Fulfilling a creative dream takes passion and perseverance. We sat down with Ciara Sana, a rising Chamorro artist living in Bellingham, Wash., to talk about her journey and success so far.
The 31-year-old has been creating art her entire life but began taking it more seriously about seven years ago. She has her work in various establishments including Makers Workspace in Seattle and has been a part of numerous pop-up shows and festivals including the Allied Arts Festival in Bellingham. She wants to inspire others to follow their dreams so she shared her story with us, adversities and all.
The sun is shining through the wide windows of the Babygreens cafe where Sana and I sip on turmeric tea and coffee and talk about being a brown creative.
When did you get started with creating and selling art?
I always wanted to be an artist but my parents grew up really poor and my dad made a bunch of sacrifices to be an engineer and to support the family. He’s an amazing artist and an amazing musician and he decided to not follow his dream and to pursue a different dream and he thought that we couldn’t make the same mistakes. So we had to set aside art for down time and for hobby time.
I set up my life all throughout high school to get a degree once I went to college that would translate into whatever I felt was a compromise with being an artist. So I kind of wanted to be an architect because you kind of do art but I was more of an illustrator or a painter. So I dropped out of college and just lived in this small town where I grew up for most of my teenage years, Walla Walla, Wash. It’s so freaking small but I started doing more art when I was there. I worked a bunch just to try to make ends meet and so I kind of never really took it seriously. And then I had this really big time in my life when I was 25 and I decided that I was just going to pursue it and I was going to see what happened.
I started trying to contact people in this town [Walla Walla, Wash.] and it just wasn’t what they were looking for. So I felt really discouraged and disappointed and I felt like I was a terrible artist. And so my brother who was going to school at Western at the time was like, “Hey, you should come to Bellingham and you should put your art up out here. I bet you people would love it.” And so I decided to move to Bellingham with just a PT Cruiser full of my stuff and I was like I guess I’m doing this.
“I just told myself there’s no compromising now. Like, I did this. I have to make it work…”
So I moved up here and I lived with him and just started an Instagram page (@ArtByCiara) with my art and I just told myself there’s no compromising now. Like, I did this. I have to make it work because my parents were so opposed to it. I had been staying with them in Guam and I was suppose to get a job there but turned it down and was like, “Bye, I’m going back to Washington.” And it was really hard because I got into a huge fight with my parents because they thought I was being reckless.
I’m not going to say that it was easy because it was really difficult and I had to tell myself that I’m just going to make the connections. I was awkward and antisocial. I had to step outside of my comfort zone and talk to people and put myself out there and make myself really vulnerable which was so hard for me, especially being this new person in town. But it worked. I met really amazing people and made connections with other artists who kinda piggy backed me with pop-up shows and markets. They helped me get my first art studio at the Make.Shift Art Space and so it kind of just escalated.
What were your biggest doubts when you first started taking art seriously?
Oh my gosh how much time do you have? Am I good enough? Am I credible? Because I never went to school for art. I only took one art class and it was in high school because they said I wasn’t going to be able to graduate if I didn’t.
That was my biggest fear. Not being taken seriously because I don’t have a background in art and it’s just something I did. I didn’t want people to think like, “Oh that’s just her hobby,” because it was so personal for me.
“When I go to Guam everyone wants my art because they understand it and they get it and they’re like, ‘Oh that speaks to me.’”
Another challenge, maybe it’s just my perspective, but being a woman of color. I feel like I didn’t get as much exposure as some of the other artists that I was around. And I just felt like, is it because they can’t relate? I feel like it might have been that because when I go to Guam everyone wants my art because they understand it and they get it and they’re like, “Oh that speaks to me.” The people who do relate to it or do see themselves in my images, it means so much to me.
What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve dealt with so far?
I love them so much but my family. They were my biggest hurdle because a lot of my relatives on my dad’s side always told me ever since I was little, “You’re the child that everyone is going to look up to.”
“I want them to be happy and I want them to like me but I didn’t want to be apologetic about who I was. “
I was one of the oldest on my dad’s side so I had this role to kind of carve the way for all my cousins and to set an example for my siblings, especially when we moved to the states and were given more opportunities. They shined a bigger light on the fact that I needed to present myself in a certain way. So when they found out that I wanted to be an artist and then when they found out that I was into rock ‘n’ roll music they were like, “What has happened to you? Who are you?”
So they held me back a lot because they would try to do things or set up situations where I would be distracted from art. I think they kind of hoped I would get tired of it and just pursue it as a hobby as opposed to pursuing it as a career. I love to please my family. I love my family so much and I want them to be happy and I want them to like me but I didn’t want to be apologetic about who I was.
Does your family have a different attitude towards your art now that you’ve gained some success?
Oh yeah. It’s so sweet. It kind of makes me cry when I talk about it. I guess the turning point was when I got a commission for something super big. It was going to be my biggest project and I called my dad to tell him about it and he said, “I always knew you could do it. “
So it was really awesome to hear that. Then we went to Guam for my brother’s wedding and we went to this place where there were a bunch of older natives doing artwork and my dad was like, “My kids are artists.” I wasn’t there at the time when they were talking but my mom takes pictures on her phone of our art all the time so she shows the guy our art and he was like, because we’re Chamorro, he’s like, “That’s not Chamorro art.” And my dad was like, “You don’t understand what she’s trying to represent.” He told him the story and he was really defensive of me and my art and I thought that was super sweet. So they’re so supportive of me now and it’s super cute.
And it’s been really cool too because I was there a couple years ago and my mom was having a conversation with me about how my aunts and uncles need to let their kids do what they love. It was really cool to hear her kind of take back the things she had said to me and have this new vision and this new outlook on people pursuing what they’re passionate about.
Do you have any big projects coming up?
I’m super excited actually about this! I recently posted something about this on my art Instagram. I’m taking a pause on taking any more commissions, projects or producing new work for Art by Ciara and I’m working on creating a brand. It’s going to be focused on spreading positivity and encouraging people to continue daydreaming and continue being curious and optimistic. It’s going to be wearable art and wearable reminders about doing good and being positive.
“There are so many talented Pacific Islander artists and they’re not getting the recognition or the exposure…”
The brand is also going to be more focused on representing my culture and other cultures that don’t get the recognition and representation that they deserve. I was a part of this Pacific Island arts festival and that kind of just got me. I was like, there are so many talented Pacific Islander artists and they’re not getting the recognition or the exposure. I want to be able to help other people in the ways that I was helped.
Do you have any advice for up and coming artists or people of color who are artists?
I know it’s so cliche but don’t give up. When I first started I had a vision and I had ideas of what I wanted to do and how I wanted it to look. It wasn’t matching up and I was so frustrated. When people didn’t like my art or when people turned away or were like, “Okay, whatever, I don’t want your free art,” I kinda took it personally and I told myself that no one likes my art. But I just decided to keep pushing through and just keep putting it out there. Eventually I found that there are people searching for what you’re putting out. I feel like that’s what I owe to the world; to put my message out there and to put these ideas out there. I think that will ultimately lead to success if you continue to just do what you love.
Sana’s online store will be closing soon so she can focus on her brand. Be sure to check out her website before the hiatus!