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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, April 09, 2012

entry arrow11:56 PM | The Insomniac Fantasist Speaks Up

Part 4 of the Dumaguete Design Upstarts Series

There are many sides to Stephen Abanto. Xteve, most of us call him. Xteve is painter, multimedia artist, filmmaker, bedeviled idealist, romantic dreamer, incurable insomniac. Late nights, we sometimes get to tweeting each other some inanities about not being able to sleep, and I’d imagine he’d be in his room, trying to do stuff with his computer. Those “stuff” often become the very ingredient of some magic—be it a painting, a film, or a sculpture.

I’ve known him since he first emailed me in Facebook some years back. Out of the blue, this kid with a hairstyle borrowed from some manga character wanted to ask me about, well, “love.” As if I knew anything worthwhile about it—but then again, maybe I did. (I did title my last collection of short stories Heartbreak & Magic, and dedicated the entire volume to someone who “gave me both heartbreak and magic.” Totally lame in retrospect—but you do what you do when you’re in love. No logic to it.)

But I’m digressing. I don’t remember what I told Xteve in my reply to his missive, but I’ve since followed his evolution as artist—from his beginnings as a dabbler in manga-like fantasies to his current fascination with film. His first short, an animated effort titled Suga was full of promise. His second short, something he has titled Café Les Back, about the comeuppance of dreadful gossipmongers, is something he made for my literature class. I told him at the very beginning of the term, “Enroll in my course. I know what your final project will be—a short film.” He did exactly that (and I think much to his own surprise). Right now, he’s doing another short film, something called Dagit. The trailer is already YouTube-able, and by the looks of it, it smacks of an epic fantasy, something celebrating the city Xteve comes from—Dumaguete.

But I’d rather that Xteve talk. Because he can get loquacious, too. “I’m a proud leftie,” he once told me. “I started drawing since I could hold a pencil or any ‘marking’ media. But I don’t think I started doing anything seriously of note until a few years ago, sadly enough. For the most part, I’m self-taught, which for some people, is hard to believe. It wasn’t until Silliman offered a BFA in Painting that I’ve had ‘professional help’.”

Did he ever think about doing art seriously? “I never really considered making a career out of what I thought was just a hobby of mine,” he said. “I never really knew what I wanted to do with myself until later in college. It wasn’t until a major ‘occurrence’ came about in my life that I decided to take this hobby to a whole new level. I started actively uploading my work to the Internet about a couple of years ago. Then bam! I was surprised by the amount of positive feedback I got from other people. They loved my work. They wanted more. I even got commissioned to do the cover art for a fantasy novel by this new author based in the U.S. But eventually I abandoned it for several reasons. Anyway, this ‘sideline’ took a toll on my academic life, as it was no longer possible for me to juggle Engineering with drawing. So, long story short, it finally dawned on me that I should follow my bliss. I shifted to BFA without parental consent, and I’ve never been happier.

“There was never a master plan as to what I wanted to be as an artist. I’m still currently trying to find a direction in my artistic compass here. I have mainly done traditional paintings and drawings before but during the process of building my portfolio, I decided to take the risk to experiment with different types of media. To be completely honest, I’m never contented with any of my works. Ever. But isn’t that the whole point? We all strive to improve and be better than what we have already accomplished, right?

"I consider my art as an evolution. My discontentment compelled me to not stick to one medium. I believe that it would be a good opportunity to create more diverse art works, and throughout the process, I can identify which ones I’d like to stick to improving and what will take a backseat in my priority list. The older I got, the more complex the process of my works became. Say, I draw a character on paper, a pencil drawing. But I want to give it more life, so I apply color. I paint on it. But it isn’t enough. I want to render color and effects only possible through digital media. So I learn Photoshop. And here, I’ve discovered my now favorite art form—digital art. But I’m still not happy. I want to be able to display them, no longer on a flat surface of a canvas or paper, so I make action figures made of clay and papier mache. I’m still not satisfied. I want to take that even further. So I try sculpting now, using processed clay and/or plaster of Paris, with my mom’s nail pusher for a carving knife!

“I didn’t stop there. I fancied movement. No, not robotics. I entered into animation. So I made this 15-second animation on Flash. I was kinda happy with the result, but I didn’t stop there. My fascination for video and film grew. And when Miss Silliman 2010 came around, I was more than ecstatic to do the videos and be able to practice my ‘directing skills,’ or lack thereof. To be able to see my visions come alive on screen like that, in my opinion, is the ultimate form art can take. Kids today, younger artists in particular, have grown up with technology. They learn awesome techniques and abilities straight out of their diapers, it’s amazing! People are now coming up with new ways of producing art everyday. Keeping up with that trend is very difficult. But for me, an artist should accept this challenge. It can be very good for the old creative drive you know. Artists shouldn’t succumb to one art form. A true artist is open-minded about embracing changes and new developments. Versatility is the name of the game.”

From the trailer for the short film Dagit

There is this one label his art keeps getting classified under, though. Fantasy. “I never really decided to specialize in fantasy art,” he said. “I create the art that I want, but it just happens to be classified as fantasy. Disparity between light and dark. Good and evil. These are the common themes in my art. Other than that, it’s all pretty much random churva.” He laughed. “I, however, tend to always go through the darker route with my work, without falling into the deep end. Or trying not to, anyway. I prefer darker themes, but also not to the preposterously ridiculous for the sake of being anti-’normal’ or something like that. I have to say that anything I make comes from somewhere in that spectrum, but with the intention to make people look at them differently. Characters that I draw may look like the nastiest piece of shit in the world but beneath all that crappy exterior lies something, well, good and well, beautiful. Everything isn’t always what it seems.”

What of his inspirations? “My primary sources of inspiration are from mythology,” he said. “High-fantasy stories, fashion, video games, and music. I love what I see on TV, in the movies. I love what I read in books. I know how drawn into the stories I can get, and I want to be able to do that for other people. Video games just further the notion, especially when I get my hands on a game and pray they have illustrations and concept art freebies in them. A lot of Japanese anime has also had a big impact on me. I derive inspiration from so many sources that it’s hard to really name anything too specific. I tend to draw a lot of inspiration for my design works from the greats.

“There’s J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of modern high fantasy. I’m a complete fanatic. I’ve read almost every book he ever published, memorized all of Gandalf’s lines from the movie adaptations, attempted to read and write three of the seven languages he devised for this grand tapestry he wove that is Middle Earth. There’s Peter Jackson, the master director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now currently filming The Hobbit. ‘Nuf said. There’s Tite Kubo, a Japanese writer and illustrator of my current favorite manga series. His style and storytelling is one of the most unique I’ve seen. There’s Tim Burton. I adore his style. He makes the macabre look so…shmexy. There’s Keith Thompson, Endling, Andree Wallin, Genzoman. They make me look like I’m all-thumbs. I cannot hold any group of artists from Deviantart in higher esteem. These are definitely the guys to beat. There’s the late Alexander McQueen, bless his soul. I simply adore his very daring and unconventional designs. They were so fascinating, full of expression and mystery. The fashion world has lost a great creative genius. There’s Lady Gaga. She’s a walking, singing, dancing, breathing artwork. And lastly, the concept artists—whoever they are—of the award-winning turn-based real-time strategy game, Disciples. This game is without any doubt one of the major inspirations that has greatly influenced my style as an artist.”

A clip from the short film Cafe Les Back

As for his own work, Xteve says he likes all of them—although none has given him complete satisfaction. “I do like some more than others,” he said, “but they’re all still my stuff, and I feel like they’re all there to remind me how far I still need to go in terms of improvement and conceptualization. There never really is a defining artwork where I’ve thought, ‘Yeah, this is the Xteve. This is my identity.’ Each one of my artworks is me, and pretty much describes the kind of aesthetics that is repeated in thru in every one of them that pleases me.”

He has dreams of making it big as an artist, like every artist there is—but he admits to always being careful about ambitions. “They’re like dust,” he said, “They easily kick in but very hard to hold on to. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not that lazy. There are just too many factors that tend to derail many of my projects from ever reaching completion, let alone getting much of my attention. There’s school. And there’s my ever-shifting mood. Although it’s safe to say I prefer doing most of my work longer than in a single sitting—a lot of my working time involve walking in circles and long periods of staring where nothing is being put to paper or canvas at all—getting away from my work for a good expanse of time actually diminishes whatever drive I have to completing it.

But he is not one to give up. And certainly not on what we can expect from him in the future “Hopefully, everything will go smoothly. Expect edgier and more—for the lack of a better word—controversial themes in my next portfolio. I’ll probably explore more into sculpture and definitely into animation and film. There’s some more stuff coming out sooner, but I’m not sure how much I can say about them yet. I can, however, tell you that they will be epic.” Or at least he hoped, he said.

(Next: Carmen del Prado as the Muscovado Documentarian)

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