This week I interview the highly talented Filipino artist and illustrator Gel Jamlang. I’ve known Gel for a few years and have enjoyed her work in home design and construction, as well as her furniture and mural art. Her recent and award-winning artwork in the US is an enchanting showcase of vitality and dreaminess. Here she talks about what it was like growing up in a creative household, making the move to the US, and how big change can lead to a new lease on creativity.
When did you first start painting?
In kindergarten, I remember getting praise for my drawings and I remember my sister teaching me how to draw Betty and Veronica. I believe I had a natural instinct and desire to draw things.
Name one instance of childhood praise that really encouraged you to pursue your art.
I remember in Kindergarten my teacher praised my drawings in front of the class. I was a shy kid but it really gave me a boost. Then, going through elementary, I would be singled out by my art teachers, saying I did a good job. In 7th grade I got praise from my teacher for a watercolor I did and I still remember feeling amazed deep down, almost like, “Really? You like it?”
I started joining art contests (and won) from first grade till high school. That was a lot of encouragement.
Are you self-taught or trained?
I went to UP College of Fine Arts which taught me a lot in terms of discipline and skill. After college, even after years of painting on my own, meeting other brilliant artists has taught me that the learning never stops. There is still so much to hone.
It was watching an accomplished artist like Fil Delacruz that taught me how to treat art and painting like a job, a career to respect: show up for work every day and create non-stop. It is not something that you can rely on to come naturally – it takes work to truly realize your potential.
Your mother is an artist and so was your father. What was it like growing up in a creative household?
My mother is the reason why we have a beautiful home. She is passionate about style and making things exquisite.
My father is the natural artist. Although he didn’t pursue a career in art, he leaves tracks of artistic brilliance wherever he goes. He is my role model in thinking out of the box. As you can see I am very fond of my parents and admire them both.
My parents started an art gallery early on so all our summers were spent in art classes. I do recall my childhood feeling very normal, though.
You grew up in a house that has some steep artistic heritage (190 Gallery, BF Paranque). What was it like being around and watching these great artists gathered in your home? Who were the big names?
My mom told me that once the national artist Cesar Legazpi came to the gallery. Yes, my dad had a lot of artist friends. Ephraim Samson, Tiny Nuyda, Fil Delacruz – they used the attic to hold figure drawing sessions. Their signatures were even imprinted on the attic floors. I was so young that all I remember is having a sense of pride that the gallery didn’t look like a normal house. Having my dad’s friends teach once in a while coloring and drawing techniques was fun but to be honest, to me they were normal titos (uncles).
As a writer and artist I’m interested in telling stories and communicating ideas or truth. Do you see your art the same way?
I will be giving a talk about my artistic journey late this month. I believe that my recent experience has made me a better artist because if not for it, I would have a hard time answering this question. Why? Because I was an artist molded by the wrong motivations and I was very much an audience pleaser. I have nothing against who I was as an artist before, but I do remember a lot of self-doubt.
It took losing (and leaving behind) a lot of my past for me to really ask myself what I would love to paint. I’ve always fantasized about using watercolor but I was hesitant to learn. I didn’t want to produce bad artwork (you know that cliché of ripping up the whole thing because of a mistake? Yes. I’ve done that). I also wanted to paint people but again, I was afraid of finding out that I was bad at it.
Moving to a new place with no one counting on me to sell artworks allowed me to give those two things a try. It was the best thing I’ve done for myself because I’ve never felt happier painting. I wake up excited to paint. This is where I finally get to your question. Telling a story with an artwork is a daunting prerequisite. There’s a lot of room to come up with BS because of the need to be “deep”. The more important thing, in my opinion, is to create the most honest expression of yourself – your thoughts, your likes, your own aesthetic ideals etc. Your point of view is all you have; it’s the only ace up your sleeve.
Describe a typical painting session. What are your mental and physical processes?
First I imagine and sketch. I have a folder with pictures of moments and things I think look beautiful and usually, I skim through it. Most of the ruminating happens here. Then, I put on music and I start to paint.
What have you been listening to lately?
I listen to The Stern Show (2010-present), Jack White, Nico Vega. I usually just shuffle my iTunes library.
Do books and music influence your work?
They all do. I know it’s trite to say, but to be honest a single Cheerio ring on the carpet can be inspiring. I think the trick is to remember the little things that kill you. (Yes, I love Holden Caulfield. Not so much Seymor.)
Do you have a favorite color palette? Why or why not?
I don’t have a favorite because I’m always curious.
You mentioned Fil Delacruz as a big influence. Which other artists do you look up to?
Georgia O’ Keefe was my first influence in my flower paintings but to be honest, her watercolors are the ones that make my heart palpitate.
As for contemporary artists, there are too many. I have an art Pinterest board!
Your art in recent years is a dramatic departure from your previous work – there’s so much energy and dynamism going on. What is it about the conceptual and dreamy nature of your style that compels you?
The freedom. In a way it reflects my frame of mind from the past to the present. Also, partly, it’s the medium. Watercolor behaves so unpredictably and it’s so, to use your word, dynamic. It is very exciting to use. It drives itself. The transparency and the brilliance of the colors all swirling around are thrilling. And when you use it side by side with acrylic, the more opaque, dense and unyielding medium, the contrast can be beautiful.
Your work is vibrant and captivating. So much so that you’ve had a great run with your US art exhibits that capped with a win as RAW Visual Artist of the Year 2012. Please tell us more about that journey and what it felt like.
The RAWawards is “the biggest indie arts award show in the world.” It’s held annually by RAW, “an international community made up of creative individuals across the globe” whose mission is “ to provide independent artists within the first 10 years of their career with the tools, resources and exposure needed to inspire and cultivate creativity.”
I joined RAW June 2012 and the very same day I got a call from the Baltimore director inviting me to join the July 2012 showcase (they have one every month) where I could exhibit my work. It was the first time for me to exhibit my watercolors.
Having people come up to me and tell me they like my work was a great feeling, of course, and it only encouraged me to keep painting.
November 2012, the RAW Awards kicked off. I was 1 of 5 visual artists at the semi-finals show in Baltimore vying to compete nationally. After the judges votes and audience votes came in, I won Visual Artist of the year for Baltimore. That alone I was satisfied with! I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and of being proud of what I was able to do.
In December 2012, RAW announced the national winners for each category. When they announced my name for Visual Artist of the Year 2012, I was alone at home and I don’t even really remember how it felt. I wanted to scream and yell at the top of my lungs. YES!
It was more than what I would allow myself to wish for. I am very thankful that it happened. I felt like it was validation for my work especially after the big change of moving to Baltimore and starting over in terms of my art career.
Flying to LA and accepting the award was magical. I was able to meet one on one with a gallery owner (Artspace Warehouse, LA), an art critic (Shana Nys Dambrot, who wrote the foreword for Brandon Boyd’s Art Book, So The Echo) and an accomplished artist, Kymia Nawabi (who won the second season of the reality TV show Work of Art). These are things I would never in a million years would have stumbled upon on.
RAW is great. I feel so much gratitude.
Based on your recent experiences, what parting thoughts would you like to share with other artists, especially those who are on a similar journey of self-discovery?
Don’t be afraid of change if it means giving yourself a chance to be happy.