“That One Moment” is a new feature where people share a significant memory of an event, trauma, or insight that has shaped them in a life-changing way. Whether it’s a book, an encounter, a near-death experience, or simply the piercing words of an old friend, we’ve all had a moment in life that has drastically influenced the way we think and behave.
This week, our guest is artist Martin Honasan.
I have been a full-time artist since 2003. For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of exhibiting work in different galleries and museums in the Philippines and outside the country. Painting has easily become an important creative release, and one of the most gratifying means for me to express myself. Although it hasn’t felt like a real job for quite some time, there was a period in my life when work was an emotionally grueling activity.
In the early years of my career my paintings were mostly photographic scenes painstakingly rendered with watercolor on paper, and a few acrylic pieces on canvas. Perfecting my craft was an obsession and it would take me weeks to finish even just a medium sized piece. It felt like I was sweating drops of blood as I toiled and painted.
I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with art — seeing the fruits of my labor had always been satisfying, but at the same time, art tends to be a lonely profession where a lot of quiet contemplation and introspection mixed with my fallen humanity quickly escalates into doubt, fear of failure and self-loathing. I wrestled with a few personal demons in my studio for several years; it was a time when insecurity was at its peak. It turned what I loved doing into this graceless, thankless job.
The funny thing was, back then I would always assume that that was the norm. They didn’t call it hard work for nothing; it was meant to be toilsome, and backbreaking, maybe so I could feel like a real man sweating under the sun, whining about how hard life is.
A few years later I got married, then we had our first child shortly after. We now have two kids on earth, and a third baby who went straight to heaven. My family is my treasure; I am the wealthiest man on earth. It is one of the greatest things in life to love and raise a family, but also an unbelievably huge responsibility. It added to the weight of pressures which had already been bearing down on my shoulders.
My wife is a full-time singer-songwriter. She’s one of those types who lugs around a guitar everywhere she goes, or at least everywhere around the house. When she moved in with me, a bunch of acoustic and electric guitars moved in with us. One of the first things I discovered about my wife was how she writes music. All of a sudden I was privy to the secret songwriting process of my favorite musician in the world.
One night, I saw my wife sitting by the stairs leading up to the entrance to my art studio, and she had a guitar on her lap. She was singing this song that had these somewhat peculiar lyrics which sounded more like mumbling accompanied by guitar strumming. I asked her what she was singing. She replied that they were just meaningless syllables that went well with the chords. A few moments later these indistinct syllables had turned into the recognizable words of a full-blown song. The song was beautiful, but what struck me the most was the unusual way it was written and the apparent ease and grace that went into the songwriting process.
It made me think of my own artistic process and posture as an artist. I felt something crack wide open in my mind — it was catharsis. During one of our dates I asked my wife the obvious — I wanted to know if she really enjoyed making music, to which her immediate response was an emphatic “yes.” I told her about my struggles with work and schizophrenic relationship with art. She said I was being weird, but prayed for me anyway. Her prayer was simple, that I would begin to enjoy my own craft with the same kind of freedom that she experiences with her music.
I went back to my studio that day to reevaluate a lot of things. I realized that I had committed so many critical errors which had led me to the wrong mindset. I had wrongly equated excellence with this obsessive, anal, perfectionism, as if to labor over a panting so much would add to its weight and worth, justifying its value. I felt like this was a fruit of many deeper issues. It was a messy endless loop of a mess; there were just too many knots to untie. In the end, however, I only had to pull on a single thread to unravel the whole thing: the problem was that there was too much control, and I was burning out. I had to loosen my grip; scrap everything — reset.
I trashed an entire series I had been working on for an upcoming solo show due to open in a few months. Fortunately, I had three extra four-by-three foot stretched canvases lying around in the studio. I mounted one on an easel, the second one on a drafting table, and the third one on the couch. I was on the verge of something but had no idea what to paint. I just had this sudden reactive aversion to anything contrived in my work — not that there’s anything inherently wrong with being a stickler for detail. It’s just that I wanted to go the opposite way and purge my work of traces of anything anally retentive.
I decided to go back to the basics, just pour out whatever I could get my hands on in the studio and see where it would take me. I felt really wired, but at peace during the whole process. I was a child again and It was very exciting. I took a quick break, went downstairs to tell my wife about my little breakthrough, whipped out my phone and took lots of pictures of her, then I went back upstairs to use the pics as reference. After that, I never stopped painting faces — I painted all their faces: my wife, babies, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, strangers, and even myself.
A few weeks later around ten canvas paintings and a few works on paper were prepped to be delivered to the gallery for the opening night the next day. I was a little nervous during the exhibit opening. It was my very first solo exhibit. I also realized that the changes in my work were also drastic, and a bit risky; It wasn’t exactly the most universally appealing genre to explore. But I also found joy in work, and it gave me this renewed stamina. It’s funny because even after all the changes in my process I would still put in the same amount of work, sometimes even to the point of spraining my shoulder muscles after working for hours. This time the difference was that it wasn’t born out of striving and obsession — it was a good kind of pain; I was having a lot of fun.
I felt like a real man, sweating under the sun, enjoying the fruits of labor.
– Martin Honasan