On The Verge: Gianne Encarnacion
We chat with science geek and emerging artist Gianne Encarnacion about everything under the sun—from kawaii culture, local folklore, and kikay stereotyping, to battling creative blocks and social media anxieties.
“Next year, I plan to be a full-time artist,” says Gianne Encarnacion with conviction, eyes twinkling from under a thick fringe. More comfortable describing herself as a visual artist-slash-designer, she soon hopes to call herself an artist without suffering from impostor syndrome. “Especially in the company of esteemed people, I feel like such a little girl.”
But at just 23, she already works on empowering design projects for Unilab Foundation and the UP Resilience Institute, does awesome art commissions, and has just launched her webshop (pngianne.com), with her prints selling out immediately. Yup, we’re pretty sure she can call herself an artist.
ART OR SCIENCE?
Growing up in a family of medical professionals, it didn’t occur to Gianne that she could consider a career in the arts. “Maybe I was influenced by my environment. Asian? You have to be a doctor or in law or in business. ‘Art is probably just a hobby, and I’m going to be a doctor or nurse’—that was my notion growing up.”
With a natural love for learning and initially attracted by all the drawings and diagrams in books, she devoured all the almanacs, encyclopedias, children’s medical books, and scientific magazines around the house. Along with her interest in science, her mom noticed her creative talent and enrolled her in art classes early on.
“And then in the early 2000s, those were the early days of HTML, CSS when people were making personal websites and the early days of blogging… That’s when I found out that, oh, art isn’t just limited to painting and traditional mediums. I loved it [joining creative communities] plus I made lots of friends across the world, and you can earn pala! That’s when I thought, OK, I’m going to do art and design.”
After graduating from college, she seized opportunities to apply for jobs that straddle both interests in science and art/graphic design. “Currently I’m a designer for the UP Resilience Institute and the Unilab Foundation. At the Unilab Foundation, we have a project called Pinays Can STEM—it’s raising awareness for and celebrating Empowering Women in STEM. While at UP Resilience Institute, it deals with disaster risk management.”
Rather than choosing art over science, she sees it as science informing her art, as evidenced by the grids and methodical patterns that ground her work. “I think what fascinates me about the two is that they’re both informed and inspired by each other. There’s always a dichotomy seen between art and science, but in reality both of them coincide with each other. I also find it more meaningful when I understand the process behind the aesthetic. So I use my art as a balancing act between the two, because I want both of them to coexist in my canvas.”
There’s a reason the Japanese word for cute is often used to describe Gianne’s work. “I was raised on kawaii/Japanese culture. Growing up, I loved collecting Japanese magazines, yung mga scans sa LiveJournal, videogames… so my art is really influenced by the things I consumed and grew up with.”
Stationery (especially Sanrio and San-X) is a big obsession. “My favorite character from San-X is Palette from Palette’s Sweet Street. Palette is a cat who likes to show his favorite things. It’s not that developed or well-known as Rilakkuma or Mamegoma, but I love the visual style of the character and embracing the loveliness of the everyday!”
An early passion for Japanese publications also persists to this day. “It doesn’t really fall under the topic of kawaii, but I grew up wanting to work for a Japanese fashion magazine, like for Zipper, Fudge or Onkul. My earlier hodgepodge designs were also influenced by shōjo magazines like Sho-Comi and Hana to Yume.”
“Shōjo manga has also a huge impact in my life, especially vintage ones! Anything majokko (“little witch”) or mahou shōjo rules my life. Cardcaptor Sakura, Magical Angel Creamy Mami, and Sailor Moon are some of my favorites.”
Though she’s relatively new on the scene, her work already has a signature look and feel—repetitive patterns infused with sweetness, nostalgia, and an element of surprise. “I like to see my art as notes to myself,” she says. Look closely, and her girls are often dressed in Filipiniana, or she’ll work in endemic botanicals reminiscent of her lola’s garden, architectural details from ancestral houses, or scientific and spiritual elements—her personal easter eggs.
Raised in a deeply Catholic environment, the rich imagery of religious artifacts and ornate churches now manifest in her art. “I also grew up on the superstitions of my lola and in general, Filipino beliefs and folklore, so that is also present in my work! I also lean into tarot and astrology. I think my spirituality circles back to my balancing act with art and science. Although I’m a factual type of person, I also believe that there are so many things we will never understand! I really think the purpose of my art is to balance all these different oppositions and contradictions and bring them all to the table.”
While on a grant with Bad Student Risograph Press and Design Studio, she came up with a tarot deck and infused local elements upon their suggestion. “That helped me know even more about our diversity. There’s so much here that isn’t available in other countries or that we take for granted. For example, it’s so sayang that we’re not so familiar with our flora and fauna that is so abundant and beautiful.”
That being said, she shares that she doesn’t want to be known as a botanical artist. “A lot of people are doing it already. I want to show our biodiversity, but in my own way. I also like to include flourishes and decorative elements that are used in Philippine embroidery work.”
Apart from introspection, many of her themes also touch on gatherings, feasts, and celebration. “I think this is because of me being Kapampangan!”
How does her art take shape? “I usually have a thought or feeling that pops in my head and persists, then brain slowly creates an image that I must create in tangible form. Then I have one hour of deep work to create thumbnails or loose drafts. I don’t do that every day, but I promise myself to have that hour of deep drawing once a week no matter how busy I get.”
A total Type A personality that likes to plan things down to the last detail, she tries to be flexible and loose when coaxing an idea into life. “I also try not to look at too much visual inspiration! It’s really scary to begin with something vague, but it usually brings me to a lot of aha moments and then the ideas keep evolving and multiplying and growing! I really like it when I surprise myself from creating something so different from what I had envisioned in the beginning.”
While she works, she’ll usually put on city pop or her favorite musicians (“Currently: Last Dinosaurs and Tennis!”). “Dancing around and singing to the songs help me get through pieces that take a longer time to complete! I also love listening to podcasts when I’ve reached autopilot mode when I’m drawing. My go-to podcasts or YouTube channels are those about horror, history and mystery.”
When she’s in a creative slump, she draws inspiration from textile work. “I love looking at fashion designers who also post beautiful inspiration too: there’s Persephone Vintage, Dauphinette NYC, Filipina fashion designers Gabbie Sarenas and Sassa Jimenez, and Souvenir the Store.”
Then, there’s her favorite de-stressor/pandemic companion. “Genshin Impact’s grip on me is so strong it’s ridiculous. Not only do I love the visuals, I also love the way people interpret the lore in the game!”
And if a film could be a spirit animal, hers would be Kiki’s Delivery Service. “I heavily relate to it! You know how Kiki was so set on becoming a witch already at such a young age, and then she got so burned out and couldn’t enjoy her life anymore? Whenever I feel burnt out, I just watch it!”
Part of the joy of working on Unilab’s Pinays Can STEM project (@pinayscanstem on IG) is knowing they help empower young Pinays to pursue their STEM dreams. “We feature real women in STEM, and people ask a lot of questions. I have friends who tell me that if they had this in grade school, they would consider pursuing a science field. Science doesn’t have to be boring; you can have fun with it.” But apparently, some stereotypes still persist.
“There was this girl that said, ‘Oh, you can’t be part of this lab because you’re so kikay.’ And I was like, what does that have to do with me and science?” Turning thoughtful, Gianne admits, “But to be honest, I’m also guilty of that. Growing up, I used to hate everything frivolous and kikay. That’s why I really appreciate the younger Gen Zs and the whole ‘Bimbofication’—it’s apparently a thing right now. You know the stereotypical dumb blonde, but that dumb blonde provides social commentary and analysis now. They’re reclaiming it.”
These days, it’s apparent that she imbibed her mom and lola’s penchant for ornate, beautiful things by osmosis—even if she hated it all as a kid.
“My mom used to be a beauty queen. So growing up, she treated me as her little doll, putting makeup on me and dressing me up while I absolutely despised it, haha! I grew up at a time when the ‘I’m not like the other girls’ mentality was prevalent. And also, fashion, beauty and aesthetics was seen as frivolous in my family. But I think deep down, I always loved it.”
It’s only recently that she started to own her love for fashion, mostly inspired by friends who boldly express their style. “I realized, there really is no shame in dressing up. It doesn’t diminish what I am capable of or who I am! I can be a woman in STEM while being cute! So in a way, becoming more stylish is a form of being honest to myself and unlearning the misogynistic environment I grew up in.”
Her signature look? “I skipped Tita and went straight to Lola!! Growing up, it was a mix of Japanese [street] style and grunge, but nowadays it’s more cottage core and lola style.”
As an introvert, having to market herself as an independent artist is extremely intimidating.
“At a previous exhibit, my friends were the ones who were bringing me around so I could introduce myself to people; meanwhile, I just wanted to leave na…” But she’s working on it.
“I’m trying build that confidence, being your own girl, talking to people. I get so shy, even when people send me messages.” Thanks to her art, she’s able to open up and genuinely enjoys the interaction. “It’s nice because it’s a good exchange of cultures and ideas; and knowing how my art makes them feel encourages me to keep creating. I realized, I really have to invest my energy toward that thing that gives me life.”
WAKE UP CALL
For a while, Gianne felt she was coasting along, content doing graphic design while working on her art on the side. And then the pandemic hit. “It was tough on my family; we lost loved ones to COVID.” Gianne herself is a COVID survivor. “That was kind of a wake up call. When you’re faced with death, you think, I don’t want to live with regrets. How much longer am I going to postpone what I really want? So I was like, Ok, let’s go. Even if I’m scared, let’s go.”
Gianne’s agenda for next year is to cut back on her design work, and shift her focus to creating (personal) art. As her dear friend, business partner, and personal cheerleader Paulina said: “Why are you making your true calling your back up?”
COVID also forced her to slow down—an unfamiliar phrase in her Type A vocabulary. “I had to become Type B!” Knowing she would insist on working, her considerate bosses at Unilab and UP mandated rest. “I also stopped taking commissions for a while; [I realized] I don’t have to be chasing goal after goal.” Nevertheless, social media threatened to rock her resolve. “After a while, I kinda felt bad; I was looking at my peers getting so many opportunities and I started feeling left behind—social media talaga! I really had to tell myself, it’s OK, I’ve had a rough year, I need to be kind to myself and take it slow.”
It helps to remind herself that she defines her own happiness. “At the moment, I have decided that happiness is being at peace with the momentum of your life.”
Deciding to finally launch her webshop earlier this month was a major step in the direction of her artist dreams. To her surprise, her prints, washi tape, and Hardin ni Daling scarf (inspired by her lola!) sold out even before the pre-order period ended.
“It was so unexpected; I’m always so hard on myself, eh.” Leading up to the launch, she was steeling herself for disappointment, but shop partner Paulina’s enthusiasm was contagious. “She was excited because she was so proud of the work we’ve accomplished and loved the whole experience of creating stuff and working with me again. So, that kind of reframed the way I began to view the shop—that I was going to be happy no matter what happens, because I was happy with how everything turned out!”
Humbled by everyone’s support, she shares, “It made me want to be even more earnest with anything I create from now on.”
Because people often ask why her art is so tiny, her next mission is to produce something ornate on a large scale. “I want to do exhibits and play with the space. Sana Vinyl on Vinyl, or West Gallery,” she says, crossing her fingers. “It’s kind of daunting, the whole art scene in the Philippines.”
Ultimate dreams? “I feel giddy and a little bit delusional for listing these, but anyway: 1) To exhibit in the Kaikai Kiki gallery in Japan, 2) To have a collab with mt Washi Tape, 3) To have a collab with a clothing or fashion brand, 4) To illustrate for a magazine, and 5) To work in a Risograph studio!” Universe, are you listening?
Extraordinary Ordinary Days
The one thing that sets the tone for the day: “In the morning, I stretch. Moving your body gets you in a better mood for the day,” Gianne attests. Sometimes, she’ll follow a short stretching routine by Mady Morrison on YouTube. “There are days when I just jump out of bed and go straight to work, and by the afternoon I’m sluggish or lose focus. But when I stretch, I feel more relaxed and present; it’s a good calm-before-the-storm kind of place.”
In this pandemic limbo (and throughout her COVID isolation), it’s talking to people that has kept her sane. “We feel like our time has been robbed; kakapagod din. Being connected to people really helps.”
A wish for her generation? “It’s hard to give any kind of empowering message. I feel like everybody tried everything already in this pandemic: Treat yourself, but also work on yourself, but also, it’s ok if you don’t work on yourself…There’s so much going on. It’s more of like, congratulations nalang, stay strong.”
(From our end of the Zoom interview, Tricia and I tell her: “That can be the theme of your next exhibit: Congratulations, you survived!”)
More self-assured than ever, she’s ready to seize life’s opportunities. “I’m a very shy person, but when it comes to opportunities, I’ll just take my shot. It’s one of the things I wish I could tell my younger self. Don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be afraid of rejection. You’re always going to be rejected at some point in life; one of the ways for you to get over rejection is to embrace that feeling.”
Also: “Don’t take things too personally. When you’re an artist, the things you make and your identity kind of merge into one. Things will fall into place. Whenever I’m on social media, my mantra is: go at your own pace, go at your own pace.”