In-Sync with… Cesar Conde (interview)


This post continues my series “In-Sync with…” aimed to get a closer look at contemporary artists and art professionals from Chicago and abroad. Read it, enjoy it, share it, and get in-sync with artist Cesar Conde. Do not miss his personal recommendations at the end of the interview.

It is my pleasure to present this interview not only with a great artist but also a great friend. I have the pleasure to show his work and work with him in various art projects.  Cesar’s work elevates the beauty and humanity of those who have been ignored, forgotten or neglected around the world. His vision for the work he does is as a strong as the charm of his personality.  Enjoy!!!

Sergio: Where did you go to school  and what degree did you receive?

Cesar: I graduated from The University of Washington, in Seattle where I got a B.S. in Speech Communication with emphasis on Spanish literature and drama.

I also spent a semester in Guadalajara, Mexico at La Universidad de Guadalajara where I was introduced to Art and Politics. The giant murals by famed Mexican artists struck me like lighting and made an early impression that Art can matter. It was here where I met my first American lover who introduced me to apartheid and societal injustice based on race and class (we were both in the closet and now he is a mayor of a major metropolitan city.)  My professors were leftist intellectuals . We drank, ate and discussed politics till the wee hours of the morning. This experience politicized me. Hence, I became aware of my race and color and got in touch with my Filipinoness. I was sort of a banana, yellow on the outside and white in the inside. Also, in Mexico, I found my second home. I say Filipinos and Mexicans come from the same lot. Both so passionate, where food, family, community are the means of existence.

After Guadalajara, I went to Seville, Spain. It was enigmatic. Come to find out that my great-grandfather was from Sevilla before he went to the colonies. Here, I was introduced to El Greco, Goya and the Spanish masters. It was in Spain where I got my worst grade. 0.0. grade point. You could imagine how tragic that was, I being Asian and all. Those numbers were important to my parents. I love life so much that I could not kill myself because of shame, so I went shopping and drinking instead. I learned to let go of expectations from society in Spain. I also came out while living in Spain. I became a gypsy, partying all night , sleeping in bus stops and hosting salon in our flat. This was where I did my Bar exams. I went to all the bars and I became known as “el chino”. You know how those Spaniards like to throw those racial epithets. It was endearing, yet I kept correcting them that I am Filipino-American. They had no concept. But then again it was the early 80’s and Franco had just died a decade before. Spain was experiencing the great “movimiento” in cinema, theater, music, and the visual arts . It was exhilarating.

Sergio: Do you feel art school prepared you for the art career you have now ?

Cesar:  I never went to art school. I was not allowed. In my family it was, “We’ll pay for school if you become an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.”  Art is frivolous and you can’t make money. That was the first lesson I learned. I remember, I was in kindergarten and my art teacher displayed my sunset Crayola drawing because it was the best. My grandma said, ”That’s nice, but you can’t make money on that “. Ugghhhhh, you can imagine my doe eyed enthusiasm becoming sullen.  So all modes of artistic expression were muted. However, with this experience, it prepared me to have a thick skin. I became more demonstrative and creative in whatever I did.  My family prepared me for the big disappointments of rejection in both visual arts, theater and on camera auditions. Oh yeah, I also do theater and act on camera.

However, post-college, I started doing art (Bad ART). I had the concept but had no skill. So I took workshops and studied with whom I considered the best. Madamme Josem who I learned how to use oil and patience at the Art Institute of Chicago, while envying the “real student artists”. And then there’s Maestro Patrick Betaudier, who taught me “Technique Mixte” and patience. I spent a month in his atelier in Monflanquin, France: A small bastide in the middle of nowhere. Before that, I studied how to use a pencil and draw in Florence, Italy with John Michael Angel at his academy. I didn’t study with him personally. He is so big that he had his apprentice teach us. One night our class had pizza with him . He pointed out the two students who he thought would make it as an artist (that was an assuming and f***ked up thing to do.) John Michael Angel was an apprentice to Pietro Annigoni: A grand master himself, who painted homeless people. I was walking through the streets of Florence and I looked up and saw a fresco of a woman begging. It stopped me on my tracks. I cried. It turned out that it was painted by Pietro Annigoni himself. Destiny has brought me to where I needed to be.

I should say that my best mentors are Ed Hinkley and Laurie Shaman. Both accomplished artist who continue to inspire and push me to directions I need to go. I call them my “White Parents”. They have nurtured me in more ways I could ever ask for. They lead by example. And with them, my need to be nourished as an Asian middle age child artist was fulfilled. They had encouraged me and mentored me in the most positive way. It was Ed who taught me how to paint . We lived in this artist community in Old Town before gentrification . Beautiful loft spaces with shared bathrooms. That was when I started to let ART lead me to where I am at.  Also, it was Laurie who taught me not to quit my second shift YET! Both are so sensible and realistic in this unstable world of Art.

Sergio: What is your website?


Sergio: What are you working on and what inspires you right now?

Cesar: I am doing the charcoal under drawing of the “Boys from Manila”. The photo document was taken at sunrise in the slums of Manila. My friend who is a film director asked if I wanted to watch the filming of a soap opera. “Of course.” So I had my camera in tow and spent the night in the van in the middle of gang-infested slum waiting for sunrise. I had an amazing day going through and documenting the geography of poverty. Children naked walking through muddy puddles without slippers. Streets used as public toilets. Women washing clothes in the polluted brown river. It was eye opening and humbling. So screw the romantic notion of the “starving artist.” These people are really living on the edge. An artist can get a job in McDonald’s in the U.S. or scrubbing toilets. We don’t need to starve.

Sergio: How does a typical day in your studio/creative space looks like ?

Cesar: I work everywhere and anywhere. I travel the world. I work a second shift. I fly for a living and it is the painting that makes my living worthwhile. My favorite studio environment is Paris and Rome. I sit in a café, drinking wine with my sketchbook. I draw on the paper table cover and use the red wine to create shadows. Sometimes, I would use the sauce from my steak or spaghetti to add color and texture to the drawing.

Walking the streets of Europe, I would pause and sketch what I see. Write down my thoughts, my feelings. I sketch and sketch. I have to sketch everyday, wherever I am. My day does not feel complete without creating lines and shading shadows.

I have two studios. My home studio and at FM* Gallery. At home is where I do all my dry work.: charcoal, graphite and ink drawings. At FM* I do all my wet work. I love working at both places. At home, I am surrounded by Santos and Buddhas. They calm me. At FM* I have the company of good friends. In either places, I have my dog with me. Tidus lets me know when it’s time to take a break.

Oh yeah . It’s cliché ,I drink tons of coffee and tons of wine. I have no ink in my body and I wear my Ferragamos when I paint.

I’m bourgoisie that way ( See . I don’t believe in the “starving artist”.)

Sergio: Describe your creative process.

Cesar: “Technique Mixte” is an unforgiving process. Once you put on the imprematura and start layering the lead whites, it’s stamped forever. At least, that has been my experience. So I do an exact drawing from the photo documents I have. I am always inspired. I bring my camera wherever I layover and take photographs of people who captures my attention. Sometimes, I schedule a photo safari trip. I’m a realist painter and I love people. I love the stories each individual’s have. So I am always observing, looking for nuances, looking for that little gestures which suggest vulnerability, looking for that window which exposes the soul and character of a person. I have inner dialogues and storytellers in my head asking me “What is in that person ?” “Where is she going ?” Who is he waiting for ?”. I am continuously looking for the motivation of ones action. So my process is infinite. My actors training has helped me shape the drama in my paintings. Sergio, I am always in the creative mode. When I am serving drinks and peanuts in the airplane, I look at the faces of my passengers and try to read their stories. And with that, I can translate the human emotion and get a hint of what I think is in their inner world. In my paintings, I love the in-between emotion and moments. I try very hard to capture that. I think that is when humanity is so pure. The in-between state. Everyone has a story. I want to translate peoples stories to canvas. I try to be consistent with my point of view . I try to respect their stories and have the audience feel the experience which I had when I took their image.

Sergio: What type of mental/practical activities do you do when facing a creative block ?

Cesar: I watch porn. It’s the ultimate distraction. I always wonder  “How do they do that ?” It’s the most benign thing I do when I face a creative block. I used to go on the internet and pick up men when I am bored. That just takes too much time from painting. So I just watch porn and with whatever comes with that.

Sergio: Do you find social media to be a distraction or an asset for you as an artist and how do you deal with it ?

Cesar: I love Facebook. It keeps me connected and in touch with people who I have not seen in decades. You’re a witness to this Sergio. I am almost always on Facebook when I am not watching porn (chuckle). Being a Flight Attendant is a lonely job. Being an Artist is a lonely job. The internet has saved me a lot of money in international calls and has kept me in touch with fellow artists and friends. I just went to an exhibit in Amsterdam by an artist who I met on FB. Fantastic. In Paris, I went to an Artist house who I met on FB. The world of  internet has made my world less lonely and less too far away.

Jetlag is my constant companion. I am doing a “Midnight Drawing Series”. I draw in ink by candlelight and with a nice glass of brandy, congac, or armangnac. This usually happens post midnight. My body wants to stay up and I indulge it by opening my journal and start sketching. Lost in my foggy world of brandy high, a beautiful photograph to sketch from, and candlelight to accompany me through the darkness, I travel through the world of creation which I call paradise. It’s probably my most content moment. Then I post the sketch on Facebook .

As an artist we have to keep relevant and visible. Social media has made that easier for me.


Sergio: What is your biggest challenge as a contemporary artist ?

Cesar: The challenge is “relevance”. Is what I am doing relevant to my ideals, my artistic integrity? The answer is always in between the lines. So whenever I decide to use a subject for a painting, I need to make sure that it supports my point of view. It has to be relevant to the story that I want to tell. It has to be in the context and narrative of the human experience as I feel it.  My work needs to reflect the reality of our state politically and socially.  Damn my professors in Mexico! They gave me the curse of relevance !

Sergio: How much does the art market influences your art production/object?

Cesar: I need to sell my work.  I don’t know to what degree in which it influences my work, but it does. I follow trends in fashion, movies, and in art.  I love pop culture and follow it.  I look at composition in music and how it relates to the film, to the canvas. .etc.

I am certain that art market influences permeate my work. I learned to craft my narratives to the relevancy of the situation. I am not a graffiti artist nor am I an abstract artist. However, I do keep these works in mind because, their message and even their color palette reflect the current trends.

Unfortunately, trends are flitting. Everything that is in fashion will go out of fashion. Art is finicky and circular. Knowing that outside art market trends do influence my work, I still have to honor my point of view and artistic integrity. Always negotiating. For me, Art is a business (not a hobby) and the business is in the art. I need to be realistic. I also, want to make money.

Sergio: What’s next for you ?

Cesar: There’s a solo show with 33 Contemporary Gallery on November 2013 and a wingtip solo show with FM*Gallery the same month. Two different sets of work and themes. I am excited. The show with 33 Contemporary will be called “In The Hood”, portraits of African American Professionals wearing a hoodie done in “Technique Mixte”. It is a commentary and response to the murder of Travon Martin in Florida.  More often than not, racist stereotypes do harm and kill. So in response, I am photographing 6 – 12 African-American professionals wearing a hoodie. They will be in a monochromatic large scale paintings 48” x 48”. I’m excited about this.

The show with Fm*Gallery are painting documents of working woman in India, Bali, and other developing countries. It will be called “There She Works .” Children will be in the picture too. They are important in my work. Another work in progress is called “He/she with the Asian doll”. Models carrying an Asian doll which represents me. It is a reflection of my need to be in the company of beautiful people, to be cuddled and loved. It is my most vulnerable work.

A group show in February with 33 Contemporary and Poets and Artist collaboration . Between Painting and Flying, I am VERY EXCITED and have no time to be starving. Thanks for all you do Sergio !

Sergio: What excites you about your local Art Scene ?

Cesar: It’s vibrant here in Chicago. I specially love seeing artists of color get recognition for their contribution to the art community.

Sergio: What is missing, lacking or changing in contemporary art ?

Cesar: I am seeing more appreciation for realism. Though nothing is really new under the sun, it’s great to see more craftsmanship being dedicated to artworks. There’s a piece of the pie for everybody.

Sergio: What is your take on the current emphasis on contemporary art fairs ?

Cesar: It’s very important to be a part of that.  Many art collectors flock to these events. It’s exciting to see a milieu of works under one event. Though it could be overwhelming at times, it makes for a fantastic cultural event. It is a bit pricy specially if you want to get a booth there.

Sergio: Do you believe gallery representation today is important as it has been in the past ?

Cesar: Absolutely. Now, we all have to be careful with the contract we sign. But gallery representation is not the only way to sell your art or get a great exposure. It depends on the gallerist and their enthusiasm for your art.  It’s like in acting. You can have an agent who believes in you and will work for you by getting you new gigs and audition. It’s the same way with a gallery. I do feel that mutual respect is necessary and communication is key. Also, art consultants and designers are another way to have ones work marketed and sold. I go to a lot of events and network. The more we have exposure as artist the closer we are to that next client or collector.

Sergio: How do you envision the art world would be different ten years from now ?

Cesar: I have no freaking idea. I do envision that my art will be supporting me and my shoe fetish.


BOOK: any Art photography book by Sebastio Salgado . That’s an artist with a conscience. I love his works.

Art Movie or documentary: “Midnight in Paris”. I so wanted to be the character of the screenwriter going back to the 1920’s Paris. I believe that I was born in wrong decade.

Contemporary Artist: Odd Nerdrum, Connie Noyes, Sergio Gomez, Sebastio Salgado, Julio Reyes, Arina

Place to be inspired by: I love kitchens. Any kitchen.

Definitely café’s is some unknown street in Paris. Last year, I happened upon a café in the middle of the night serving Absinthe the old fashion way. It was romantic.

One sentence advice for an art student: Persevere and excel in your craft and keep those hands moving !

Chicago café/restaurant: My all time favorite – “Café Jumping Bean” on 18th street !

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