Spotlight: Celina de Leon
I hadn’t seen her for months, but she looked like a fairy, just as I had remembered: shoulder length hair, a careful walk, the most beautiful blue eyebrows, and a bag that a Bratz doll would carry dangled around her arm. For the many years that I’ve known Celina, she has always been one step ahead of everyone’s game. From the music she plays, to the art she produces, to the clothes she wears, and even down to the way she speaks, it is clear that Celina is an artist at heart, in her blood, constantly looking for ways to think outside the box and move against the grain. Most of her photography deals with otherworldly, dream-like manipulations and interpretations of elements in her direct environment: pictures of her close friends, settings in her hometown, the use of in-app photo-editing tools to create images she’s satisfied with. When you look at a piece of work Celina has put her hands on, you don’t forget it, and this translates in her personality. The best way I can describe her is that she personifies laughter, a set of eyes that looks at the world in warped, unique ways while getting a real kick out of doing so.
I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with her- about her art, her career, her goals, and where she’s headed now. In writing this interview, I aimed to maintain her personal voice: all the nuances in her speech and thought processes. Here is the rawest, most-stripped down outcome of our exchange.
First off, where are you located?
San Bruno, California.
How has being based there inspired you in your work and artistic career? What are you favorite parts about being in San Bruno, and the pros and cons of living there as an artist?
Well, growing up, I always saw the differences between San Bruno, a suburb in the Bay Area, and San Francisco. They are towns that are so close to each other, but also very different.
I’ve had a lot to gain from living where I do. I have a lot of anxiety, and there’s comfort in living in a town that’s small and spaced out. It’s not as congested as SF is, and it’s not busy. In San Bruno, it’s calm. And the city’s size assures that the friends you make will be very, very close ones. However, what’s mainly inspired me in my art is seeing all the crazy things that happen in The City, where not a lot of people adhere to standards, compared to the culture of conformity in San Bruno. There’s so much of an urge to follow rules and not be different. Seeing all that has, in a way, made me more defiant, because it would piss me off when all these authoritative figures would say that what I was doing was “wrong” just because it wasn’t what everyone else was doing. And so the art I would make--the pictures I would take, the paintings I would create-- was a way for me to say “fuck you” to all of that. At first, I aimed to freak people out. Art was a way for me to express that life is weird, and that I’m going to be weird even though I live in this slow, small suburban town where everyone follows everyone else and are judgmental of anything that’s different. In that way, art became a way of expressing my rebellion.
Creating art is a lifestyle. The intersection of life and art is constantly excavated in the things you do, especially because you do photography. How do you integrate art into your life?
Art has become my life’s activity. It’s helped me be more productive, and has allowed the thoughts that I have in my head to be acted out or manifested into something tangible, whether that means by going out and taking pictures or by painting. It’s a really fulfilling experience. For me, art is also a way of bonding with other people; when I’m with friends, one of my first instincts is to go out and shoot, or paint. It’s a way of enjoying life more.
Now the other way around: how do you integrate your life into your art?
When I first started making art, I wouldn’t have an intended message behind it; I would go with the flow. As I kept doing it, I would wonder why I didn’t have a deeper meaning behind my art, but then I realized that there unconsciously was. I just didn’t think about it very much. One theme I always go back to in my art is the concept of youth and growing up, because it is and has been the most relevant issue in my life. Art made it okay for me to talk about issues of finding identity--regarding sexuality, gender, etc--that I wasn’t able to regularly express, especially because I live with parents who are a little awkward and don’t really talk about things like that.
You briefly discussed the impact of social media on your work. In what specific ways has social media affected you?
You know it best (laugh). When Instagram first came out, I was in middle school, and I started posting pictures on there. I remember I would always take pictures in this hole in the side of my house, just because I thought it looked so cool. When Instagram started, no one really thought about their number of followers; it was just nice to have a place where you could put your pictures. For my older sister and her “generation”, that place was Tumblr, but for us, that place became Instagram, mainly because it was easy to access on our phones. It was a place where we could share our little creations with others quickly. There were these collaborations you could make with people, friends you could bond with online… it was fun to participate in.
Now, Instagram has become a little less favored. Most of my friends would say that Snapchat and Twitter are their favorite social media apps, but Instagram has always been my go-to. I just find so much pleasure in looking at the things I like looking at. That’s inspired me to want to make more pictures of those things, even if that means taking a picture on my phone of, like, trash, and turning up its saturation or turning up its sharpness. I just like things that look really interesting and weird.
To follow up, what, to you, is the line between drawing creative inspiration and being too heavily influenced by other online media producers?
I think you need to take into consideration exactly how many things are being produced because of social media. There are thousands of pictures posted online everyday. It’s good to look at these pictures and be inspired by others, but you also have to be rooted in your own feelings and ideas, and not try to push anything that feels unnatural. You might look at something and think about how certain elements might make you more successful, but art is not about productivity. So do what feels right to you, and don’t let social media be a measure of how “good” your art is, or what your art “should” be like.
What are your favorite mediums and why do you use them?
I love photography because there’s so much you can do with something so simple. I’m a very lazy person (laugh), and with photography, you can construct the scenes that you want without having a very technical skill like painting or drawing. You can play around with tangible items, move them around. Photography is also very malleable; there are angles you can change, colors you can play around with. There’s a lot of leeway for error, especially because I usually shoot digital- you can mess up and try again, or experiment as much as you want to. I also like the aspect of having live human beings rather than portrayals in my art, and having them act out a scene. It’s fun to be able to document an imaginary world of your own.
So photography is your main mode of creative expression, and you picked it up back in middle school. What has made you stick to it?
What’s helped me take photography more seriously is seeing the spectrum of things I can accomplish with it. There’s so much room for creativity, which makes it so fun for me. And there’s also, honestly, the whole laziness factor; when I painted, I would never clean up after myself! All my brushes would get hard and I would leave the water out. It was also very difficult to completely illustrate what I wanted to create. But with photography, I can use real life objects and people to mold together photos I know I’ll love. Photography can be difficult and frustrating sometimes but I feel like every time I take pictures I gradually grow as an artist.
What does your creative process look like? How does an idea eventually transfer into something you exhibit?
Like I said before, when I started doing photography, I wouldn’t have a plan in taking any of the pictures I took. I played it all by ear. I would pick an outfit, go outside, and just see what came out. But then I started being more inspired by Parker Day. A lot of her work takes place in a studio. Her models pose with prosthetics, costumes… all sorts of interesting, stylistic props. I loved that. So there was this shoot I had with one of my friends Rachel, where I took out my costume box in a mini art room at my school. After that, I wanted to do more themed pictures, and that’s when I started playing around with masks. Most of my models now are in high school, are my age, or use things like masks to play with themes of identity. I also started getting into fake tattoos, using more costumes… everything I shoot is more planned, and yet even with that planning, the pictures I produce from shoot to shoot end up being really different. 80% of the time when I’m shooting, I’ll ask for opinions from my models, other people around me. It’s really collaborative.
How did you develop your photographic style?
Back when I was in middle school, I took pictures with my SONY camera. Even the pictures i take now are with a basic DSLR. It’s a nice camera, but it’s not the best, and so even if the pictures are good, I will always want to improve them. I like to add an otherworldly aspect to my pictures, whether that means by making the colors brighter and more saturated or editing my images to make my subjects glow. It just makes the photo more vibrant- more imaginative.
How do you differentiate your work from the rest? What makes your work uniquely and truly your own?
The differences lie in themes. A lot of people are going into photography, so having a theme like using masks or fake tattoos would give me satisfaction in that I had a niche: a unique guide to follow. It sets me apart from other photographers. And sure, a lot of people have used those props, but there’s so much room to still be unique. I also like to use free online editing and shitty cameras, or using the editors on Instagram. I guess my internal goal, and this goes back to the original vision of Instagram and its original focus on iPhone photography, is to make photos that are interesting but were created with tools that are easy to access, tools that have a very specific look to them.
What or who most inspires you in your work?
Definitely Cindy Sherman, Nadia Lee Cohen, Parker Day, David La Chappelle… basically all the artists that have very unique styles and create interesting, otherworldly scenes in their pictures. I love the idea of physically creating a different world and documenting everything that goes on in that world. I also recently read this existentialist book called No Exit. Existentialism as a whole has always been a big influence on me because it has everything to do with how people perceive you. Art itself gives you so much creativity to express yourself, but in the art world, you’re constantly being judged. The concept of existentialism lies in the differences between how people perceive you and how you perceive yourself, or how you might let others’ thoughts control how you perceive yourself. It’s kind of hard to articulate, but I loved that concept, because it relates to my philosophy around creating art that I like despite what others think. It’s about doing what I feel is right, because people have the power to think whatever they want about my work.
Art is very subjective in nature, and all artists receive some kind of negative and positive feedback from their audiences. What I’d like to know is how have you dealt with negativity, especially when it cuts deep?
The only truly negative criticism that I’ve gotten has been from older people. At first, even my mom didn’t like my art. It was only after she saw that I was getting accepted into colleges and getting scholarships from my work that she would start liking it. It all goes back to existentialism. People are going to think whatever they want about your work, so you have to stay grounded in your own thoughts about it.
Tell us about what you’ve been working on recently. Any upcoming or recent projects? What have you been experimenting with?
I did a lot of mask stuff, and after that, I started having a fake tattoo phase in my photos. I just did a photoshoot with my friends Tommy and Alyssa, which I was so excited about because I hadn’t done photoshoots with a boy as my subject before. The theme I’ve been working on recently is adding vulnerability to the idea of masculinity, and really putting the message across that being vulnerable is a courageous act. This summer I’m planning on creating a short film with my friends. I’m very excited to be challenging myself!
What projects/artistic endeavors are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of my more recent projects, mainly because those have been a little more planned out and structured. I honestly feel like my recent work is more professional. In those shoots, I was able to be in total control of the feelings and thoughts I wanted to articulate in my photos, because before, it was all about taking photos on a whim. Now, I’m trying to make things more staged, to really express what I want to express. I’ve also been reaching out to more people, getting out of my comfort zone, and taking pictures with people I don’t really know rather than just my friends.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I hope that when people see my work, they see that WEIRD IS OKAY. Especially growing up—i just finished my last years of high school—I’ve really been able to see both my friends’ and my own pent up emotions and struggles with identity, especially since they’re moving into the next part of their lives. This is so fuckin’ cliche, but to all my young viewers, you’re not alone!! Being vulnerable is okay because everyone is going through their own weird shit, even when it seems like they aren’t. Everyone has their own monsters. Life is weird. But you will be okay.
What is a tip you have for other young artists who have similar visions as yours?
Let’s go back to social media. It’s becoming harder and harder to be yourself in your art because there are so many outside points of influence, and social media gives more exposure to what other people are doing. Don’t think that any one element or style is “right”: follow what is natural to you. Don’t base your art off of other people or the photos that you see on Instagram. Because again, none of that is a measure of your art’s value.
You can find Celina's work on her photography page, @cutep00p, on Instagram.