If there is something that catches one off guard while talking to Kimsoy Yap about his life, it is the fact that his smile followed by a short giggle is completely adorable. It feels like talking to an eight-year-old, not someone turning 80 in a few months’ time. So childlike, yet so immensely talented with no air of boastfulness whatsoever, that one can’t help but be in awe of this man.
Jose Yap Jr. got his nickname “Kimsoy” from an uncle who wanted to give him a Chinese name when he was around four years old. It meant “golden water,” fitting for his nephew who loved spending his days by the seashore. He was born in Bindoy, Negros Oriental, even though his parents were originally from Iloilo because they stayed with relatives there while his father worked in Manila. They soon moved to Cebu when he was of primary school age and stayed here until his college graduation from the Cebu Institute of Technology with a degree in Architecture.
The very young Kimsoy started drawing seascapes while he was still in Negros. He found the sea calming and a source of comfort for him. He started earning money for his work when he was in high school, as he was paid to make projects for his friends. His father, who was also an artist, brought him along to Plein Air sessions, which he thoroughly enjoyed because there was always an abundance of food.
It was also his father who made him spend summers with the legendary “Dean of Cebuano Painters,” Martino “Tinong” Abellana, in addition to having him as a teacher in CIT. Even though Kimsoy was still in his teens, Noy Tinong already praised the work of his protege, telling people many, many years down the road that “he’s already very talented.” As a young college graduate, Kimsoy was invited by a cousin to go to the United States to further improve his craft. But things did not go well with his cousin so he had to move out. Eventually, he was able to save enough to start enrolling in short courses in the National Academy of Design School of Fine Arts, also availing of scholarships that were offered every now and then.
Before he attended the Academy, Kimsoy said his painting style was very tight; his days there loosened him up. Some of his classmates would buy his pieces, and what he made was barely enough to survive. Asked to describe his days in New York, he stated that he was always starving and struggling, and I could feel how hard each day was just by the way he said it. He also fell in love many times in his 20 years there, with some of his lovers immortalized in his nude pieces — a reminder of a time filled with both romance and gloom.
I ask him what was the greatest lesson he learned from his struggling days abroad, and he says it was the discipline that results from working hard to get what you want. If he had to live his life all over again, he would still make the move to the US, but he would not do it alone. The US, he says, still has the best art supplies in all of the world, and there, opportunities abound, especially if you are from there.
In 1991, Kimsoy decided to return to Cebu for good. He started to reacquaint himself with the local artist scene by joining Color Sugbo, then located at P. Del Rosario St., Cebu City. Slowly, he began to join art shows, and in 1993, he held his first one-man show at the CAP Building, and it almost sold out. Made up mostly of artwork with figures, he was selling them at prices ranging from P80,000 to P100,000.
His favorite nude portrait “Renee” is privately owned, and he smiles when he recalls that painting sessions with nude models were no big deal back in those days at the Academy. The school supplied the models, which were mostly dancers quite comfortable in their own skin. He says male nudes do not sell as easily as female nudes, but he enjoys dabbling in both.
While walking around one day in 2020, Kimsoy felt dizzy and fell over, waking up in a hospital bed with a numb right side — the result of a stroke. This prompted him to stop smoking immediately and concentrate on rehab sessions, but still, he felt that his right hand would never be the same. He resolved to learn to paint with his left hand, and it took him a good two months before he was satisfied with the result.
Today, he is ambidextrous, although he acknowledges that with age, his pace has also slowed down. He was awarded the 1st Bahanding Sugbuanon Award for Visual Arts earlier this year in ceremonies hosted by the City of Cebu, and next year, when he turns 80, a book on his life’s work will be launched.
The three artists he admires the most are Martino Abellana and two Americans: Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer. When asked to define himself and his signature style, he says he is a watercolorist for human figures and seascapes who hopes that when he is gone, his paintings will be put in one secure place so generations can visit and appreciate his life’s work.