The Artist’s Way: Manuel Solano

In this special feature, T photographed and interviewed 34 artists from various disciplines about 24 hours in their creative lives.

Article by Coco Romack

Manuel SolanoSolano, photographed at their home studio in Berlin on Jan 4, 2022. Photography by Bastian Achard.

After graduating the visual arts program at La Esmeralda, an arts school in Mexico City, in 2012, I had no idea what I was going to do next. I was still living with my mom. I had no money, not a lot of friends, no prospects. I was sending portfolios everywhere, but galleries didn’t seem interested. I’d been concentrating on a painting on and off for almost a year and just couldn’t finish it.

One night, I was up late painting and listening to music on YouTube. A cover of a Waylon Jennings song called “Dreaming My Dreams”, performed by Cary Ann Hearst, came on. Her voice completely mesmerised me. I watched the video again and again. It inspired me to dig out and tune my electric guitar, which I hadn’t touched in a decade. As I sat in front of my laptop attempting to play the song, I felt overcome by sadness, though I didn’t know why at the time. I couldn’t figure out the chords, and my voice sounded nothing like hers. I started crying and couldn’t stop.

That turned out to be a fateful night. The next morning, I tested positive for HIV. A couple of years later, I went blind because of complications from the disease. I told this story as part of a 2017 performance piece called “The Sigourney Weaver Jam Sessions” at the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon, during which I tried to sing “Dreaming My Dreams”. I realised soon after that the reason I’d been crying that night was that when I’d heard my voice in my headphones, I’d heard a man singing. I suddenly knew two things: I needed to do something about my gender, and I needed to do something about music.

I’ve been working on both since and am so much happier. I’m learning to androgynise my voice and play the guitar. It feels completely different now that I’m blind, almost as if I were using another part of my brain. I still have my first electric guitar, but playing the acoustic is more intimate, so I want to come back to the electric after I become proficient. My instruments are usually in the living room — I was lucky to find a large apartment in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, so half is my home and half is my work space.

I now only ever make work if it’s funny to me. Even if the subject matter is very sad or dark, something about it — the way it’s presented or the context in which it’ll be shown — has to tickle me. Sadly, all the fun of painting disappeared with the loss of my eyesight; the joy of it was watching the image change as I worked.

More and more, I’m learning how important it is to build playtime into my creative process. In order to keep having ideas for paintings or the motivation to create, I need to regularly spend time singing or strumming the guitar. It’s become like therapy, something I do to make myself feel real.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 76 of T Australia with the headline: “The Artist’s Way”