Foleee’s natural talent helped him stand out in his youth, but over time, it gave way to career necessity. Speaking to Ola Kalejaye, Foleee explains how web3 helped him rediscover his love of drawing.
When it comes to NFTs, there are many styles of digital art whose very essence is in lockstep with the exciting new medium. Be it the memic dystopia of a Beeple, the generative masterworks of DEAFBEEF, or even the stunningly minimalist pixel art of the CryptoPunks, much of the art that has come to be synonymous with NFTs fits that mold. There is an ongoing dialogue between art and medium, whether the art is directly commenting on web3 technology, or simply a refined product of it.
Then there are other artists whose work calls back to the beauty and intricacy of classical pieces. This art inhabits the digital space, yet could easily find a home on canvas. In these works, there is a wonderful dichotomy: art whose foundational inspirations stretch back centuries, housed in a technology still in its adolescence. It is in this juxtaposition of the historical and the pioneering that Foleee’s work resides.
For as long as he can remember, Foleee has been an artist, even if the journey he’s taken to identify himself as one has been long and not without its struggle. “I always loved to draw, and I've always connected with art. Since I was a kid, I've always loved doing portraits. For me, it was kind of natural.”
Indeed, Foleee’s digital paintings call to mind the deeply textured and emotive works of the Renaissance masters. Even back in his childhood, drawing sketches of his favorite cartoon characters, Foleee has always been captivated by portraiture and the way it stirs emotion, telling the story of a subject with light and shadow crafted by the hands of the artist. “I would say it's different things that just light a spark. Sometimes it's how light reflects on a face. Sometimes it's the reflection of the eyes. It's not easy to define in words.”
As Foleee tells it, he would spend every possible moment with a pencil in hand, drawing portraits of whatever drew his attention as a child. That said, the Uruguayan's early relationship with art was a complicated one. Enrolled in an art workshop by his mother in his pre-teens, Foleee’s teacher would have him recreate her pencil portraits while the rest of the workshop would do the usual, simplistic sketches. He understands today that this was because his teacher saw something significant in his work, but he felt discouraged after being separated from his peers at the time. “As a kid, you always want to be part [of the group] and I felt like I was doing something totally different.”
Later on, Foleee lived through the eternal artistic conflict between his all-consuming passion and his pursuit of a stable career. He convinced himself that drawing was a childish activity, not one that he could carry with him as an adult. “I felt like drawing was a kid thing. And so when I stopped being a kid I said, ‘okay, no more drawing for me’.”
Foleee says he simply “forgot about art” after his stint at the workshop. The decision impacted him greatly, to an extent that he did not fully appreciate until many years later. As much as he had told himself that art had no place in his life anymore, a heavy sense of emptiness was left in its absence. It would be a decade before Foleee next seriously picked up the pencil, which Foleee describes as a dark time in his life, disconnected from his true self.
Eventually, he started to uncover just how much he needed art back in his life. Around the age of 24, after flirting with a career in engineering, Foleee finally connected the dots on what he needed to do. "I started therapy and it kind of hit me. I thought, ‘okay, I do want to do something with my life, and that has to be about what I love’, [which] was drawing. I was like, ‘okay, what can I do that resembles that?’”
A career in design helped Foleee rediscover the artist within himself. It was, in his own words, “an excuse to get back to drawing” that let him create without the feeling he was wasting his time. At the same time, he began to get more exposure to digital artists - too many to name, lest he leave any out - whose work he fell in love with. Taken aback by how much a digital art piece could look like a traditional painting, he picked up the cheapest tablet he could find and started to draw. Before, Foleee had taken to drawing in charcoal and graphite, his portraits inhabiting the gradients of black and white. As a digital artist today - inspired by those digital artists who promoted him to pick up the stylus - Foleee counts Caravaggio as his ultimate inspiration; Raphael, Rembrandt, and John Singer Sargent are amongst the other masters from whose brushstrokes Foleee tries to learn every day.
NFTs first came onto Foleee’s radar with the historic sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days. It wasn’t his first brush with crypto, but like for so many artists, it represented a paradigm shift, a new opportunity for artists, the likes of which Foleee had long been searching for. “I remember reading about crypto a couple of years before that. I didn't quite understand it. But then with [the Everydays sale], I said, ‘okay, maybe it's an opportunity for digital artists’. It wasn't really about the money, more about the community of people showing and appreciating digital art.”
“If it doesn’t work, I am going to forget about my art dream forever.”
Until that point, Foleee’s art was both deeply personal and private. Becoming a designer may have lit the fire within him to return to portraits, but it hadn’t yet led to him sharing his art with anyone. There were some half-hearted attempts to share his work previously, but the fear of failure ultimately restrained him from fully sharing his art. “For me, showing your art is pretty intimate. It was really hard for me to just stand there and say, ‘okay, this is me, this is how I feel, this is what I feel’. Some friends didn’t even know I did art until a couple of months ago because I was trying to hide it.”
But the desire for his art to be appreciated - augmented by the NFT art renaissance - ultimately persuaded Foleee to give it one last try. “I remember saying to my wife, this is my last shot. I’m gonna try this. If it doesn't work, I am going to forget about my art dream forever. I'm just gonna focus on my design career and forget about art. Probably I wouldn't have, but I felt like that at the time. And to be honest, I think it was my first day on Twitter when I realised 'okay, this is for me'.”
Much is said about how NFTs make it much easier for artists to share their work with people all over the world – and to be compensated for it. But what Foleee loves about the space is the communities that can be built on top of these global relationships, particularly with fellow artists and collectors. It is this, rather than going full-time as an artist, that has been life-changing for him - and the fact that he still has his day job provides for an empowering balance. “It's good and bad at the same time because of course, I would love to be a full-time artist. But on the other hand, I don't need the income so I don't really mind or care about, bear markets or the situation we’re in right now because I have a paycheck at the end of the month.
"I can focus on just creating, not thinking about the need to sell. I don't feel pressure to do something that sells. And for me, that's artistic freedom.”
Ola is a US–based writer and digital nomad. He loves thinking, learning, and writing about all things web3, particularly its impact on major creative industries like film and art.
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