When you consider how vast and deeply layered Western Sydney artist Marikit Santiago’s paintings are – from the subject matter and the research behind them to their physical size – it’s suprising to learn how little space Santiago actually needs to realise her award-winning works.

Take her 2020 Sulman Prize-winning painting The Divine. At almost two metres x 120 centimetres, it depicts her three children and explores themes of creation stories, cultural heritage and gender roles through the lens of mother and artist. It was painted in the garage that doubled as her studio in her previous home in North Parramatta, Sydney, where she negotiated space between bikes and Christmas decorations. Her second largest (2.6-metre) work Sa Simula (In the Beginning), currently on display at the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, depicts her family as ancient Tagalog gods and goddesses with references to Greek and Roman mythology. It’s the first work created in her new home studio.

“I’m conditioned to work in small spaces because I’ve never been given the opportunity to work in larger spaces,” she tells Broadsheet. “Before this studio it was the garage, so having an enclosed space makes the most profound difference and means I can work in any condition.”

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Santiago cheerfully volunteers that she really only needs her large wooden easel and the paint trolley that once served as the TV unit in her childhood home and holds the wooden box given to her in high school by her parents that today contains her oil paints and acrylics. And a speaker from which she regularly blasts Aussie hip-hop. “And my couch,” she adds. “It was my parents’ couch and it’s the spot where my youngest likes to hang out while I’m working, so that’s important.”

Santiago is preparing for her next solo show at Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2025 and has recently finished prepping the recycled cardboard Ikea box she is using to paint her response to the c. 1637–1638 work Mars and the vestal virgin, held in the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) collection, that depicts the moment the god Mars rapes the sleeping vestal virgin in the woods, resulting in the birth of the founding fathers of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

The upcoming solo exhibition caps off a remarkable few years for Santiago, who in March was named the winner of the La Prairie Art Award for her dual paintings A Seat at the Table (Magulang) and A Seat at the Table (Kapatid), to be acquired by AGNSW. The prize includes a trip to Art Basel International Art Fair in Switzerland in June and a residency in Europe. In addition to her Sulman Prize win she is a three-time Archibald Prize finalist.

All this from an artist who graduated from art school in 2017, with a Master of Fine Art having already completed a Bachelor of Medical Science, a degree motivated in part by a desire to please her Filipino parents who migrated to Melbourne in the 1980s seeking a better life for their children.

Santiago once hid her Filipino heritage, but today embraces it through her painting and sculpture practice that references imagery and symbolism from her ancestry while exploring and responding to Catholicism and Western art history.

“If I look at what my peers are doing it’s not what I’m doing; contemporary Australian art isn’t so much concerned with figurative oil painting,” she says. “I think that’s why I’m drawn to that period of art history, but that also gives me some anxiety about my practice and chosen subjects because it’s not entirely comforting to look around and go, ‘Nobody else is doing what I’m doing’.”

Nevertheless the accolades and solo and group exhibitions, not to mention the regular acknowledgement she receives from fellow Filipino migrants and communities in Sydney’s western suburbs, encourages her to continue.

“I’m really driven when members of the community reach out and say, ‘I never thought I’d see someone like me on these walls,’ that really reinforces who my work is for and why I persist,” she says.

Santiago is unapologetic about dividing her energy between her profession and her children. Her daily art practice works in and around the schedules of her children with husband Shawn Pearl: Maella (nine), Santi Mateo (seven) and Sarita (five).

Every painting that features the children or family includes additions from the children themselves. “Having my kids involved in my work gives their generation a voice and demonstrates their voices are important. They’re our future community leaders,” she says.

Sharing domestic life with Shawn, from school drop-offs to shepherding kids to jujitsu or drumming, Santiago maximises the time she has in the studio, her golden time of day.

“My favourite part of the process is when I’m in the middle of a painting and have a clear image of it. I can look at the day ahead and know I’m going to paint from 9am to 2pm, pick up the kids then maybe paint for another hour,” she says.

@marikitsantiago

Read more in our Studio Visit series.