An artistic black-and-white portrait of Tamar S. Manuel

Artist Tamar S. Manuel Grows Out of the CID Into Mixed Media

by Amanda Ong

At just 22 years old, Tamar Sunnam Manuel says someone could know him for decades and still know very few of his stories. Manuel is a practicing fine art and gallery artist who spent his formative years in the CID. While he started out in photography, he eventually found his way to mixed-media arts, meaning he does “a bit of everything.” But in his two-plus decades of life, Manuel has also been an amateur competitive tennis player, clothing designer, boxer, bowling champion, and dancer. 

“I was a business major originally when I was accepted into [college],” Manuel said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. He and his mom had gone to visit her friend, who was a professor in the arts department at one of the universities he was accepted by. “I realized [art] was actually an option. I just don’t think I had grown up seeing somebody who had done art in a way that translated to me, because at the time, I still saw the need for monetary and academic structure and rigor.”

While Manuel eventually stopped pursuing his undergraduate degree, he gained traction as a photographer and exhibiting gallery artist while also working for a period of time as a car salesperson. Aside from pieces hung in residential buildings and galleries, Manuel has been a finalist in the “Seattle Restored” grant program and was able to exhibit a self-portrait reflecting on mental illness at the Wing Luke Museum, where he has a long-standing relationship.

Tamar S. Manuel next to his work "Healing Poorly"
Aside from pieces hung in residential buildings and galleries, Tamar S. Manuel has been a finalist in the “Seattle Restored” grant program, and exhibited a self-portrait reflecting on mental illness at the Wing Luke Museum. Shown: Manuel and his work “Healing Poorly.” (Photo: Tamar S. Manuel)

“I’m a Chinatown kid through and through. I spent my first 100 day birthday at the Wing Luke,” Manuel said. “My mom worked at the Wing when she was pregnant with me. … So I grew up around the Wing as a baby.” 

Last year, Manuel was the teaching artist for the Wing Luke Museum’s YouthCAN program, a program which he had participated in as a high school student. As the teaching artist, Manuel was able to teach students studio photography for a program theme on fashion. He remembers his own time in YouthCAN as being one of his first experiences realizing his work could resonate with people. As a student of the program, Manuel had exhibited a large canvas of calligraphy with a poem running down it. As it progressed, the calligraphy shifted from clear, neat writing to streaks of paint, expressing frustration. A few visitors had stopped to look at it carefully, and took photos with his piece.

“To have somebody visit the museum, as just a regular tourist with no, zero, connection to me, and like that work so much was the most amazing and incredible feeling,” Manuel said. “It meant something to them, even not knowing who I was and completely removed from me, they liked what I made.” 

Manuel says the Wing Luke Museum was the first place where he could hang something up on a wall other than his own. It was his first home for his art, especially significant considering his roots in the CID. Manuel was born and raised in South Seattle to a Filipino American father and Korean American mother, and he still works out of a studio in SoDo. 

This fall, Manuel will resume his undergraduate studies in his first year at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I still qualify myself as an art student, because as much as you get recognition for your work, I don’t think I’ve ever thought, ‘I’m done,’” Manuel said. As a mixed-media artist, he looks forward to trying a variety of media.

Tamar S. Manuel's piece "Wired to Love," with wires and cord strung and woven together artistically
Tamar S. Manuel started out in photography but eventually found his way to mixed-media arts, meaning he does “a bit of everything.” Pictured is “Wired to Love” by Tamar S. Manuel. (Photo: Tamar S. Manuel)

For Manuel, entering art school is a major milestone in his career path. Growing up, he didn’t realize that art was a viable career path, or even extracurricular. Instead, he pursued more athletic endeavors and participated in amateur competitive sports. Though it took him some time to find art in a serious manner, it proved to be his true passion. “I didn’t know we had clubs, I didn’t know there were art schools,” Manuel said. “I didn’t understand the concepts, these basic fundamental things that a lot of other students know off the bat. I was making it up as I went.”

More than that, Manuel struggled with serious mental health issues. For a long time, he says that he didn’t have any kind of career in mind — he was simply trying to survive. He was in and out of school, and missed out on a lot of opportunities. Art was never a career path that he intended, but by the pure definition of his work, as he started to create, he became an artist. 

“I need to do it, because it is one of the few things that genuinely gets me this excited,” Manuel said. “I am honoring the kid who missed his entire life. I just want to be somebody who gets to do the things he loves in life.” 

Manuel recalls that after being hospitalized once at 18, he realized that if he continued not to treat his mental illnesses, he could die. With that sobering realization came a greater perspective and recommitment to his larger dreams and motivations, especially in his art.

The art world brings its own challenges, and Manuel says he has faced a long internal journey considering whether to make the art he wants or the art that people want from him. He often feels that artists are expected to create pieces that are deep and meaningful. At this point in his life, he is just trying to be happy. 

“My dream is to make something and be so proud of it that when I put it out into the public, even if it’s hated by everyone, I sit there and I’m happy I made that,” Manuel said. “That it came from my head to my materials. That is something that I want. … My art is me learning what it means to be myself.”

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Tamar Sunnam Manuel is a practicing fine art and gallery artist who spent his formative years in the CID. Photo from “Reflections in Movement” by Tamar S. Manuel.

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