits by your friends or people close to you is an entirely different experience and one that I miss a lot. 

I find your body of work extremely personal—to a degree that makes me wonder at times if it’s okay to keep looking. It feels like an invasion—mostly me on what I perceive is your innermost thoughts told through art, but also you on mine. (Is that a strange thing to say?)

How much of yourself do you consciously put into your work? Do you ever feel the need to limit which of your actual emotions or experiences are imprinted on what you put out?

I think I’ve just gotten used to a more confessional style of creating where it just feels like a natural impulse. I don’t feel like I’m oversharing, and I think that maybe there’s just something in what I make that person maybe relate to or find kinship with. I certainly don’t do it deliberately. I think I’ve turned to create — whatever form that takes — as an outlet and a form of catharsis, so what you do end up seeing is like the refuse or exhaust of ideas and emotions, distilled into a painting or a story.

Your work has lived through various art forms. Are there still other mediums that you’re interested to explore?

Every time I see someone make beautiful work that I haven’t tried making, it does tempt me to try my hand at it. I think I’d like to create something more communal or collaborative, using available technologies, but in a way that’s warm and connected, rather than, say, making something that has to do with computing or artificial intelligence.

This Is Where I Used To Be, 2017. Mixed media.

Do you have a favorite family heirloom?

More and more, I’ve valued generosity. My parents are so generous with everything they have, material and immaterial, and as are my siblings. It encourages me to be generous, too. It’s really corny, but I think it’s a really important value that is often overlooked but is so helpful in forging connections with people in a really meaningful way.

No, it’s not corny at all. It made me think about what generosity means today. It’s certainly easier now to give, what with millions of ways to connect and donate, but we rarely pay mind to what motivates us to do so or how consistent we are with it. I have a sense that the generosity you grew up with has deeper roots in kindness?

Yeah, I suppose so. My parents and siblings are so kind. We don’t always agree on things and like everyone else, we have arguments and nagkakapikunan talaga, but at the root of it, I think we all have some form of kindness and compassion that motivates us to be generous in some way.

In an interview with CNN Philippines, your sister Isabel—also an artist—said that while your dad (Soler) and lolo (Malang) have different ways of working, what makes them of the same yoke is having a mentor, maybe even father figure-like, status to young artists.

I imagine you are no stranger to this energy. Would you call it a trademark Santos character to want to teach the next? And what is the most important thing you hope to pass on?

I don’t think anyone in our family goes out of their way, necessarily, to mentor anyone, and I don’t have that desire in me either. I think it’s more of a situation where if someone asks for help or for an opinion, then I’d absolutely see what I can do. I think I’m realizing more and more that I have so much more to learn, so it feels a bit funny to think of myself as a mentor. I always feel like I don’t know anything.

A lot of creative people become consumed with ego and the desire for validation, and the most important thing to me is that you like the work that you make, that it’s genuine to you, and that you’re not after likes or awards or praise. External validation is amazing — there’s a reason why people chase after it — but if you don’t like your work or you’re not true to yourself, then what’s the point?

Anthem. 6×6, in layers.
I Don’t Understand. 6×6 in layers.

I feel that. It’s crazy to think about how the creative life often starts with a desire to express oneself, but somewhere along the way the fight gets lost, for one reason or another.

Thank you for your honesty about this. There’s something to learn in that, too.

Yeah, it’s a shame, but you know, there are different reasons for doing the same thing, and if it’s money or attention or whatever else, those are legitimate reasons, too. I don’t think I can keep doing this, though, if those ones are mine.

Let’s say you’ve just landed in Manila, barring all the pandemic-related travel policies and jet lag, how would you fill up a full day back home?

I would spend time with my family and dogs. This is the longest that I haven’t seen them, the last time being early November 2019. I’d eat several mangoes, ask for kare-kare, and be thankful that I can speak in a language I haven’t used in a while. •

A quiet distant country
Somebody, Somewhere

Connect with Carina over at @presidents on Instagram and at carina-santos.com

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