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Fire starter: Marco Yuchengco Santos leaves corporate world to be an artist at 53 |

Arts and Culture

Fire starter: Marco Yuchengco Santos leaves corporate world to be an artist at 53

Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo -

MANILA, Philippines — At 50, many people are thinking about retirement: what else is unchecked on the bucket list, the best island paradise to settle in as a beach bum.

The road to retirement seems easy for Marco Yuchengco Santos — with his prominent family name, a beautiful family of his own, technology companies to run, including as innovator in their family-owned Mapua University, and as the founder of one of the largest free Internet Service Providers, EDSAMail, as among his legacies — what more could he ask for in life, right?

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit a few years back, something also started to spark within Marco and now it fully consumes him — his passion to become an artist.

Jose Rizal might have started carving a statue at 14 while Mozart wrote his first composition at age five, but for Marco, who is in his 50s, there were no school notebook doodles, no artist in the family to look up to, or childhood frustration to become an artist, whatsoever.

“I was an entrepreneur and a business person, and then the pandemic happened,” he told in an exclusive interview. He said he, too, was surprised that he is now an artist and is being interviewed for art and not for business or tech.

Yes, his family is the eponymous owner of a Makati museum, but Marco is the only one in the family who has become an artist and he himself was a math wizard all his life — a Management Engineering degree holder from Ateneo de Manila University, an engineer who stared more at numbers than on paintings. 

“But I always knew I was always out of the box creatively,” he enthused, yet still being able to apply his background in math and engineering in art, only now he translates formulas into visual patterns.

‘God’s gift during the pandemic’

Pieces from MYSAN's "Persistence of Passion,' his first solo show on view from June 15 to July 1 in J Studio, La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Ave., Makati City. Toledo

It was during the pandemic though that Marco's artistic right side of the brain began to overpower the analytical left side — he began picking up used bottles and a blowtorch — and from these common household stuff came out masterpieces that friends and family instantaneously regaled as the works of an artist. 

“During that time, I would also collect gin. My daughter’s friends finished all my gin and so the bottles I felt were sayang, so I painted them and burned them. Posted it on Facebook and people called me an artist,” Marco recalled. “It’s a gift from God during the pandemic.”

Not everyone was pleased, however. A comment on his Facebook post tried to toast Marco. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, from there, the artist MYSAN, from his initials, was born. 

“One of the people said there maybe it was just hobby, it challenged me. So I said, okay, I’m going to do this full-time, I got glass. And with no background in art whatsoever… My canvas was blank, I disrupt the canvas, and then I follow it. For example, I burned the glass, when it cracks, I would follow the cracks, paint it, and then a new image comes out in front. It’s all experiment… I pretty much destroy the mediums and make them art.”

Since then, his trial-and-error with burning different materials like acrylic paint, tempered glass, and about a thousand bottles gave birth to a first joint exhibition. With artistic passion in him exploding like spontaneous combustion, MYSAN churned out more opuses, this time, rendered on wood. After six months or so, the result is the 12-piece exhibition “Persistence of Passion,” his first-ever solo show.

“Why did I decide to come up (with a show) on my own? To see how much of myself I need to be discovered or I want to discover the best part of me,” he said.

Playing with fire

Pieces from MYSAN's "Persistence of Passion,' his first solo show on view from June 15 to July 1 in J Studio, La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Ave., Makati City. Toledo

“Plywood never looked this good,” you would gasp to yourself as large panels of burned wood artworks border three corners of J Studio in La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Avenue, Makati City, where “Persistence of Passion” is on view until July 1. 

“It’s just regular plywood,” MYSAN said of his chosen medium other than fire at the exhibit. “But since the passion is overflowing, it becomes something else.”

While the sight of burns usually causes alarm or stress, at “Persistence of Passion,” it is even a meditative experience — you can sit quietly at the center and picture yourself in a bed with these opuses covering your house’s walls — and since the artworks are made with only two natural materials, wood and fire, it is the best way to bring the outdoors in and immerse yourself in these byproducts of the harmonious unity between nature and human ingenuity.

Plywood might be usually discouraged as a construction material for being flammable, but MYSAN’s “Persistence of Passion” explores plywood’s flammability — its weakness — as its strength. Playing with varying heat temperatures and intensities, MYSAN successfully imprinted abstractions and shapes in different shades to achieve a chiaroscuro effect on plywood that jumps off from the frames — reminiscent of Indigenous Pintados or Kalinga tattoos on brown Filipino skin. 

Like in tattooing, burning wood requires a lot of control and a precise command over the ink, which in MYSAN’s case, is fire, or else, it’s fire, being a strong and unpredictable force of nature, that would dominate. So more than just presenting what MYSAN could do as an artist, “Persistence of Passion” also shows how he tames and conquers fire.

“I wanted to show that fire is an amazing element, but people know fire as something that destroys things. I use fire to add value, to add beauty to things. Hopefully, that’s what it shows, that fire is actually a tool you can use for burning or for recreating. And art is about destroying and recreating, destroying and recreating,” he said on how an artist could choose to use fire either as an agent for good or not.

Pieces from MYSAN's "Persistence of Passion,' his first solo show on view from June 15 to July 1 in J Studio, La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Ave., Makati City. Toledo

As a Rooster, fire could also be in his personality.

“I’m playing with fire all the time,” he joked, adding that he has a hothead, which is usually expected of any company boss.

Showing an actual burn he has had in his art process, MYSAN professed the real danger he faces in using blowtorches. 

“You can get burned, literally. When you burn something, it’s pretty hard to burn it too much. It’s like cooking steak — ‘pag sobrang sunog, pangit, so you just kind of learn,” said the artist, who really doesn’t cook steak.

The risks and element of danger, if anything, even make the art form more enjoyable for MYSAN, although he does his works in an open-air garden for safety.

“I’m a clumsy person, anyway, I just kept on destroying things,” he said on how he reacted when he was burned in an arm.

“But for me, everything is art. Because once you start playing up things in nature, for me, that’s art… When you turn something into a new thing no one has ever seen, that’s art for me,” he said. 

Like in “The Flash” that shows how a person’s brokenness makes him one-of-a-kind, in art, a medium’s imperfections also make the artwork more desirable, said MYSAN.

“The broken ones are what people like more because they’re unique. If it’s ayos, corny. ‘Pag basag, they like,” he observed, adding that acrylic is his most favorite thing to burn at the moment because it deforms easily.

“Every day, you just focus on what you like and you actually become better at doing it,” he advised aspiring artists like him.

When asked if he would have a show in their family-owned Yuchengco Museum, he quipped, “Bawal ata pamilya d’un!”

“Right now, I’m at the stage of my artist career that it looks nice palang. I’m not bullshitting. Now, it looks nice, it looks good, okay. But maybe I’d like to start communicating a message in my next (show), hopefully… For now, it’s (abstract), it’s different, it’s what excites my heart.”

Spectators checking out some pieces from MYSAN's "Persistence of Passion,' his first solo show on view from June 15 to July 1 in J Studio, La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Ave., Makati City. Toledo

Although MYSAN considers himself still “a work in progress,” with the fantastic reception to his shows, he anticipates more upcoming exhibits because just like his solo show’s title, the artistic passion in MYSAN runs like wildfire. 

“I’m excited to be full-time at 53. So, I’ll just go all-out!” he declared.

“The kids are old enough. We have a family business and they’re working out on their own. My wife and I are at home and I just paint,” said MYSAN, who is happy that his family is happy and supportive in fueling his flame.

“It has no destination. It’s a journey. I don’t really care what people say, I just want to express myself vividly or in a way that I would always be remembered.”

MYSAN's “Persistence of Passion” is on view from June 15 to July 1 in J Studio, La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Ave., Makati City.

RELATED: ‘Persistence of Passion’: Marco Santos shows fire’s transformative power in new exhibit

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