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MANILA, Philippines – Being a freelance artist in the Philippines is a challenge. Standing out from the crowd and making a name for yourself without institutional support is a daunting hurdle, no matter how talented you may be. And if we go by Deaf LGBTQ+ illustrator CJ Reynaldo’s example, leaning into who you are and creating from a place of authenticity is the key.
Born deaf, CJ was vulnerable to discrimination and stereotyping from an early age, but he didn’t let his disability deter him from what he loved to do – drawing. He also credits his parents for providing a healthy environment to evolve in this craft.
“Since I was a kid, I loved drawing anime and Disney. I was really a drawing addict,” he shared to Rappler in an interview on May 18. “When I was a kid, I wanted to receive art materials rather than toys. My parents were very supportive of this passion. They encouraged me to develop my skills and talent.”
Fast forward to today, and the 25-year-old from Antipolo has achieved much respect by using his art to advocate for Deaf awareness as well as LGBTQ+ rights – oftentimes merging both, like in his illustrations on how to say queer terms using Filipino Sign Language (FSL).
CJ first realized he was gay when he was a freshman in high school, when it occurred to him that he didn’t behave in stereotypically masculine ways. He had also been sexually awakened through yaoi, a genre of manga that depicts love between men. And like many young members of the LGBTQ+ community, CJ faced prejudice from ignorant people in his environment.
“I was often bullied by my classmates because I liked a male student,” CJ confessed. “I remember, at first, I was confused with myself, but eventually, I learned to embrace who I am.”
Similarly, CJ also owns his deafness with gusto.
“There’s this ableist stereotype that deaf people can’t do anything just because they can’t hear. That’s bullcrap,” CJ said. “Deaf people are just as capable of anything as hearing people.”
He went on to explain that even the deaf can enjoy music by feeling a song’s vibrations, or through the help of an interpreter. The deaf, he added, also have inner voices that can make sounds such as laughing and screaming. There were countless misconceptions that he was determined to debunk.
This positive outlook and determination to be himself despite the odds is reflected clearly in CJ’s art. When visiting his social media accounts – under the name Caldatelier, a merging of his first name Caldwell and “atelier” or studio – one is treated to art that not only endears, with its cheery, wide-eyed characters and creamy color palette, but also educates.
Why go the educational route? According to CJ, he is determined to bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing with his instructional FSL illustrations.
“Promoting the language of deaf people will give us a sense of pride, that we are part of a society, a part of a culture,” he asserted. “FSL is the heart of local Deaf culture, and it’s an essential tool to communicate with each other and bring communities together. It would be awesome if we saw hearing people who know how to sign and can talk to us through FSL.”
Besides championing the Deaf and the LGBTQ+, CJ also advocates for other minorities such as people with autism, and is also quite passionate about local folklore and modern Filipino culture.
“I want to make Filipino people appreciate their own culture, and allow for other nationals to know more about Filipino culture as well,” CJ said.
CJ’s combination of talent and advocacy has earned him quite the following. As of writing, his Caldatelier Facebook page has 46,000 followers, his Twitter account has 40,600 followers, and his Instagram account has 27,600 followers. In the comments sections of his pieces, people also often express their gratitude for his promotion of less visible communities.
Making and finding space
Regardless, CJ is a freelance illustrator, and making a living as one isn’t as easy as it looks.
“After graduation, I tried to be an employee, first as a graphic designer for paper products and then as an assistant marketer for an animation studio. But then I realized I would be more happy and satisfied working as a freelancer, since I could explore other opportunities and work with different people,” CJ recounted.
“However, it’s especially hard for young artists who are just starting their career,” he stressed. “For one, it is really difficult to establish a competitive rate for our work. There is no fixed or standard rate. For another, there is the issue of protecting your intellectual property.”
Fortunately, there are spaces such as indie art market Komiket, which CJ frequents in order to sell his works and connect with fellow creatives and art lovers – a refreshing respite from the pressures of fielding online commissions. An upcoming edition, to be held June 16-18 at Ayala Malls the 30th in Ortigas, is even dedicated to LGBTQ+ creators in time for Pride Month.
“It makes me feel seen. I feel safe knowing that I’m not alone,” CJ said of the upcoming event, dubbed Komiket Pride. “I’m happy that they are ready to embrace diversity and inclusion.”
Finally, when asked for his advice to budding young artists, CJ’s answer could not have been more apt given what he has accomplished: “Be kind to yourself. Don’t put yourself in a cage. Explore and don’t be discouraged. Keep on moving forward.” – Rappler.com