Our YIP intern, Emma Shi explores her own love for the arts by interviewing the multi-talented visual artist, graphic designer, and co-founder of Tagalikha, Loisse Ledres.
As an aspiring artist, I often find myself with questions regarding the path to a successful creative career. I don’t know many examples of working artists in my personal life, but speaking with Loisse Ledres in the following interview has shed light on the journey. Loisse shares various aspects of her artistic journey: from childhood, to college, to her experiences and obstacles now as a full-time artist.
Like many others, I’ve always been familiar with the starving artist trope, a concept especially prominent in Asian American culture. Our discussion brought me to think about this in a more critical light, wondering how our Asian American cultures affect and permeate the art we see and create. I hope reading this interview offers you some insight of your own, as well.
Lastly, I want to thank Loisse for her time, and for sharing her story and artistic wisdom.
ES: Could you talk about your background and your experience growing up Asian American?
LL: I grew up in Cebu City, in the Philippines. I was there until I was 11, and then I moved with my family here to North Carolina for 2 years. It was definitely a culture shock. The town I was in was very small. The population was mostly Black and White, and there were very few Asians. There was a small Filipino community though, and that really helped me transition to the US. From there, we moved to New Mexico, where I stayed for high school. There were more Filipinos there, but it was still mostly Native American, Hispanic, and White people. I always lived in non-majority Asian areas, so ever since I was growing up, I’ve always been searching for that community.
I moved to New York for college, and I was there until around a year and a half ago. I went to college at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), and there I had mostly Asian American classmates. I felt less isolated, but it was definitely a big transition in terms of understanding how my culture influences my work. Growing up without a lot of representation, especially in the artist world, I was either figuring it out alone, looking things up and trying to find people who would help me.
ES: You mentioned that you didn’t know a lot of people in the artistic field growing up, so how did you end up going down that career path yourself? Is it something you sort of always knew you wanted to pursue?
LL: Since I was young, I’ve been attracted to creative things. My parents really encouraged me to be creative, and in the Philippines, there are a lot of creative things that are actually part of the school curriculum. In school we would learn dances and do monthly events that involved different creative activities, so I was always able to be creative growing up.
But even at that age, I knew about the starving artist trope. Like, no, you can’t just be an artist—you can only do that on the side when you have a good, stable job in a medical field. I was indoctrinated in that mindset all the way up to when I decided on college, actually. In high school and in middle school, I always joined art clubs and art classes as much as my schools offered them, but I never really got formal training or any external art resources. I knew that my time was running out in the sense that, if I can’t do art when I’m an adult, I’ll do art now, while I’m in school, you know? So I did theater—I acted, designed sets, made flyers and costumes, and I just loved making stuff.
In terms of examples, I didn’t have a professional working artist example until I was in high school, when my brother’s old classmate in the Philippines moved to the US and became a graphic designer. I thought, it seems creative, I could do that! But even then I was so unaware of what it took to get to that point.
In high school, I was determined to be an occupational therapist, because my mom convinced me. The idea was that it was kinda creative and also kinda medical. But when I did an occupational therapy internship, I fell asleep every time I’d job shadow, and I just knew that I was going against my nature. Surprisingly, my mom was the one who said, Loisse, I think you need to go to art school, because she saw all these creative things that I participated in and how second nature it was to me. It’s a big game changer when your parents are the ones saying “You can do this”, and I think that’s the power of adults telling kids that they can do something.
I had that person who was a graphic designer be a distant North Star, in a “if she can do it, I can do it” way, and I went to art school in NYC. I didn’t have a Fine Arts degree but an Advertising degree, and I actually became a designer at an ad agency until two years ago, when I decided to go full-time into my own work. I’m freelancing full-time now, and I’m starting to see that I am now an actual, full, working artist, and it’s crazy. This dream is continually becoming formed and worked on, but that’s the background boiled down.
ES: I think I have a similar dream, because I’d love to be able to do art full-time in the future. I’m really glad because I’m surrounded by a lot of people who do realize this is actually a viable career path. I think I’m very fortunate for that.
LL: I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned so far in being successful, is to have people to ask for help. I believe being an artist isn’t about being an individual genius artist like they show in movies, where the ONE person comes up with the amazing ideas on their own that everyone just respects. A lot of the time, you’re working with all these other different people who have different goals and you’re trying to combine them all together, especially if you’re working for clients. The reality of being an artist, especially if you don’t have financial backing is you have to do a mix of client work and personal work and other sorts of work in order to create a full practice. My experience has not at all been how it looks in the movies.
ES: Could you talk about your Advertising degree? I know you do more freelancing now, but did you do a lot of art-making in college? Because when I think of Advertising, I immediately think more towards marketing than art, so I’m curious about that.
LL: In Advertising, I specifically studied a track called Art Direction, and what that basically meant is I had to take foundation classes like Graphic Design, Packaging Design, Visual and Exhibit Design, and then Advertising. We were able to touch all kinds of different mediums, and in a sense, it is marketing, but you’re thinking of it from the perspective of art. What art will resonate with an audience so that they’ll buy something? Those classes weren’t necessarily art-making in the traditional sense, but more design, concept and strategy.
Sometimes art can be very unrelatable, or inaccessible. Because of those classes, I’ve learned how to create my own work that appeals to and reaches people. I like having people access the artwork I make and understand it. Also on a technical level, because Advertising was very digital based, that’s where a lot of my practice went—digital art and design systems. A big part of what I do is also community events, where you create spaces for people to feel something. Because I had those Exhibit Design and Graphic Design classes, I was able to land a job at an experiential place designing environments and doing installation design.
I didn’t actually make a lot of art in college, I just learned a lot of the tools, concepts and strategies. But, now I think I’m reaping the benefits of that, because I can use my marketing side to apply to project proposals to get grant funding, and I can apply to artist residencies and speak clearly about my projects because I know my target audience. I’m now only starting to paint. I painted when I was younger, but I never painted when I was in college, but now I’m painting. Everyone has a different journey, for sure.
ES: You went to school in NYC, and then you decided to move to Las Vegas. I was wondering how that journey was for you? I’ve only been to Las Vegas a couple times, and it seems very different from NYC culture-wise.
LL: That’s a great question, and a lot of people are probably wondering the same thing. The major reason I moved to Las Vegas is practicality. I quit my job in the middle of the pandemic, and I had an apartment in NYC that was running out of its lease in a few months. I was like, you know what, if I’m gonna quit my job and start over, I want to be able to feel like I’m not simply surviving or too pressured or constantly rushing. For example, if I just stayed in NYC my savings would have run out in 3-5 months, but my mom lived in Las Vegas at the time. She’d already offered, when I was in college, for me to take a break and stay at her house where I wouldn’t have to pay rent and could just work on stuff I wanted to work on before looking for a job. I didn’t listen to her then, but two years later I’d burnt out and quit my job, so I was like, you know what? My mom already offered me this opportunity, so I’m gonna take it.
I really thought when I went to Las Vegas that I would decide to go back to a major city like LA or San Francisco or NYC even, but I found out how beneficial being in Vegas has been, especially in terms of growth. Not just practical growth and artistic growth, but client growth too. In NYC, I was trapped in that state of mind where the whole world seemed to revolve around NYC, and I wasn’t even born there. When I moved to Vegas, I was taken out of that mindset, and because I was growing my artwork separate from the pressure of NYC, I was able to look at it very honestly. I think the comparison that happens in NYC is so heavy because there’s so many talented people there that it probably would’ve made me feel really stunted, comparing mine to everyone else’s journeys.
In Vegas, I had people I knew from my old job, friend circle, and creative community in NYC who would reach out to me for work, but I also started to get involved with more West Coast people in the Bay, and I have clients from there now, too. I ended up doing work in San Diego and in LA, and because I was in a central location, I was able to expand so much more of my reach instead of being holed up in the NYC bubble. In terms of my business, it’s helped me a ton. Practically speaking, costs are way low, so I can experiment more and don’t have to work as much. In NYC I was living in a studio with a roommate, and for me it’s hard to make art in a small space. Also, NYC is the type of place you can always come back to, so I’ve actually gone back pretty much 4 times every year since I’ve left since my organization hosts events there. I feel like I still have both, but I don’t have to deal with the costs of NYC—you gotta be practical at the end of the day.
ES: About you saying you extended your reach—would you say that you working mostly digitally made that more possible?
LL: Yeah, I’d say that is a big part. It extended my reach in terms of the digital space, just from the nature of being able to work from home and offer services and meetings all online.
But even on a practical side of things, I’ve been able to go to the Bay and meet more people in the Bay who are aligned with the work that I do, including Katie. She found me on Instagram, but the relationship we’ve built wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t visited the Bay. I had other clients that I was able to go visit, who helped me meet more people that were in the same creative spaces, and from there the connections just kept growing. If I was in NYC I don’t know if I would’ve made it to San Francisco as often as I have, just because geographically speaking it’s so much easier to jump around to San Francisco, LA and NY from Las Vegas. Because Las Vegas is a tourist destination, those flights are also cheaper. So beyond the digital it has forced me actually to step out to states that I couldn’t go to when I was in NYC.
ES: I want to circle back to what you mentioned earlier about your organization based in NYC? Could you talk more about that?
LL: The organization is called Tagalikha, which means “creator” in Tagalog. I helped co-found it with two other Filipino creatives in NYC when I was in college. It started out as a blog searching for other Filipino creatives across the city to cultivate a community space, because it feels a lot less isolating and daunting when you see other people doing the same things as you are.
Now, we organize community events throughout the year centered around things that Filipino creatives care about, though it’s not necessarily exclusive to Filipinos—more like Filipinos and friends, as we like to say—because we have a lot of overlap in terms of experience as immigrants, especially Asian Americans. We hosted a panel recently in Brooklyn about whether pursuing art was “worth the cost”. We’re also hosting a summer party this August to celebrate being “too much”. In Filipino culture, there’s a lot of, like, “you’re too fat”, “you’re too skinny”, “you’re too blunt”, “you’re too quiet”—all this “too-much”-ness that you’re forced to stick by—but everything is contradictory. We’re creating a space for creatives to feel like they can be “too much” without any judgment. Right now it’s all volunteer-run, so I do this in addition to my work, but I love it. I never thought I would be running an organization as part of this but, life takes you places.
ES: I want to talk about your artwork a bit. The first thing that stood out to me was the way you use color, with a lot of very vibrant and warm colors. Have you always leaned towards that palette? Where do you get your artistic inspiration from?
LL: In terms of art inspirations, I sometimes feel like a scam because I never really followed a lot of artists. When I was growing up, I was always inspired by signage, stickers, and graffiti. In the Philippines we have Jeepneys, which have very vibrant colors all across them, and it was our primary form of public transportation. The letters would be very bold and bright and colorful, and there’d be illustrations all over them. The Philippines is a very colorful culture, so I was just inundated with it when I was younger. Street art in general has always been an inspiration for me. I’ve never done street art, but I really love the expressiveness and boldness of it. It’s very clear and it’s very direct and it really resonates with me. That relates to comic books also—I grew up reading Archie comics, and I love the heavier outlines and more illustrative style. I feel like all those things have influenced me to the palette that I use now. I don’t instinctively decide to use similar colors, but sometimes it just feels right. Though, I’m trying my best to expand and keep evolving with my color choices.
ES: In your personal opinion, do you think your Filipino culture is something very prominent in your artwork?
LL: I definitely think my Filipino culture has a lot of influence on me as a person, but I am always very mindful of not constraining myself to only Filipino subject matters, because I just want to be an artist. I am very proud of my heritage and being a part of my families’ lineage, but I don’t want to flatten my culture and say that “this is Filipino identity, this is Filipino culture” within my art. My work reflects my perspective, and I am a Filipino person, so obviously this is the perspective of a Filipino person—one Filipino person. However, it makes me so happy when my Filipino community looks at my work and feels that they’ve been seen, and contradictingly, I believe that universality comes from me being specific with my personal experiences.
When I was learning to draw when I was younger, I was always referencing white girls on Pinterest or Tumblr. I would always draw them in my sketchbooks, and I was like, why do none of these look like me or my family? I felt like I was doing a disservice not only to myself, but my community. As if I’ve completely ignored them. So ever since then, I’ve made an effort to make the figures that I draw based on Filipino features because simply – that’s what I look like. I just want to draw more people that look like us. I want to center our stories and beauty, to challenge what’s defined as the standard. For instance, my nose is very small and flat and my face-shape is very square and I used to get teased for those features. Now, you’ll probably notice those facial features are featured prominently in my artwork. I try to use Asian American models as much as possible and draw different hair textures too, just to show physical diversity across our cultures. Often my themes are things I’m personally going through. So to answer your question, it does because I center my story in it, but I want to emphasize that there are a variety of Filipino experiences, and I’m happy to represent one of them.
ES: I really like that a lot, because I feel like it is a common thing for artwork to box in a lot of stereotypes about people of color, and especially from artists who are people of color themselves. You mentioned how your own art already has that perspective simply because that’s your personal experience, I’ve never really thought of it in that way, and it’s really interesting to hear about.
LL: I appreciate that. I think it’s really hard for us as people of color because we get boxed in to limited narratives. People in power, people who have money, people who have resources… It seems like the only stories they let through are ones that are about our race and about how we struggle, and I hate that. And it’s hard for us as artists. We want to have work that resonates with people, and it’s awful that we have to lean into our cultural traumas in order to be seen a lot of the time. I hate that. I think there is definitely amazing artwork to be made about that, because art is a powerful medium to process grief and challenge oppressive powers. On the other side, I also want the privilege to expand outside of sadness and struggle. We should be allowed to make joyful, simple and frivolous art sometimes, too. What I’m trying to get at is, how do we balance being individual humans but also making sure that we fight for the things we care about? I think it’s important that artists are given room for both stories to exist.
ES: To conclude, I wanted to ask you, knowing what you know now as a full-time artist, is there any advice you’d give to your younger self to reach this point?
LL: I guess if I were to talk to my younger self, I’d want to tell her that she doesn’t actually have to work so hard. I think that’s probably the key thing. I got here by working very hard, but also, I’ve come to a point where I’m like, work is not everything. If somebody took away my art or my ability to make art, it would hurt, but as humans we grow, and nothing is ever worth sacrificing your well-being for, including your art.
I would just tell her to have a lot less pressure and to just enjoy life, because when she’s ready to make the art, she will be ready. She doesn’t have to do so many different things just to get here. I actually want to tell her to chill out. I don’t actually want to give her more tips to figure out how to get here. I just want her to, like, go play and have fun! You can work later. You can finish that thing later. Deadlines are made up, unless someone’s in danger of course. But realistically, you can likely move it forward just a little bit. That’s okay. That’s what I would tell her, and I’m trying to tell myself that even now. It’s a busy week, so this is a good reminder.
ES: I definitely feel that too. Like, everyone needs to slow down a little bit. Maybe I need to slow down a bit too.
LL: Yeah, our passion is so, I feel like it feels endless. Our passion’s just infinite, and we feel like we want to keep tapping into it all the time or else we’re not doing our life’s purpose. But, I like to think that our life’s purpose is to experience a percentage of everything, a little bit at a time. So like right now maybe my passion’s at 20%, but my passion to eat really good food and travel is at 60%. Cool, we’re gonna tap into that. And next year, what if it’s 50% I just wanna grow my business, and artwork is 10%. That’s fine too! It’s constantly growing with you. You don’t have to make yourself feel guilty because when I was 12, I was making 12 paintings a day! But that’s not how life works. That’s not how our bodies and our minds work. We have different needs as we grow. Yeah, that’s where I’m at.
About Interviewee: Loisse Ledres (@geezloisse) is a visual artist based in Las Vegas. She uses her design and experiential advertising background to inform the way she discovers how image, text and color intersects with culture to empower and mobilize. As Co-founder and Creative Director of Tagalikha, an organization for Filipino creatives, she also organizes and designs community events that use art as a way to heal, connect, and reflect. Learn more about her work at: https://www.geezloisse.com/
About Interviewer: Emma Shi is a Chinese American high schooler from NJ. As an aspiring artist, she loves painting, calligraphy, and writing poetry. She is interested in learning more about the intersection between Asian American studies and art history.