It’s been three years since Mark Nicdao, arguably the most famous Filipino photographer of his generation, first dipped his toes in the waters of artmaking. His contribution to a group show in 2019, a mixed media work that featured the image of a naked woman in a Christ-on-the-cross pose, her midsection and right knee pierced by arrows sticking out from the canvas, sold for P1.8 million and was the talk of art circles.
Mark has joined two more group shows since, his pieces always involving the use of a photographic image—a sort of security blanket, one might say, a crutch he still seemed unwilling to let go while finding his bearings on this new creative journey. In his most recent effort, however—a solo art show no less—of the 11 paintings on display, only one had a photo element. It seems the former art student has mustered enough confidence to finally, completely confront the blank canvas.
The last three years turned out to be a sort of re-education for the former fine arts student. He realized that in his past artmaking efforts he really barely used his hands. He picked up drawing again, and when he met the artist Bree Jonson and they struck a friendship, he began to discover too that he could paint. Bree saw something worth encouraging in Mark’s efforts, which the photographer often dismissed as not good enough. “Bree gave me confidence,” he says. “I didn’t realize kaya ko pala gawin ‘to.”
Bree, who paints poetic, haunting images of nature, didn’t exactly teach him how to paint. He would visit her studio and watch her work on her canvases. “She became really my mentor and idol, my master,” says Mark. “What made it really great is our work is completely different from each other. What she did was actually help me think and be brave and stop moping. What she did was actually push me. From there, nakita ko na yung kamay ko moving on its own, without hesitation, everything just coming from me.”
With a lot of time in his hands due to the pandemic lockdowns, Mark brushed up on art history, too, watched documentaries, learned painting techniques online, revisited the works of his heroes: Stanley Kubrick, Caravaggio, Maurizio Cattelan. “Para pala akong nag-aral ulit but on my own,” he says.
To those who only know Mark as the man behind some of the most arresting images of the most beautiful women in show biz and society in the last two decades, it might surprise them to find he was actually in art school, the UP College of Fine Arts (CFA) to be exact, the same time the country’s future art stars were also roaming its storied halls and tree-shaded tambayans—from Maria Taniguchi to Jed Escueta, Dan Matutina and Manix Abrera, even Juan Caguicla, Mark’s former colleague in fashion photography and portraiture.
But the young dude from Las Piñas didn’t exactly enter UP with the goal of becoming an artist. “I told my mom, patapusin mo lang ako ng high school, mag-o-OFW na ako,” Mark recalls in his usual frenetic manner. “Any job—factory worker, gardener. Basta sabi ko I don’t wanna live here. Ayoko dito sa Pilipinas. Since wala na pera, magwo-work na ‘ko, di na ‘ko mag-aaral. Gusto ko na tumulong. She said ‘Perfect! Done!’”
The Nicdaos were hard up at that time, and going to school wouldn’t exactly help their situation. Towards graduation, however, it was hard for Mark not to feel left out when classmates would talk about where they’re going for college. Someone brought up the idea of trying out UP but Mark knew he won’t pass the UPCAT. Someone asked him to try taking the talent determination test instead, at the UP CFA. He had to borrow money to make the trip to Diliman but as soon as the young man stepped onto its tree-dotted grounds and marveled at it’s graffitied surroundings, he knew he wanted to stay longer. He wasn’t sure he could pass the entrance tests—“Alam ko lang mag-drawing, write a bit, I know how to speak English”—but he did eventually make the cut. He could not believe it.
Mark’s mother promised she’ll take care of one semester, “pero bahala ka sa baon mo,” she said. So the determined son found work here and there. Sometimes his professors would lend him money. There were days he quietly skipped paying for his bus ticket. He made it to third year with diskarte but by then diskarte just wasn’t enough. By this time, Mark was already assisting the photographer Francis Abraham part-time. And while Abraham said he would allow Mark to work while studying, the latter decided it was time to drop school altogether and work full time.
“In college I was so happy even though wala akong pera,” Mark says, looking back at his VisCom days. “Hindi ko rin alam paano gumanda grades ko.” Must be the batch mates he had, he says. Or his teachers, which included respected production designer, photographer and filmmaker Cesar Hernando, and the multi-talented advertising wiz Marlon Rivera. “When you’re surrounded by people like that ewan ko na lang kung di mo pa i-push sarili mo.”
But it was likely his ideas that got him the good grades. “Hindi naman magaling kamay ko eh,” he says, but in UP, at least in its art school, ideas were accorded more value than being a gifted artisan. “Hindi importante kung magaling ka mag-paint. What’s important is you get your message across. That’s what the college taught us: to think think think think!”
Clearly, Mark seems to have given himself another chance at an art practice—which he may have opted to pursue right after school, had circumstances been different. But the world has its way of taking its time. He actually tried out painting seven years ago but the results just weren’t good enough. It would take a pandemic to slow him down from his busy life as everyone’s go-to glamour photographer, and give him time to pursue a new discipline.
But on the way to completing his first solo show, he lost his friend and mentor. Bree Jonson, who is also a beloved figure in the local art community, died in September. As details surrounding her death unfolded in news reports, Mark, who has kept his life very private, would surprise everyone when he chose to very publicly grieve via his Instagram. In just two days, he clocked in over 30 posts, a combination of his pictures and videos of Bree and their time together, in her studio, in his pad, on the beach. Even to those who were not close to him, it was heartbreaking to watch.
“I only have one social media account: Instagram. And I don’t even post my personal life there. I don’t show where I am, I don’t show what I’m doing,” he says. But when he lost Bree, the pain just proved too much to bear. “Para sa akin sobrang hindi ko na kinaya,” reveals Mark. “Shit, I cringed at myself but at the same time, f@#k it. Wala na akong outlet and I didn’t wanna see anyone.” Like many of their friends, Mark firmly believes Bree did not end her own life. “She was very much loved, especially by me.”
The loss was nothing short of devastating for the famed photographer. For three months, he was cocooned in his pad. Eventually, he knew he needed to get up and slowly return to the swing of things. He learned to live by the day. “This show enabled me to really get back on my feet,” he says, before proceeding to enumerate his messages-to-self. “‘Shut the fuck up. You have things to do, so many things to look forward to. Do something, don’t be a dumbass. Don’t destroy your life.’” He’s been there before, he admits, that phase of self-destruction, and it didn’t do him any good. “I guess I got more mature,” he adds. “Dapat lang naman no. I’m turning 43.”
To close the interview and let him go back to working, we ask what his current state of mind is, and he laughs, mouths part of the title of his show as response: “Manic neurotransmitter!”
He says he’s much more “stabilized” now, though, switching to serious mode. “Not saying I’m perfect. I’m a work in progress,” he adds, just the like the painting he’s working on, its beige background turning to gold. Like the painting, he’s also been cut open, his insides exposed—his heart, his nerve fibers, the neurotransmitters. “I can’t say I’m great or I’m in a very good position.”
He knows exactly what he wants to say but memory fails him, and he struggles to complete the popular Nietzsche quote, or some version of it. “What doesn’t kill—What won’t kill you will only make you stronger!” he says, with a little help from us. “That’s my rallying cry,” Mark says, laughing. “That’s my state of mind: I’m a bumper sticker.”