Kenneth Tan moved back to his home in San Jose from Los Angeles to help care for his grandmother, Crescenciana Tan (“lola” in Tagalog), in 2014. They began painting as an activity to do together. Lola would paint what she felt with watercolor, and then Kenneth would add drawings with markers based on her stories and memories – this led to a series of paintings they called “The Lola x Kenneth Collaboration.”
The time he spent with Lola from 2014 until her death in December 2016 brought out the artist Kenneth always wanted to be.
Recently, Kenneth created and self-published a book to honor Lola’s life story in “Crescenciana: a memoir & art book.”
In our conversation, we discuss the process of creating the book, a few of the stories of Lola’s life, and his journey in becoming an artist.
Follow the Kenneth at lolaxkenneth
ARTICLE FROM ISSUE 9.3 “Future”
There’s a difference between your job and your work. Your job pays the bills and ends after eight hours each day. Your work is what lives beyond your lifetime, what bears your mark. Your work is your legacy. This is the credo that San Jose artist Kenneth (Tan) Ronquillo lives by. “A job is what you leave behind at the end of the day. Work is what you leave behind at the end of a lifetime,” he says. Ronquillo’s work is to tell the story of a lifetime, the story of the work his grandmother Crescenciana left behind.
“I am the living expression of her work,” Ronquillo says. “It’s my responsibility to make sure her work is good.” That expression—and that responsibility— take form in the Lola x Kenneth Collaboration, a series of artworks created by Kenneth and his grandmother, whom he calls Lola. Lola started all the pieces by painting strokes of different lengths and widths and shades using watercolors, and Ronquillo finishes the paintings by filling them in with drawings. The drawings are based on his conversations with Lola, her memories, and sometimes how she felt that particular day. Their source material is quite extensive, as Lola lived to the age of 96. She lived through World War II, raised two family generations, worked countless jobs to support that family, and served as a source of strength for Ronquillo whenever he needed it.
When his source of strength needed support, Ronquillo moved back home from Los Angeles. At the end of a contract at a job he didn’t like, he was asked by his mother to return home to help with the care of his Lola. Ronquillo made the decision to return to San Jose without hesitation. “I don’t feel like I made any kind of sacrifices,” Ronquillo says, reflecting on the career he quit to be with his family. “In an alternate universe I’m in a job I don’t like, not making much money, and I’m certain [my alter ego] is regretting not spending time with his Lola.”
The time he spent with Lola from 2014 until her death in December 2016 brought out in Ronquillo the artist he always wanted to be. “I was getting further and further away from my dreams and goals,” he says. “I had to come home to make my dreams come true.” Those dreams began with a love for the art in comic books and drawing on anything he could find, even the family growth charts. That love went into hiding as Ronquillo grew older, and he didn’t see art as a way to earn a living. “I used to make choices out of fear,” Ronquillo says. That changed when he expressed his fear of failing grad school to Lola. “Why scared? Discover,” Lola replied. “What is fear? You fight it.” Art is his work now. Telling Lola’s story is his work now. He is no longer afraid. He wants to discover.
What Ronquillo discovered is that his work with Lola was appreciated. The duo were asked to serve as judges for art contests, give interviews for Asian American broadcasts, and even make appearances at Filipino community festivals. “We got to meet the news anchors we’d see come on after Jeopardy,” Ronquillo laughs. He also discovered that he needed her to actually do something he loved. The art that started as an alternative to watching television all day developed into a creative flame in them both, producing piece after piece, some of which are still waiting to be completed.
Ronquillo is hesitant to complete those works that Lola left behind, even though his stated goal is to finish everything she started. “There’s going to be a point where I draw on all the paintings she left behind and there’s nothing for me to do,” he says sorrowfully. But Ronquillo is brave now, and completing the paintings is part of his work. “She left her story in my hands,” he says. “We are still a collaboration.” Each new addition to the Lola x Kenneth Collaboration is an homage to his Lola, his greatest inspiration. There’s a difference between your job and your work. Ronquillo’s work is to tell his story through art. And his story is truly that of Crescenciana Carbonel Tan, his beloved Lola.