What happens when a painter thinks she isn’t skilled in painting?
For Yeo Kaa, there’s no other way but to continue painting.
Yeo Kaa’s works have already piqued the interest of art enthusiasts both here and abroad. But prior to becoming a full-fledged artist, she didn’t think she was skillful enough in her craft.
When she was in college, she was frustrated because she couldn’t do the Realism style of painting. In fact, her professor didn’t believe in her skill. She failed in her Painting subject twice. She took two extra years to finish her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, major in Advertising, from the College of the Holy Spirit in Manila.
Part of the reason she struggled in her studies was due to an illness she was battling with. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and Trichotillomania, a hair-pulling disorder. She would pull her hair from the roots whenever she was feeling stressed. There was a time she went to school with a bald spot. During the interview, she told me it was a relief she’s now able to open up about this topic, because ten years ago mental illness was a taboo that very few people understood.
Ultimately, Yeo Kaa’s passion proved to be greater than any illness or rejection, both from herself or from other people.
One day in college, when they were tasked to paint Trapunto but using the style of Picasso, that’s when she realized that she does not need to copy others; that she does not have to be a Realist painter; that she can have her own style.
In her last year in college, she and her friends decided to pursue painting as a career. However, that was not good news for her parents, who wanted her to go to China after she graduated, learn the Chinese language, and be involved in the family business. But Yeo Kaa already knew the path she wanted to take.
She started her career with fellow budding artists from Studio 1616. Their exhibits at Art in the Park paved the way for them to be discovered. It was in 2014, Yeo Kaa had her first solo exhibition, Blood and Stitches, at Secret Fresh Gallery. She tells me she was very happy that time because a lot of people came and liked her art.
Then came another crossroads. In 2016, while struggling with a relationship, she was undecided whether to continue with her art career or pursue business. Her manager then convinced her to choose her passion. After that critical point in her life, she got her momentum.
The following year, 2017 she became an artist-in-residence at Sarang Art Space in Jogjakarta, Indonesia and Arteles Creative Center in Haukijärvi, Finland. Then in 2018, she had her first European solo exhibition, Anxious Lustless Pechay, with a reception organized by the Arndt Art Agency and the Philippine Embassy in Berlin.
Growing with her art
Yeo Kaa had a very interesting answer when I asked her what she would want to tell young artists. She said, if it were her younger self, she would probably tell aspiring artists to work on their craft and just practice. But now that she has gotten older and more mature, she wants to tell them to enjoy what they are doing and never get validation.
She is one artist who grows with her art. She even told me that at one point, she’s frustrated at herself for not being able to help other people because at that time, she was only thinking of herself. Now that she has started to like and accept herself, it has been easier for her to extend help to others. In the process, it has affected her art, too. While it remains personal, her art has been able to focus on other people as well.
She explains, “My art is a personal journal and where I share my sentiments, struggles, and anxieties, but aims to connect with the audience by way of its entanglements with contemporary life, current events, and broader human experience.”
Take for instance her 2020 exhibit, From the Comfort of My Own Home, at Yavuz Gallery. One of her inspirations in this exhibit was her experience during the pandemic, when she noticed that many people had to go out and face the dangers of acquiring the virus; while there are those who, like her, were privileged to be working at the comfort of their own homes.
Yeo Kaa already has her own style, but the theme and stories of her works have matured over time. Many of her compositions are meant to find expression for the taboos and the unspeakable.
In explaining her art, she tells me: “I imagine a world set ablaze with vivid and bursting colors, inspired by pop art and animation, to stage the mundane and render it enchanting to the eye. Often, I mix my candy-flavored palette and doll-life figuration with dark and disturbing imagery of violence, infliction of pain, and body mutilations, among others, to shock and evoke discomfort to some, while easing the sensitivity of confronting real-life horrors to others. It is the tension between the pleasant and naïve, and the dreadful and irreverent where I locate my art’s potency.”