It was about this time last year that Melanie and I met while she was still living in Washington D.C. As a multi-ethnic international artist, Melanie connects deeply with her Filipino heritage from her mom’s side. She recently moved back to the Philippines after living in Washington D.C. for two years. While she was here, she had a solo exhibition at the International Arts and Artists at Hillyer (previously Hillyer Arts Space) in Washington D.C. and was included in a group show of Filipino American artists I co-curated with artist Janna Añonuevo Langholz at the WAS Gallery in Bethesda, MD.
This interview was conducted through email from the island of Boracay in the Philippines where Melanie currently lives. She continues to be prolific in her own art as well as being a community artist activist having just completed a giant mural at a local school. While she’s not in the studio or busy collaborating with communities through her art, she finds time to model for a friends fashion label called Tala. Watch the video of her incredible studio in Boracay and enjoy the rooster’s crowing – it really transports you there.
Melanie Gritzka Del Villar: My name is Melanie Gritzka del Villar. I’m a Filipina-German visual artist. I was born in Munich, Germany. At 11 years old I moved with my family to Spain, then at 19 I went to study Fine Arts in the UK at Staffordshire University. At 24 I decided to live in Bangkok, Thailand, where I ended up staying for nine years. The last two years I lived in Washington D.C. and now I moved back to the Philippines. I’m currently based on the island of Boracay and have set up my studio at my neighbors: Tito and Tita Rex’s place, which is just up the hill from where we live. I like the atmosphere there as it’s peaceful and green. It’s one of the last places on the island that is built in an environmentally friendly way, with structures blending into – instead of encroaching onto the natural environment. It reminds me of the old Boracay. My studio is just underneath their main building: it’s an open space with a view onto the garden. There are lots of animals around me: cats, dogs, chickens, which makes it a lively environment, especially acoustically.
I moved back to the Philippines in order to get back to my roots. I’ve been coming here since I was little, but never spent more than a few months at a time. It takes time to get a feel for a place. Especially the Philippines, since it’s time consuming to travel from one region/island to the other and there are so many micro cultures. I got my Filipino passport last year, so I thought now is a good time to explore.
Isabel Manalo: I had the pleasure of being introduced to your work last spring here in Washington D.C. and I was struck by a sense of nostalgia in your work portraying various scenes and people from the Philippines that you paint on found drift wood. How did you get to making this kind of work?
MGDV: I was introduced to the material by my mentor and friend, the Bacolod artist Perry Kasulhay Argel who has known me since I was a child. He used to live on Boracay and would take me on walks along the shores of the beaches here. During our walks he’d make me aware of all the natural and man-made materials that were washed onto the shores by the storms and tides: plastic, flip flops, packaging, driftwood. Perry has this meditative way of working, where he’d pick up objects whilst walking and would would attach them to each other with nylon thread. By the end of the walk, he’d have a finished sculpture! This was a very inspiring process to me, and I was particularly drawn to driftwood as material. When I say driftwood, I mean fragments of the local bamboo outrigger boats called “bangka”. The fragments capture me because of the individual and unique shapes I find them in. I love their textured surfaces with different layers of paint. The bangka boats break through wear and tear but also during the violent tropical storms and typhoons that strike the Philippines from the Pacific every year.
I started working with driftwood at a time when I was feeling stuck with painting on canvas. That was around 2010. I remember being back at my family’s place on the island and looking at a huge pile of local newspapers my dad had collected. I went through them and discovered that the images were really good. So i started to cut them out and collaged them onto the driftwood. This is how my first series of driftwood works emerged. This collage series was called “Traces”.
Next, I started painting on the fragments. The driftwood pieces became a perfect backdrop for my series called “The Gift”, in which I painted dream imagery and archaic symbols. Following that, I produced the series “On the Line”, in which I used both sides of the boat fragments as paint surface. The subject here was vulnerable and endangered bird series.
I’m still fascinated by the driftwood and am not done working with it. For me, it’s a symbol on so many levels:
1 – personal / societal: it refers to my own hybrid background, the fact that I’ve lived in six countries and counting. I sometimes feel anchor-less, like a driftwood fragment. I think many of us feel like this…adrift… given all the movement of people happening all over the globe, be it forced migration or tourism. It makes me think of the book “Liquid Times- Living in an Age of Uncertainty”, by Zygmund Bauman, in which the author observes the fragmentation of our contemporary lives.
2 – its origin: The way it directly refers to the Philippines; not only aesthetically – the fragments are very cartographic and often look like islands (The Philippines is an archipelago of 7000+ islands). They literally come from boats used for transportation as well as those used by the local fishermen.
3 – fragility of the natural environment / climate change: the driftwood fragments relay my concern with the current state of living in an increasingly fragmented and fragile world. The material refers to the communities that depend on the ocean for subsistence, and their connection to their environment. Heavily exposed to increasing incidences of extreme weather events such as mega typhoons, the Philippines is at the epicenter of vulnerability when it comes to threats from climate change. This is further exacerbated by land erosion, pollution, overfishing, deforestation, mismanaged tourism and overdevelopment. Using the driftwood fragment alludes to the fragility of this country, and to the beauty that we must preserve and restore.
4- aesthetically: For me, each driftwood piece is a palimpsest…it’s the perfect intersection between man and the ocean. Man has put layers of paint on the wood, and the ocean has weathered, scratched and marked it.
5 – beauty in the broken: the driftwood helps me stay in touch with my immediate environment, and is a reminder that there’s beauty in the broken, that often we overlook something beautiful and worthy of value just because we are not present enough of our surroundings.
IM: Can you guide and explain to us to how you begin a painting — how you first choose the piece of wood and then how you decide what you’d like to paint on it? What comes first?
MGDV: The selection / collection of driftwood comes first. I select the pieces from the beach, according to visual appeal and quality. Then I wash them with a brush to get rid of residual dirt and sand. If the surface is in good shape, I paint directly on to it. If not – I prepare it with a sealer.
I usually have a pile of driftwood around me in my workspace. The theme really depends…so far my subject matter has been the fishing and local communities depicted in newspapers, dream images and archaic symbols, and endangered bird species. I work project by project, but my themes circulate around some core concerns:
- local and indigenous culture
- forgotten (hi)stories
In my most project “Retracing Roots / Routes” I explored the evidence of trade routes between Mexico, Spain and the Philippines, during the 17th and 19th century. I used found objects, photographs, stories and maps as springboard to transcend historical facts and to delve in the poetic possibilities of events.
Currently I am working on a new series of driftwood paintings on the subject of natural disasters and environmental pollution.
IM: During the last few years you have been working a lot with recycled materials…why have you opted for sustainable art?
It has been natural development. I’ve been using found materials since my student days in the UK. Back then, found materials such as cardboard boxes were not only readily available but were also a fitting metaphor for me for my own feeling of “transitory living”. At that point, England was the third country I had lived in, hence “living out of a suitcase or box” was really how I felt. Since then, I have continued to be attracted to found objects and recycled materials.
I like to engage with surfaces that have layers and a history; it is like a dialogue with my environment.
It is only since the last few years that I have really become conscious and deliberate about addressing the theme of sustainability. This is most evident in my recent exhibition “Hanging by a Thread”, which was on show at Altro Mondo Arte Contemporanea Gallery at the Picasso Serviced Residences in Makati last March 23rd to April 24th, 2016. The works presented express my concern with the current state of living in an increasingly fragmented and fragile world. The themes I address in the exhibition string together my personal experiences with larger narratives of what is going on in the world and on the planet. I strongly feel that new visual metaphors need to be created in order to raise awareness of the psychic as well as environmental damages and risks we are facing as a global community. I do this by referring to the environments I have been most exposed to – especially those of Southeast Asia.
The use of recycled materials reflects my philosophy of trying to live as a conscious human being on an endangered planet. Over consumption is the norm – Thus I opt for sustainable art to try to bring us back to simpler, more present ways of engaging with our environment. Using recycled and found materials for me is a practice that helps me to stay aware of my surroundings and to appreciate what is there…to find something beautiful in the discarded…to infuse it with new meaning. My driftwood series “Traces” is a good example here.
IM: How do you see yourself as an artist in the bigger picture especially in a political climate where in both the U.S. and the Philippines we currently have leaders who are instilling policies that are very authoritarian in many similar and dissimilar ways?
I think especially in times like these where we are overcome with negativity, fear and anxiety, art plays an important role in constructing positive narratives of restoration and hope. I strongly feel that new visual metaphors need to be created in order to raise awareness of the psychic as well as environmental damages and risks we are facing as a global community. The tendency is to abdicate individual power for action to a political leader, whereas we need to be reminded of our own power of agency and creativity. Art can help in this reminder.
IM: What is the best thing about being an artist for you?
The best thing is that it provides a vent for bottled up energy and worries. It provides a way to channel one’s energy into something creative / productive. It brings me and often others joy. It allows you to get to know yourself through the process of making and at the same time, it provides a way to communicate with the world though your perspective, concerns, and visions in material form. Art also feeds one’s sense of curiosity and keeps me engaged with my immediate environment.
IM: Do you have any travel plans soon? Any plans for exhibiting your work and if so, where and when?
I was one of recipients of the Southeast Asian Artist Residency at Rimbun Dahan – a centre for developing traditional and contemporary art forms set outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I will be a resident artist for 2 months next May and June.
I also plan to take my project “Retracing Roots / Routes” to the Mexican Cultural Institute in Manila this year.
To see more about Melanie and her projects go to: www.gritzkadelvillar.com
Melanie Gritzka del Villar was born in 1982 of German-Philippine parents. She has lived, worked and studied in Germany, Spain, England, Thailand, and the Philippines. She holds a BA in Fine Art from Staffordshire University, UK, and an MA in Art History from The Open University, UK. Gritzka del Villar has exhibited in numerous venues internationally. She is currently based in the Philippines.