Q&A with Ilonggo impressionist painter Yob Tolentino

Sonny “Yob” Tolentino’s first solo show clearly rekindled the Ilonggo spirit of nostalgia after he focused a collection of oil paintings on Iloilo City – its old streets, heritage structures, and significant historical edifice.

The downtown city proper may have been neglected for years as development shifted to other sections of the growing metropolis, an ongoing process similar with other progressive cities in other parts of the world. Yet Tolentino’s collection revealed the old charm that it retained given its sights, scents and sounds by demonstrating how all of these have contributed in creating a memory to a generation of Ilonggos.

A psychology graduate, Yob Tolentino’s “I don’t think I’m Going Away Anymore: Iloilo City in Oil and Poetry” marked a milestone on his career as an artist. It was organized exactly one year after he joined the Iloilo art scene and his works were mounted at the Mamusa Art Bistro.

In the midst of a surging abstract and social realists works by Ilonggo contemporary artists, Tolentino’s impressionist collection accompanied with poetry pieces perhaps captured the enduring old character of Iloilo City and the Ilonggos – conservative, old school and laid back. It however created an essential starting point among the local audience who may have needed a catalyst to start engaging in art to appreciate its elements and to understand its role in society.  

By bringing the audience back to old Iloilo City, Tolentino effectively juxtaposed the personal with the societal and it underscored how the interactions contributed it shaping a mutual memory. While the collection narrated Tolentino’s personal journey, it likewise implied a reshaping of a collective memory of a city that marches on to modernity.

Yob Tolentino is not yet done with this collection. He opened 2019 with a follow through show dubbed “Iloilo City: Then and Now.” The art exhibit will be at Plazuela Dos and it will will offer an expanded subject of his first solo show, this time however it will be rendered on antique wood.

“Painting and writing are my two great loves,” shared Tolentino and “after a series of miserable failures in recent years, I am so happy to be pursuing what I truly love at this point of my life. God has truly blessed the broken road. My goal now is just to have my own place in the art scene.”

In the Frame spoke with the impressionist artist for a Q&A to learn more about him, his art, and why he is not going away (from Iloilo) anymore.

Q: Your first solo show has 26 artworks. How long did it take you to work on the collection?

Tolentino: All of the artworks and the poems took me four months to complete.

Q: Can you share with us your development as an artist?

Tolentino: I started using pencils and crayons in grade school. Then I used oil pastels in high school. I started to use oil when I was at the university during my college. It was an on-and-off engagement on oil and I only made four paintings in all my days at UP Visayas. It was only in 2013 that I started to seriously paint especially when I had a money to buy art materials.

Q: What motivated you to continue?

Tolentino: A Japanese citizen started buying my artworks and it encouraged me a lot. I began to paint every day and each time it helped me discover new things. It was only in 2017 that entered the Iloilo art scene after I joined Himbon Ilonggo Contemporary Artists Group.

Q: Tell us about your medium, why impressionism?

Tolentino: I am fascinated by an impressionist painting. It is just like a play of colors up close, but it creates images at a distance. Impressionism offers so many possibilities for me. I can be whatever I want to be. I am a simple artist who draws material from my memories. That’s why impressionism. 

Q: How did you develop a mastery in oil?

Tolentino: I have not mastered oil yet. Having no formal training, I developed the skill through practice and experimentation. I watched tutorials and my fellow artists also provided tips. But you’ll never really know until you do it. The only way to do it – is to do it.

Q: How were you exposed to art?

Tolentino: First and foremost, it was the things around me. I loved looking at the sky whether it be early morning or late afternoon. I loved how rice fields turn gold weeks before harvest. I loved how the grass are moved by the blowing of wind. The columns of a building. The ragged outline of the distant mountains.

It was also the drawings on my textbooks during elementary school, which I can still vividly remember. When I was at UP, all that interest me were art and literary books at the library, especially a hardbound collection of 21st century artists.

Q: What is your process in making art?

Tolentino: I can never paint purely from a memory. I create a reference. So, I take photos of things and places that are beautiful to me when I go around in the city and in the country.  

Q: Who are your influences?

Tolentino: The Filipino masters were my first influences – Amorsolo and Luna. I am fascinated by how they controlled colors and by effectively showing where the light comes from. It is something that I found so difficult to do. Renaissance artists also made an influence on me in terms of colors that offer a feeling of sadness and nostalgia.

Q: What are your inspirations for your first solo show?

Tolentino: What inspires me are the things that I find beautiful. When I see how this orange glow of the setting sun fall on the buildings in Calle Real or on the nearby fields against a backdrop of the Antique Province mountain range. I can’t help but immortalize it on a canvas.

But what keeps me moving is the desire to give Iloilo art and literature. Similar to what John Denver did to West Virginia and Alaska; John Hickam to Coalwood; and Arundhati Rhoy to Kerala. My first solo show is inspired by Arundati Rhoy’s story in the book “The God of Small Things.”     

Q: Since you’re not going away anymore, what can we expect from you this 2019?

Tolentino: Another exhibit is already going to be opened on January 5. But I am also preparing for a second solo show with a working title “MEMOIR: Stories from a Childhood.” I am also aiming for a possible publication of a painting and poetry collection in a book.

This is an edited version of the article which appeared in January 2, 2019 at the In the Frame section of the Iloilo Metropolitan Times, entitled: “Sonny Tolentino | Iloilo City chronicled in oil and poetry.” 

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