James White Library - Blog

Leila Celestin: A Portrait

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Interviewed by: Andrei Wayne K. Defino

Photo by: Brian Tagalog

What did you study for your Undergraduate education?

A Bachelors of Fine Arts and French Studies.

What motivated you to study French and the Fine Arts?

Well, I’ve always wanted interested in art, but to be honest, I kind of did it to prove a point. I was interested in art since elementary school so my mother encouraged my creativity; I entered a lot of competitions and won a lot of competitions. However, coming from a family of physicians, studying art wasn’t always the ideal thing for me to do. But I really wanted to do it, so I kept on honing my craft and I decided to get a degree in it. French Studies was kind of cheating since I already speak French. I was however able to study in France for a year, CLEP a lot of classes and get my degree.

That sounds fun! Can you tell me more about your art?

I really like doing realistic paintings, but I’ve always been interested in doing portraitures. I did a lot of realistic portraitures early in my life, but I got to a point where there was one professor who encouraged me to do more of a free stylized art. It turned out that I was a very quick painter so what he would do was make me cut out these square pieces of woods and challenged me to make self-portraits on them in five minutes. I ended up getting really fast and I started utilizing light to make the images look like a person without really having specific features. Eventually I started getting interested in bold brush strokes. It came to the point where, for my senior thesis, I presented about 50 portraits that I painted in about 30 minutes each. It was due to three professors that I finally found my style and I continuously do portraits – for my friends and people who might be interested in getting portraits done – despite the busyness of grad school.

As a Master’s student, how do you find time to still do portraits?

Listen, if I’m being honest, I only do them when I have a sliver of free time or when I need extra money. If someone really wants me to do one of them or even a lot of them, I usually have to tell them that it might not be available until my next slot of free time; I hold quite a few jobs on campus, so it’s hard to always be available but doing portraits doesn’t always take long for me so I guess it works out.

So I’ve seen that you’ve held multiple art shows. How did that happen?

I had my first art show here at Andrews, but I also got to do a show in Albany, New York, in Oct. 2013, which was really cool. A lot of the people I that were in my portraits were able to come and see them. Later, they asked me to do show my pieces at the Town Hall. Basically, in Albany there is this big dome where they have meetings, town events, museum tours and art shows. For this one show, I was able to show my pieces at a refugee celebration—a real highlight of my career.

What is art to you?

Here’s the thing: for me, I realized that halfway through my degree that if I had to do this to eat, I would begin to hate it. After I finished my 50 pieces I was very burnt out; I didn’t paint for a year; I didn’t touch a paintbrush or a pencil to draw, sketch, or anything like that after I did that show. And even now, this past Winter break I did a whole bunch of pieces and I don’t think I’ll be painting again until May. I guess that’s always been my thing – innately I like a lot of variety in my life. I like to say that I can paint, I do some tutoring, I do some teaching. So for me, art is like a relaxing process. It’s stressful when I have deadlines, but it’s usually a fun thing. It’s not even that all my pieces have a deeper meaning or anything; I just really like to paint.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artistic minds?

Listen to Ira Glass’s “The Gap” because in every creative field there is a “gap.” You have your tastes and you get into a field where you hone those tastes; To you, however, when you start your skills are still at a low level and all your efforts will seem to suck…until you bridge that gap. When you’re a musician, it can take years of practice to finally mend that gap and finally think you’re good. Poetry, art, acting, in literally all these fields, you will have so many days when you think you aren’t good enough, but you have to persist. You have to be okay with crappy work until you get to that point. Surround yourself with other people who have the same interests as you because they’re going through the same thing. As artists, comedians, dancers, painters and whatever else we never want to admit that we have bad work and only show off our perfected pieces, but really by seeing each other struggle we can feel better about improving. Surround yourself with people who can go through those low points with you and spend time watching and listening to people’s coming up stories; you’ll be surprised how many great artistic figures have struggled in similar ways to you. No one becomes successful overnight. Kevin Hart, Christopher Nolan, Angelina Jolie, Misty Copeland, all started off with 500 or even a thousand bad tries before catching their break. Be encouraged that everyone who has inspired you and helped you had a long and reckless journey; any failure you have right now is just part of the game. Take heart that everyone in the creative field is going through the same thing.

 Leila Celestin is a Speech Pathology masters student and an employee at the James White Library
Article first published in Student Movement vol. 100, issue 16: Wednesday February 10, 2016
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