Max DeHart - A Filipino American Artist on Surviving Isolation With Nature
There is a surge of artists of all backgrounds, specifically within marginalized populations, establishing themselves in the art community. It is an exciting sight seeing these artists collaborate and find confidence in their work. One in particular is local, half-Filipino artist, Max DeHart. He is a self-taught acrylic painter who focuses on natural settings and creatures utilizing realism techniques with an urban abstract texture. He began his art journey painting when he was around eighteen, and he has been pursuing art for eleven years now.
Chopsticks Alley met DeHart through our Salt Stained Exhibit, which was Chopsticks Alley Art’s first pop-up gallery featuring Southeast Asian arts from Vietnam and the Philippines, such as Thịnh Thị Trương, Binh Danh, Trinh Mai, Tuan Tran, and Kenneth Tan Ronquillo. Through Trami Cron, the executive director of Chopsticks Alley, DeHart was introduced to the editorial team.
We asked how he found Ken Matsumoto, the owner of the Art Object Gallery, and surprisingly, DeHart found him through an ad on Craigslist. He already had a studio in downtown San Jose and was browsing Craigslist for fun and came across an ad that had just been listed. It was the dream studio he always wanted and there it was, as DeHart put it, “just an email away.” Prior to that, he had been to Art Object Gallery in Japantown only once before. Almost exactly one year later, he ended up moving his studio to Ken’s gallery. Working in this particular studio is a move DeHart believes is one of the most developing decisions in his artistic career, to which he says, “the Japantown area is so incredible, everyone is nice and there is such a caring and devoted community. The Studio itself is more isolated than I am used to but it’s separated me from constant influences, wanted and unwanted, and allowed me the space to develop my own sense of identity.”
Cultural identity can sometimes be a controversial topic. With Chopsticks Alley, we try to be a safe space for Southeast Asian artists and attempt to focus on an artist’s cultural identity and how it translates in their art. We perused DeHart’s portfolio prior to the interview and did not see any pieces that were obviously inspired by the Filipino culture. We asked if he could speak any particular Filipino dialect, and DeHart states, wistfully, “I wish that I could say that I speak Tagalog, but I don’t. Supposedly, when I was younger I was able to understand it. My parents split when I was around five or six, and I lived with my mom from then on who didn’t speak anything other than English. I can’t say I consciously know if being Filipino affects my work. Indirectly, I know it does. I was separated from my Filipino side of my family most of my life leaving me feeling isolated from my own culture. Perhaps that may be some subconscious reason why I am so attracted to nature and animals. It’s a habitat that is full of isolation, an environment for those willing to survive.”
DeHart has “never been to the Philippines but plan on visiting one day. [He] has some family out there that [he] would like to meet.” He expressed not being in tune to his Filipino culture growing up primarily with his mother. When asked if he felt he was held to a stricter standard because he is not only representing himself but all Filipinos as well, he said, thoughtfully, “I really don’t look at it like I represent all Filipinos or even all white people. I hold myself to a strict standard because I want to constantly strive to be better. I do take pride in knowing I have Filipino blood in me, but I think that by focusing on my craft, I can fully give confidence to anyone, including Filipinos, in following their artistic endeavors.” Despite frequenting many art studios and participating in shows and events, DeHart admits that he hasn’t connected with other Filipino artists. He acknowledges they are out there, but he personally hasn’t crossed paths with one yet.
Representation of people of color in general is a current, popular debate in mainstream news. Despite the demand for more representation and the pressures that often come with it for people of color, DeHart doesn’t feel pressured to speak on the experiences of being a person of color. He believes the only misconception he experiences is that most people don’t know what race or ethnicity he is, as he is most commonly mistaken for Hispanic. Growing up, he learned to accept himself as simply ‘human’ and not place any importance to his heritage or culture. Subconsciously, it led him to find characteristics in nature that he can relate to as well. Although, he does believe there needs to be more Asian Americans and Filipinos in the spotlight. Filipinos are passionate and hardworking people. The problem is that there is such a demanding pressure to be financially successful that they take the more traditional route of going to school for technical or science degrees. DeHart confesses, “I feel like to the people around me that I interact with directly, I can be a bit of a positive influence or role model whether they are Filipino, Asian American, or any other ethnicity. I hope that by just being an artist that excels in my craft in a genuine and authentic way I can inspire all up and coming artists.” Especially when careers outside of STEM are heavily encouraged within the Filipino culture, art and other careers not as financially lucrative, is not regarded with as much respect. DeHart explains, “life needs balance though! Art education is very important so that we can be passionate about the beauty in life and not just making money!”
Since DeHart’s style is rooted in nature, he is not directly involved in social politics with his art. We inquired how particular cultural debates, specifically that of “Americanization,” (which is defined as the process of an immigrant to the United States becoming a person who shares American values, beliefs and customs by assimilating into American society), has affected him, and he “can’t say that it has really affected [his] art in any way.”
Regardless of the inspiration of the pieces, an artist may or may not use certain materials and mediums. DeHart was previously used to the standard assumed methods of drawing using charcoal and graphite. Eventually, he started using markers and met acquaintances who introduced him to spray paint. He used spray paint and markers primarily for a couple years before he really started learning how to use acrylic paints. Now, he mostly just uses acrylics; however, he will dabble with other mediums and materials. He emphasized his desire to learn and to continue learning throughout his career.
We asked if DeHart recalled his first piece of artwork that he felt particularly proud of, to which he replied, “I don’t really remember the first actual art piece that I finished but I do remember the first one that made me realize I wanted to pursue art for the rest of my life. I was experimenting with techniques, throwing paint at the canvas to get some texture. Afterwards, I drew on a tiger and started outlining and adding details on top of all that splatter texture. After a few days of refining, I had my largest completed canvas piece that I actually felt proud of. This was back in 2016, so I had actually been painting for years not really sure of my direction and confidence. I sold that painting earlier this year to help finance a trip to Iceland and definitely think it was worth parting with. The painting is now hanging up at a friend's tattoo shop, Blue Rose Tattoo, in San Jose, so I still have the opportunity to see it once in a while.”
He was unable to point out a specific point in his life when he discovered his passion for natural settings and its inhabitants; however, it, as a subject, was always something he wanted to be involved with. He went camping often growing up and looked forward to those trips. It gives him a feeling of “being alive.” He states, “I just accept that feeling for what it is and keep surrounding myself with things that give me that feeling!” To the viewers, DeHart want[s] to remind people that “there are more creatures out in the world than humans. There is a natural habitat the planet has perfectly set up for us to live and we must consciously be wise to not destroy it. To work together to protect the planet and all creatures and in short, to make nature cool.”
Having always been a bit of a fantasizer, he daydreams of places he wants to visit and animals he wishes to meet as well. “I would love to be able to travel and paint full-time,” DeHart explains, describing his future goals for himself as an artist, “currently I work a full time job to provide stability in finances. It’s been a slow and steady climb to make that leap of being a full time artist but the better I get, the closer that dream becomes a reality. In less than 5 years, I plan on those dreams becoming a reality.”
While the future is not yet set in stone, we were curious as to see if there were any more immediate, upcoming shows DeHart’s art will be on display. His response left us excited for more, “as of now, I plan on keeping quiet until May of 2019. I will be working hard on producing new work to exhibit for my first ever solo show “Into The Wilderness” at Art Object Gallery.” Keep an eye out for DeHart come May 2019!
We asked the impact his art made on the community, and through his art, he says, “I’ve had the pleasure of being able to do things such as live paint, teach technique, host and curate group art shows, and also share my art. I would hope that through those methods I have impacted some people to be inspired to create, motivated to work, confident to experiment, and learn from my failures. Through the art community I’ve been able to bring people together to work on art and do shows together which has forged new friendships and shared experiences.”
When asked how art is responsible in supplying the community with the knowledge of different cultures, DeHart answers, “in my most honest opinion, I think that art generated out of honesty and passion will attract a good crowd of people. The people who come out to see the show can be of any ethnicity; they are just there for some good art and good times. This to me is first hand experience of how art is responsible for sharing the knowledge of different cultures. Art bringing a diverse crowd of people to share an experience together.”
We asked DeHart the best way for readers to contact him, to which he replied, “email is the best way to contact me (email@example.com). You can find my work or even contact me at www.maxdehart.com. For a more updated peek into my life you can find me on Instagram @maxdehart. We can attest to his approachability; we sent him an email through his site and received a response just a few days later.
The goal of Chopsticks Alley and all of the organizations’ branches is communication and outreach. We want to provide opportunities that may not have been available to someone because of the city in which they live or the lack of programs, etc. As an up and coming artist himself, we asked if he had any advice for the younger Filipino American readers eager to follow their artistic goals:
“Always have fun! Experiment. Make mistakes on purpose! Learn as much as you can and work on your art passionately. If you find yourself not having fun, then try something new! Don’t let pressure and expectations prevent you from creating. Art is subjective, and different is inevitable--
Always remind yourself that your vision is unique!”
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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA Contributor
Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga.