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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 30, 2012

entry arrow10:43 PM | From Nick Joaquin's May Day Eve



“And I will not lie down!” cried the rebellious Agueda, leaping to the floor. “Stay, old woman. Tell me what I have to do.”

“Tell her! Tell her!” chimed the other girls.

 The old woman dropped the clothes she had gathered and approached and fixed her eyes on the girl. “You must take a candle,” she instructed, “and go into a room that is dark and that has a mirror in it and you must be alone in the room. Go up to the mirror and close your eyes and say:

Mirror, mirror, 
show to me him 
whose woman 
I will be. 

 If all goes right, just above your left shoulder will appear the face of the man you will marry.”

A silence. Then: “And what if all does not go right?” asked Agueda.

“Ah, then the Lord have mercy on you!”

“Why.”

“Because you may see—the Devil!”

The girls screamed and clutched one another, shivering.

“But what nonsense!” cried Agueda. “This is the year 1847. There are no devil anymore!”


[Art from the poster for the play by Juan Ekis. Read the rest of the short story here.]

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

entry arrow1:31 AM | The Muscovado Documentarian

Part 5 of the Dumaguete Design Upstarts Series


Carmen del Prado’s energy is sweet and infectious. That was my first impression of her. And time and again, every time we meet, it is that personality that strikes the most. Formidable, stealthy stuff for a documentarian, if you come to think about it.

Then again, her entire family—the Del Prados, who have made formidable business of being, all of them, artists—is largely cut from the same cloth. The fruit, so they say, never falls far from the tree. When I first got to know her, it was a Carmen still embarking on the possibilities of being a filmmaker. She was still unsure about what she wanted to do with life, considering what surrounded her in her immediate family—Dad Noy was a businessman; Mom Wing was an artist; and then there were the brothers—Miguel was already a gifted hilot, Ramon an animator of increasing renown, and Gabriel a chef.

For Carmen perhaps, the idea of doing a documentary on Dumaguete’s artists was a way of weighing things, of seeing what was there, and finding out what could click within her. I remember that she had emailed me at the start of her project, asking for pointers and leads about whom to contact from the disparate community of artists in Dumaguete.

She began with that list, went off to work, and then a year later, she came out with the finished product—Dumaguete: An Artists’ Haven. And for a first work by a budding documentarian, it was something else entirely: a cohesive narrative about artists in a small city, colorful by all accounts, and threaded all throughout with a confidence that proved exciting. In 2010, the film became Dumaguete’s representative to the annual CineRehiyon, the national film festival of cinematic works from around the region (except Manila). That film proved to be some kind of bellwether for her.



Which is good news because being a documentarian filmmaker is quite a rare breed in the Philippines. Almost all budding filmmakers in the country dream of doing it the fictional route, which is the usual, with their eyes firmly set on Cannes or Berlin. Or a career with StarCinema. What documentarians we do have spring mostly from the news outlets in media organizations: at the forefront of a young generation of documentarians, we have Paolo Villaluna and Patricia Evangelista at the helm of ANC’s Storyline. Sure, there are also Ramona Diaz (Imelda), Monster Jimenez (Kano: An American and His Harem), and Marty Syjuco (who produced Give Up Tomorrow)—but their number still pale considerably in comparison to the hordes of film fictionists. In Dumaguete, the only other person who has made some foray into documentary filmmaking is Anthony Gerard Odtohan, who made Papa Mike and the Rainbow Orphanage in 2008, but Odie is now, alas Tokyo-based. (Disclosure: I’ve produced the 2011 documentary City of Literature with Chinese filmmaker Zhao Lewis Liu, but I don’t really consider myself a full-fledged documentarian. A dabbler, at most.)

Enter Carmen into that rarified rank. That Carmen has considerably gone far at this stage of her career is beyond doubt, and already, together with her filmmaking partners Juls Rodriguez and brother Ramon, she is putting together a commissioned work for an international body, filming in different areas of the country to tell different a story about the Philippines.

“My love for art started when I was very young,” Carmen told me. “A lot of it came from my mom who taught us how to color and paint. It was only recently—in the past three years or so—that I’ve become interested in film.”

She started her film work with a few narratives made for her classes in the College of Saint Benilde—with some fun on the side making music videos with friends and family. She had no inkling then that it was going to be her consuming passion.

But passion it has since become. Her filmmaking, however, is something that she does with an underlying philosophy she compares to sugar, which is apt, since her family—part of Negros’ sugar society—owns a hacienda in Bais City. “My work is like muscovado sugar,” Carmen said, “Raw, not refined, but still sweet. In my first film, for example, I didn’t want it to be too refined or too commercial. I wanted it to be more natural and real. Instead of having the typical narration we find in documentaries, I wanted the film to narrate itself, told from the point of views directly from the local artists themselves. And I think that’s what made it interesting.”

That whirlwind of artistic points of view is something that speaks of her as a sponge for artistic ideas. “I get a lot inspiration from different cultures,” she said. “I like working in new places, meeting different artists and learning new things from them, and getting inspirations from what they do—which is exactly what I’ve done in creating my. That is why this film is something that best describes me as an artist.”

It is her brother Ramon, however, who remains her biggest influence. She said: “The biggest influences in my work are the members of my family, but especially my brother Ramon, who is also interested in film and animation. He has taught me to be the best in what I do, and we always try to team up together when we brainstorm for new projects. He’s one of the best persons whom I can really turn to since we have similar interests.”

And what of her work in the coming years? “What I would really hope to achieve with my work in the future is to become an even better filmmaker,” she said. “To travel more, and to create more films as well as promote the city where I grew up in. Hopefully, my films will become a tool for inspiration to others.”


Photo by Artu Nepomuceno


Next: Veronica Valente-Vicuña as the Vintage Stylist

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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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entry arrow8:23 PM | The Maker of Small Beautiful Things

Part 3 of the Dumaguete Design Upstarts Series


There are some surprises that I particularly like, especially ones that subtly unsettles because they defy common expectations and reveal the all-too-human shallowness that sometimes one harbors. Think of jewelry, for example, and what easily springs to mind is a womanly sort of luxury—glistening precious stones set in elaborate design dangling from a lady’s ear, or finger, or neck. Think of jewelry makers, and one thinks of some inspired mistress of ornaments toiling away at her magic assembly table, concocting the beautiful from small things, bead by bead, stone by stone, string by string. Never mind that some of the foremost jewelers in history—Harry Winston, Louis Cartier, Sotirios Voulgaris, etc.—are male. When I first encountered the jewelries of Ray Dy, I thought the pieces—locally produced and sourced—quite inspired. And I thought the maker a female. Such sensibility in the craftsmanship elaborated that.

My mistake. I was soon proven wrong, of course. Mr. Dy turned out to be the brother of a close friend, the scion of the family that owns Dumaguete’s premier shoe repair shop. But the guy has always been of a quiet sort, always smiling and friendly—and dare I say it again, quiet. Who knew this man was capable of something like painstakingly conjured jewelry?



But like most artists passionate about their work, jewelry-making was something Mr. Dy stumbled on. An accident, so to speak. And it began, of all places, in shop class. “I started with accessories design way back in high school,” Mr. Dy remembered. “It was in my T.H.E. class, which was Electronics. We twisted and soldered copper wires, and after doing those, I would create jewelry pieces from leftover copper wires and give them to friends and classmates.”

The response must have been quite enthusiastic, because sooner after that, he was getting orders. It was, however, the only workmanlike concession he has made of this “hobby”: “Right now, I only create jewelry pieces by order,” he said. “I seldom do mass productions. I want mine to be speak for each client.”

His jewelry, of course, speaks highly of that personal touch, but their design have also come about from careful study of what came before. Great art, after all, is always mindful of tradition—and great innovation only comes about from the subtle negotiations between honoring influence and struggling to go beyond it. Of that, Mr. Dy says that among his influences, four easily comes to mind: “First is Ciara Marasigan-Serumgard of Ciara Creates. Her technique on wire-beaded jewelry is just exquisite. There’s Tina Ocampo of Celestina. She just knows how to make people fall in love with her creations—they’re elegant and interesting, and they always make a statement. There’s [the late] Elizabeth Taylor with her love affairs with jewelry. And then there’s my favorite fashion designer, Alber Elbaz of Lanvin. He knows how to make woman look and feel glamorous. And I like his technique of manipulating different kinds of textiles.” But always, even with these inspirations, there is this strong voice that impels him to do something different. “Although I do wire-beaded jewelry, just like Ciara Marasigan-Serumgard, I always see to it that I use my own style and technique,” he said.

His process springs from a certain philosophy. “When I create pieces,” Mr. Dy said, “I always see to it that they have these elements: they should be elegant, they should be interesting, they should be one-of-a-kind, and they should be intricately done. I want my creations to be a statement or a conversational piece. I should first fall in love with what I create and then deliver it to my client, who I hope will also fall in love with the piece.”

“Most of my creations are done organically,” he revealed. “I seldom or even don’t do sketches for a jewelry piece. I just let my hands and my imagination—also the wire, the beads, and the crystals—do the work. If I do sketches, it’ll be just for setting down ideas that flash in my head. I do this so I won’t forget them.”



For Mr. Day, the creation that best describes his aesthetics is the cuff he calls Serpent 1.0: “It shows how I intricately integrate the copper wire and the different kinds of beads, like lace, to become snake cuff. Every twist of the wire and the beads evokes the passion that I put into it. When I created it, the design was inspired by Tiffany lamps. It’s like Art Nouveau stained glass, but instead I used beads, with my wire-twist techniques incorporated in it.”

All this is just the beginning as he explores more and more what he can do with jewelry. “I always do my best and try to push the limits of my design as well as my techniques every time I create jewelry pieces for my clients,” Mr. Dy said. “I also love to explore and experiment with new materials and techniques—from paper to wood. I’ve explored beadwork, macramé, and even chain mail. But ultimately, I would really love to work with real precious stones and metals in the future. That’s my dream.”


(Next: Stephen Abanto as the Nocturnal Fantasist)

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

entry arrow12:37 AM | The Conjurer of Deeper Things Beyond Pretty

Part 2 of the Dumaguete Design Upstarts Series


The world of photography—especially as it exists now with this glut of images spurred by the democracy of the digital—is a world plagued by, for lack of a better term, the disease of the pretty.

Oh, pretty can be nice. A lollipop is pretty. Something pretty is ready-made for easy appraisal. People flock to the pretty, the way most would ohh and ahh over something as banal as those picturesque scenes of the Filipino countryside depicted in mass-manufactured paintings hawked by third-rate department stores. Or the way a witless one would decorate a house with artificial flowers. Or blue “antique” Chinese vases. Pretty is the shallow side of what’s beautiful, and what’s more, lollipops do cause cavities.

In photography, “pretty” could mean something an untrained, undiscriminating eye would click at because they are informed by the shallow vocabulary of postcards—a generic sunset, a tired touristy shot of a kid with balloons, a ho-hum shot of a birthday candle on a cake. They’re nice to look at—but really, there’s not much there: they have nothing else to say except declare their cuteness.

And yet, in the sure hands of an artist, even the “pretty” can be elevated to something else entirely. I am reminded, for example, of the films of Douglas Sirk, whose saturated melodramas for Universal Pictures—All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life, or Magnificent Obsession—were first flippantly dismissed as shallow women’s films, but were soon revealed as subversive commentaries on 1950s rigidity. In Sirk, upon close reading, we see his pretty frames as manipulative, calculated gloss that buries an intelligent satire on a culture that unwittingly consumes these pictures as easy, tear-jerker entertainments. There is an artist’s mind behind the “prettiness,” which is only a tool to achieve something more transcendent and is never the end itself.



I am not sure if Kat Michelle Banay is a Sirkian manipulator of images, but I suspect there is something intelligent that lurks behind the pictures that she produces from her camera. Ms. Banay is another young photographer based in Dumaguete—somebody I have yet to meet—but the first time I came across her photography online, there was something breathtaking in their execution. Sure, what she had were pretty pictures—a cherry tree in full bloom, a wedded couple in repose, a tray of violet cupcakes, a clear bottle full of Scrabble tiles—but there was a depth to them I could not begin to articulate, or explain. Was it the haunting sadness of the cherry tree as it bloomed in full sunshine? Was it the unguarded tilt of the bride that betrayed something else other than bliss? Was it the sheer loneliness evoked by the still life of pastries? Was it the wistful manipulation of three Scrabble tiles, spelling out the word “art”?

I could ask what exactly it is about her images that strikes uncommon depths, but I doubt Ms. Banay would know the answer. The true artist never really knows where that intuition for beauty comes from. The poet Federico Garcia Llorca called it duende, and Dumaguete photographer Hersley-Ven Casero calls it “the whisper that comes to me.”

In fact, photography was something she stumbled on as a hobby, her interest kindled in 2007 because she knew of a girl in Silliman High who “got to travel to places.” Ms. Banay recalled: “She would share photos of her escapades in Multiply. Back then, this was one of the top social networking sites. They were really just random snapshots of herself and her friends, but I found those cool. So I bought a digital camera, and took photos of me and my friends whenever we got the chance to travel. And then, months later, I realized I liked my photos better without myself in them, and so I went on and took shots of anything I found interesting or beautiful.”

Those things, of course, are the generic sort of “pretty” things—the beach, the sky, the trees. In other words, the raw materials for the budding image collector. Somewhere along the way, those images deepened into something more. They became, in a sense, a reflection of Ms. Banay’s secret self. The beach, the sky, the trees—they became metaphors for some inner surging. “Photography, like any other art, should be about self-expression,” she said. “The kind of subjects a person photographs somehow speaks something about the person behind the camera—what he likes, where he lives, what he does for a living, who he interacts with, what lifestyle he leads, how he finds beauty in the world and what it is he considers interesting. Looking at his pictures, you can tell how much deeper he sees things beyond the obvious. Anyone who is truly interested in photography will surely take pictures of things or places that he identifies with, and pictures are his ways of showing it.”

She continued: “For me, the best kinds of photographers out there are photojournalists, because they can capture the most special and meaningful moments that most people take for granted. That, plus the fact that they are able to compose well. But not every photographer has the eye of a photojournalist. And some of us just take pleasure in capturing random things around us, trying to make things more meaningful than how they appear. But whatever preference we have on subjects, what would be truly rewarding, though, is to inspire others just as others have inspired me.”

That inspiration springs from four sources—photographers Paul Vincent Photo (“I love that he seems to be able to capture the right moments in such a fast-paced event like a wedding, and do it so artistically”), Henri Cartier-Bresson (“he remind me to think before I shoot, that the best moments to capture are worth waiting for, that the perfect moment is out there and it is up to you to catch it”), Ansel Adams (“his work just seems to have just the right amount of black, white and gray”), and Stephanie Williams (“her photos so dreamy and inspiring, the kind that just makes you smile at the sight of them”). This says a lot about Ms. Banay’s education in the traditions of photography, something the plain amateur devoted only to the worship of the pretty would lack.

That education somehow shows in many of her photographic preferences. “I’m fond of taking pictures in natural light,” Ms. Banay said. In her photo titled Beach, she takes what seems to be a random shot of Boracay in broad daylight, but in her composition of beachcombers, sand, surf, and cloud formation, she mixes a sense of summer tinged with a forbidding sense of heaviness. Look at that horizon. It is pregnant with a cutting sort of expanse. It is, almost, sad.



Is she cognizant of that effect in her photograph? Probably not, and perhaps all for the better. She simply recounted of it: “For me, the best place to shoot is the beach. This photo shows my love for travel, my love for the beach, and my love for shooting landscapes. It shows my fascination with cloud formations.”

And yet, there is some recognition in her part of a style, a photographic tick: “You’ll also notice my attempt in making this photo look vintage. I don’t know what about me adores old-looking photos. Now that I think about it, it’s funny that some photos I’ve taken were with modern equipment—but I make them look old, as if they were taken by cameras from the past.”

And sure, it looks pretty. But also something else entirely. That something else is what counts, and what makes Ms. Banay an artist.


Next: Ray Dy as the Maker of Small Beautiful Things

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