Kenneth Tan Ronquillo is a San Jose based Filipino artist whose beginnings started with an unconventional move: he left Southern California, homeward bound, to help care for Crescenciana Tan, his grandma, or “lola” in Tagalog, when she turned ninety-four. In our recent interview with Kenneth, he shares that he wanted to find a way to make the most of their time together, by coming up with the idea of collaborative art. His lola makes the paintings, and his promise is to finish everything she starts.
He is a recipient of the Emerging Leigh Weimers Artist Awards in 2017 and that was the first time we discovered his work. His work leaves a tender mark on your heart.
Here is our interview with him as he shares his story:
Your credo is, “a job is what you leave behind at the end of the day. Work is what you leave behind at the end of a lifetime.” What is it about your work that you want people to associate with you?
I hope people look at the work that Lola and I do together and associate us with family and love, and I hope that isn’t corny. Lola used to tell me how things are different here in the States—kids grow up, move far away, and start their lives separated from their families. I grew up, I moved away, but I don’t think my life started until I moved back home and I was standing at her side.
I hope people also look at our work and associate us with corporate sponsorships. We’re getting a LaCroix deal out of this, right? I was told there’d be a LaCroix deal. I’ve been mixing all our watercolors with LaCroix.
Your Lola taught you to be unafraid, to discover. As you continue your work, are you still “discovering” new things about yourself and the Filipino community?
I came home one weekend, maybe three months into grad school. I sat next to Lola and when she asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’m scared. Everyone else is so smart, and I don’t understand what I’m learning, and I can’t keep up. I’m scared I won’t finish.” Lola said, “Why afraid? Discover. What is fear? You fight him.”
As I continue our work, I’m discovering I can make things happen if I give myself a chance. I’m not the brightest parol at the festival, so I second-guess myself. But when I’m feeling intimidated or incapable, I think about Lola. The hardest things Lola had to do were surviving World War II and raising her two little girls after her husband disappeared. If she can evacuate into the mountains while airplanes are dogfighting overhead, then the least I can do is finish a drawing even if I’m butt-hurt that it isn’t turning out how I’d imagined. Suck it up, Kenneth! Eat your breakfast and start your day. Your avocado toast is getting cold.
To be honest, I don’t know much about the Filipino community, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to take my shoes off before I enter it, right? One thing I have learned about the Filipino community is that we help each other. I like that.
Even with your Lola’s passing, how does your work remain a collaboration?
When Lola and I started painting together, I said I would finish everything she started. Now, it’s bittersweet when I look at her paintings and think that, if I were to draw or paint on all of them, then that would be the end. I work digitally now so that I can draw on scans of Lola’s paintings. This way, I can make many pieces from any one of Lola’s paintings.
Our work is still a collaboration because Lola has still started each piece, and I still finish each piece based on her stories and memories. That hasn’t changed.
How does your work empower today’s Filipino youth?
I don’t know if any Filipino youth know about us, to be honest.
What I would like to say to Filipino youth is: Yes, your life is yours to live. But your life started before you were born. Learn your parents’ stories, and their parents’ stories before them. Those are your stories, too. And you can’t appreciate where you are and where you are going unless you know where they have been.
I think that was more than 140 characters so I’m not sure Filipino youth read it all.
So, let me translate: Ur Lola and Lolo are like Waze for ur life #KnowHistoryKnowSelf #NoHistoryNoSelf
Are you working on any new projects besides Lola x Kenneth?
I’ve started learning to play the bandurria. I’ll be stumbling through a Filipino folk song and my mom will overhear me and say that Lola knows the song. I try to learn these songs that Lola knows, and I hope she’s happy when I play them. I’m also trying to learn to play the guitar. Clearly, my goal is to be a one-man rondalla.
Do you have any upcoming new events you’d like the Filipino community to be aware of?
Kenneth will be teaching an art class at the Vietnamese American Community Center on August 25th 10-12:30pm
Starting Saturday, 9/8, our work will be included in Chopstick Alley’s art exhibition, Salt Stained, in San Jose's Japantown.
How do you believe your art has impacted the Filipino community?
It’s not a big deal, but Lola and I are two of the three stars on the flag. Thanks for doing that, you guys! You’ve impacted us.
Whenever we’re showing our work at an event, I like to put out a canvas with “Dear Grandma/Grandpa…” written on it and invite people to write a response. When I meet Filipinos and Filipino Americans, they usually write on the canvas, and they usually have a story to share about their lola or lolo. It’s been a healing process relating to other Filipinos who are close to their grandparents.
Being Filipino, we are not often encouraged to pursue any career outside of STEM. With that in mind, what is your stance on art education?
I’m against art education. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Of course I support art education! I think that as Asian Americans it’s awkward for us to express ourselves to our families. Growing up, the only time I started a sentence with “I feel” was when it ended with “hungry.” Maybe I loved drawing as a kid because it was an escape and also a safe way to communicate.
When Filipino parents tell us to be doctors, or lawyers, or engineers, they’re trying to steer us into careers they think will guarantee us a monied life. They want to know that we’re going to be okay. They want to know that we’re going to be happy. The thing is, a monied life isn’t necessarily a happy life. I know this because Lola worked very hard, earned very little, loved and was loved, and had riches all her days. I worked very hard, towards a career in health I did not want, lived far from friends and family, and hit rock bottom never having chased my dreams.
If you like art, then dig in. Study art. Vote yes on art.
What is your word of advice to new, upcoming Filipino artists breaking into the scene?
I feel like I’m new to art and the art scene myself, but I will say this: authenticity is key. If you’re sitting in front of a canvas and you’re hesitating because you’re thinking “Should I paint this blue? Or pink? Do people like pink?” then you’re going about it the wrong way. Paint the painting you want to paint, with the colors you want to paint with. That’s how Lola does it. She doesn’t hesitate.
You may find Kenneth Tan Ronquillo on social media. Please see the links below.
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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA
Originally from the Bay Area and a graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. In addition, she is a recent graduate student at San Francisco State University for the English Literature Master’s program. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.
Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA
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.