Fil-Am artist Topher Maka: His journey to art and self

Fil-Am artist Topher Maka: His journey to art and self

The task of art is to create something out of nothing, or in most cases, create sense out of chaos.  But how does it happen?  Where does it come from?

For Filipino-American artist Topher Maka, the journey to make art — among other things — is what made him.

Maka is a San Francisco-based artist who practices fine art with curation, painting, illustration, printmaking, art installations, art preparation and handling.  He also works digitally with graphic design and print-based media.

Currently, he also acts as the managing director of the non-profit and fully student-run Associated Students’ Art Gallery at San Francisco State University.

Family and his Filipino roots

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Maka’s mother, Pedrosa Calderon, moved to the United States from Mindoro in her early twenties.

“My family has a great history in the art of farming that grew bananas, mangoes, calamansi, and more,” said Maka and added,  “But like many other immigrants, she decided to try to take the risk and pursue a ‘better’ life in the States.  I truly credit her for raising me, alongside my younger brother and sister, with traditional Pinoy values of respect, humility, and hard work; while firmly balancing multiple jobs to support us a single mother.”

Maka also shared that he comes from a large, mixed Filipino family, but has never been surrounded by Filipinos other than his family prior to going to college.

“I could count on my fingertips of how many Filipinos were in my school: not many where I’m from. All my best friends were either Black or Latino, but race never mattered to me because I went through the same experiences as my neighbors of color in a society that perpetuated more ‘white’ and ‘American’ values.”

Explaining that he was raised as a Filipino in an American environment that was less accepting of diversity, Maka was able to assimilate into different cultures, traditions and lifestyles.

Still, he knew about Philippine history, culture and folklore; and even followed superstitions.

“Even though I was born here, I feel more Filipino than I am American. What does ‘American’ mean anymore? That question ringed in my head for every ethnic studies courses I took,” he said and then added, “I say all of this because the deepest connection to my Pinoy roots is family. “

His journey to art and himself

Maka’s interest in art didn’t really happen until late high school, and for him, it was something to drown the street drama surrounding him.

“I had not had a real sense of direction for my future. Art had become my influence and foundation while old friends of mine opted to join gangs or sell drugs, but I had to jump away from that by skateboarding and taking spray paint to the streets. I was in a crew of skateboarding artists. Everybody hated us because we were ‘hoodlums’ on skateboards, and made fun of us because we weren’t white because skateboarding was apparently only for white people at the time,” he said. “Look at the skateparks now. The progression is amazing. From there, I was exposed to heavy levels of illustration and graffiti made with bold and tapered lines and oceans of vibrant color. I taught myself how to draw. My friends taught me techniques I didn’t know.”

From there, the challenge he faced was trying to make something out of his with paint.  Sharing that it was a difficult phase because every obstacle he had to go through was aimed at making him a failure, Maka decided to take an art course at the City College of San Francisco and gained more confidence about his work.

Although he could name drop artists or people who may have inspired or influenced him as an artist, he explained that won’t be completely true and honest.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep affection for the traditional mastery of Fernando Amorsolo and the dopeness of street artist Nychos, but they didn’t make me, me,” Maka said.  “My struggles made me. My family made me. My friends made me. My mother made me. My journey to make art made me.”

His favorite piece this year is “Sanctuary, Nope,” a painting of a disheveled jeepney overgrown with plants and animals, mainly tarsiers.

“The tarsier, the Philippines’ smallest nocturnal hunting primate, popular due to the size of its eyes, is an animal that is facing extinction due to hunting and tourism. There are a few folks that are endeavoring to protect this animal, but because of peoples’ need to see this “cute” animal, the population has been shrinking to meet high demand in Bohol,” he said.  “The high amount of stress these animals face at tourist destinations decreases the life expectancy of these majestic animals. The idea of this painting along with its title is to spark conversation of environment destruction and its ecology with human interference.”

Not everything he creates is explicitly Pinoy, he said but added that he derives from his experiences as a Fil-Am “jumping through the hoops of structural institutions.”

“I love my heritage and my intent is to represent my angst, attitude, and perseverance as person of color. The art industry is currently saturated with artwork that has no meaning, and I want to define a road that pays respect and gratitude to those who have paved the way. How? By research, communication, collaboration, and engagement,” he explained.

“As humans, we need to make it imperative to live in synergy rather in constant competition.  I intend to leave a legacy that I’m proud of.”

His message to aspiring artists:  Get educated.

“There is a ton of cultural misappropriation and offensive exhibitions that don’t accurately represent our communities at all.

“Get educated and stay educated. We must speak for ourselves, and don’t let other’s speak for you. No matter what, keep your art practice alive. Perseverance is beautiful.”

At present, Maka shares his working studio in Hunters Point Naval Shipyard with Grand Bison, the artist collective I founded with my co-founding artists Joseph Aponte and Alan Khum.

He is also in a group exhibition, “Burnt Rice,” with Epekto Arts Projects and is currently up at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center until mid-December this year. Maka will be showcasing a new series of work (with some earlier ones) at the Wailoa Arts & Cultural Center in Hilo, Hawaii in January 2017.

For more information about Topher Maka and his work visit

On Instagram: instagram/tophermaka.

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