Together Alone: The Dynamics of Artist Couples

Four pairs of partners in love and in art talk boundaries, the collaborative spirit, and mutual inspiration from life to canvas.

by Patricia Chong, Emil Hofileña, and Jam Pascual

The concept of the power couple is a source of fixation in any field, industry or subculture. In most cases, both parties are singularly formidable forces in their own right, but together produce a union whose power is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

This is especially true with fine arts couples. The artist by itself is already seen as someone on a different plane of understanding—now add love to the mix, make that two artists, two enigmas, and what happens is an intermingling of different wavelengths, a union of different forms of genius. In this situation, the artists are simultaneously muses. You can understand why this is so fascinating: basically, it’s two really cool people who look at each other in a way they don’t look at everyone else.

 

We think that’s something worth celebrating. What follows are profiles of different artists-as-couples who give us a sneak peek into their dynamic, creative processes, and how being together comes out in their work. –Jam Pascual

 

 

Nice Buenaventura and Cos Zicarelli

Photos by Jilson Tiu

 

Cos Zicarelli (walking down the stairs) and Nice Buenaventura

We’re sitting in the main studio space of Artinformal, where both Zicarelli and Buenaventura are having a show. The works Cos has on display are sculptures that demonstrate the transcendental qualities of wood as a material—its pliability, its naturally occurring patterns. Buenaventura’s works, her Wave Drawings, are conceptually rich—playing on ideas of documentation and toil with drawings of grids and patterns that are striking for their delicate gradient work.

 

The stylistic differences here are obvious and stark—you wouldn’t even guess that the show are coming from two halves of the same couple, but they do. And sure, like any couple of artists there will always be the overlapping of tastes and influences, but the kind of creative synergy at work here is more simple, more human.

 

“I’ve never had a problem expressing negative feedback about his work, to him. And I think he doesn’t really pull any punches with me either,” Buenaventura says. So honesty, frankness, a small dose of cariño brutal when necessary. This isn’t some seamless union after all, but two singularly intense beings.

 

See, questions of compatibility are boring—the sparks of any relationship come from the friction, the differences, the occasional butting of heads. And because this relationship is a healthy one, these conflicts are present: being frank with each other, giving each other space when necessary. “Personally, when I have a show, I’m really intense,”

Cos states. “That’s why ngayon, I just [made] a lot of room for myself. I fixed my studio so I would just paint in peace and curse at the world in peace, by myself, so she wouldn’t get all this negative energy for me.” There are also the good problems, like one person starting on their thing, and the other person saying they were going to do that but respecting it anyway, making sure no one’s steez is getting jacked. Or jibing with the other’s work so well you make your own vision for it, engaging it so much you almost think it’s yours.

 

 

If that’s the case, then the way Buenaventura and Zicarelli make it work is through a negotiation of boundaries—assurance or disapproval, take or give, keep away or come closer. And you can tell the pull all of it off the same way they do their art: with elegance. –Jam Pascual

 

 

Mariano Ching and Yasmin Sison

Photos by Jilson Tiu

 

 

Yasmin Sison (left) and Mariano Ching

Mariano Ching and Yasmin Sison apologize for the messiness of their shared studio space—a high-ceilinged shed standing on one side of their Cavite home, which in turn is located in a residential complex lush with plants and abundant with animals. Everything you need to know about Ching and Sison as a married artist couple can be seen in the home they’ve created for themselves over the last two decades: the place is teeming with life, nature unhindered and overlapping onto itself, but it is also simple, quiet, and laidback. We welcome the mess.

 

There is little in their story to suggest any kind of real drama or conflict. In their own unassuming way, Ching and Sison just learned how to be around one another, through common teachers and the same general taste in art. “Sa school din, magkatabi ‘yung mga easel namin,” Sison recalls of their first encounters as classmates in UP. “So sanay na kami mag-work near each other.” Fast-forward to today, their studio bears no dividing lines or markers. “Walang ‘gamit niya, gamit ko,’” Sison adds. Everything is passed around and shared, from materials, to ideas, to responsibilities in caring for their six cats, four dogs, and two rabbits that roam around. Inside the house are fish in aquariums. Soon, their teenage son arrives from school.

 

There is always so much that Ching and Sison must attend to, despite their relatively relaxed lifestyle. A glance at their studio—a new painting from Sison still in progress in the center, while other works by Ching are scattered around—might imply disorder, but Ching reassures that that’s just what it looks like when two artists adjust to one another. “Siya kasi, mas planado lahat,” he says, referring to his wife. “Ako, usually intuitive lang.

 

And so one would expect many compromises to be made between the two, at the risk of stunting growth on either end. But they recognize how they are different from one another—something they wouldn’t dare lose sight of.

Ching speaks highly of Sison’s work, recognizing her advanced technique even from their college days, and how her work remains influential to this day. About her husband, Sison says, “Palagi siyang brave na mag-try ng bagong things. Hindi siya afraid mag-explore.” They’ve reached a point in their lives and their careers where the easiest, most sensible thing to do would be to settle. So, naturally, they do the opposite; they keep their studio messy. -Emil Hofileña

 

 

Allan Balisi and Dina Gadia

Photos by Marco Ugoy

 

Dina Gadia (left) and Allan Balisi

 

Despite their differences, Allan Balisi and Dina Gadia have worked out a system of sorts. He gets the ground floor of their Quezon City studio, with its wide, open space and hundreds of vinyl records. She gets the second floor, a busy workshop of tables, reference books, and a view of the outdoors. They aren’t so strict about this, of course, but for the most part Balisi and Gadia really keep their work apart. Upon being asked why, Gadia hazards a guess: “Makalat ako. Mas maayos siya. ‘Yun lang naman.” Balisi adds, “Parang ang hirap ‘pag magkasama ‘yung studio. Mag-aagawan kayo ng space.”

 

But just because they prefer physical distance while working doesn’t mean there isn’t any exchange of ideas. Balisi and Gadia have exhibited three times together now, and the collaborative spirit is alive and well each time they do; both agree on a universal theme that their works will revolve around. They wouldn’t say their works have any direct influence on one another, but they challenge everything they do. “Kumbaga, ako ‘yung unang tatanungin sa gawa niya, siya ‘yung unang tatanungin sa gawa ko,” Balisi explains. “Parang nagci-criticize na kami sa isa’t isa,” Gadia says, before adding playfully, “Minsan matigas ulo mo, ‘di ka nakikinig. Ako, matigas ulo ko, ‘di ako nakikinig. Depende.

 

Not a lot has changed between Balisi and Gadia since they met at an art event in the University of Santo Tomas (though neither of them are from there). They’ve stayed on distinct paths, neither of them feeling the pressure to make huge adjustments for the other, their work always remaining uniquely their own. Balisi states that he automatically liked Gadia’s use of materials and reference images, stating, “Mas cerebral ‘yung sa kanya, mas… by heart ‘yung akin.

 

“Wooow.” Gadia laughs, feigning being impressed. She agrees to an extent, saying that she can’t quite articulate why she enjoys Balisi’s work, but insists that it doesn’t need to speak out loud, and that she feels it within.

 

Their works feel naturally compatible, then. Gadia’s collages are normally much more expressive and colorful, while Balisi’s works, frequently inspired by the compositions of vintage photographs, are subdued and understated. There isn’t really a point of convergence between their works, despite being together for as long as they’ve been. But they both listen to the same records, look out at the same view, and share the same umbrella outside the house, and maybe that’s all it takes. -Emil Hofileña

 

Gene Paul Martin and Potti Lesaguis

Photos by Marco Ugoy

 

Potti Lesaguis (left) and Gene Paul Martin

It would be impossible to mistake Gene Paul Martin’s post-modern apocalyptic oil paintings for Potti Lesaguis’ neon-lit shapes and grids done in acrylic. Put them side by side and stare, however, and the resemblance is there, in unconsciously traced forms and subtle grades and textures. Even Martin will admit it: “Parang may relasyon din ang mga artwork.”

 

“‘Di mo talaga maiiwasan,” adds Lesaguis. Not with their history. Their studio in Project 8, Quezon City is a space they’ve shared for six years. Before that, both were under the informal mentorship of street artist Egg Fiasco as they hustled to complete their Fine Arts degrees in Far Eastern University. Put down their similar tastes and influences (“mga anak kami ng Juxtapoz Magazine,” says Martin) and even their complementary progressions in art, and you’ve got two artists who know each other’s art as well as their own, if not better.

 

“Ang lagi kong struggle bago ako magsimula ng painting—parang hindi ako marunong,” says Lesaguis. “Tapos, parang i-rerefresh niya. ‘O, hindi ka naman ganyan, ah! Ito ang ginawa mo. Ganito, ganito! ‘Di iyan ikaw!’ Ginaganyan niya ako lagi.”

 

“Parang nag-manifest ang konsensya mo,says Martin. Working in the same space—around Lesaguis’ long sessions and Martin’s movements from his blank canvas to his synthesizers—healthy debates are the norm as they toss blunt criticism over the other’s shoulder. When Lesaguis doesn’t like Martin’s work, however, he finds himself starting again from scratch. He explains, “Kailangan balanse talaga iyong pakiramdam para makatapos ako ng piyesa. Dapat parang may approval niya.” He pauses, looking thoughtful, before shrugging. “Parang mali, pero ganoon talaga.

 

“Ang lagi kong struggle bago ako magsimula ng painting—parang hindi ako marunong,” says Lesaguis. “Tapos, parang i-rerefresh niya. ‘O, hindi ka naman ganyan, ah! Ito ang ginawa mo. Ganito, ganito! ‘Di iyan ikaw!’ Ginaganyan niya ako lagi.”

 

One would ask where they draw the line, then, but their respective works remain distinct anyway—in the cleanness of Lesaguis’ work, and in Martin’s otherworldly punch—even if neither go out of their way to keep to something as arbitrary as individual style. “Wala kaming konsepto ng ganoon,” Martin says firmly. ” Lahat tayo mga rip-off. Wala namang orihinal. Parang hinahalo mo lang—remix lahat. Kung pakiramdaman kong gayahin ng isang element ni Potti sa susunod kong painting—”

 

 

“Siya pa rin iyan,” Lesaguis finishes. The attraction to the image is one that’s natural, and will belong to either should the inspiration strike them. Without that concept of style in the way, simple boundaries cease to exist. And in art’s infinite possibilities, Martin and Lesaguis just aren’t interested in them. –Patricia Chong