World-renowned PainterWorld-renowned Painter

Elmer Borlongan

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No self-respecting Filipino art lover’s collection is complete without a painting of his. Amid the Julie Lluch portrait bust, the wooden Jerry Araos furniture, the Arturo Luz modernist “paperclip” sculpture, the Solomon Saprid bronze mythological beast, and the Benedicto Cabrera (BenCab) sketches, there should always be a painting of Elmer Borlongan. To deny him a place among the greats is to broadcast one’s ignorance. Much more than a status symbol, Borlongan’s artworks evoke emotion, introspection, and action. He makes you love the Philippines with his insights and his glimpses into the dreams and waking lives of the everyday man.

You have toured, exhibited, worked, and studied abroad. How has travel shaped you as an artist? What places, people and events abroad have influenced and inspired you the most?

The first time I traveled abroad was at age 17, in 1984. I was in my sophomore year at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in Diliman when I was selected as one of the five artists to represent the Philippines in the 2nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Youth Painting Workshop and Exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. I had no idea then what is Southeast Asian Art. Seeing it firsthand has opened my eyes to the diversity of art and culture within the region. The workshop promotes understanding and friendship among fellow Asian artists.

In 1989, Egai Talusan Fernandez invited me to join him in Paris for the International Conference on Human Rights and Democracy. We visited the Louvre Museum with the I. M. Peidesigned glass and steel pyramid entrance. Even though I didn’t see the entire collection of the Louvre, I was content to sit in front and stare at the imposing five-by-seven-meter oil on canvas painting “The Raft of Medusa” by the French Romantic painter, Theodore Gericault. It clearly became my favorite work. I find this painting very powerful. The artist spent a lot of time researching historical facts and doing several rough sketches before executing the final painting. It is this discipline that I apply in my process of making art. Viewing original art masterpieces is much better than seeing it from reproductions in books.

Another inspiration is the Rembrandt Museum in 2004, the former house and studio of the great Dutch painter in Amsterdam. The room where Rembrandt painted was full of light. As soon as we came back to the Philippines, my wife and I sketched the architectural plans for our studio wing in the idyllic town of Zambales.

You reside and work at CASA San Miguel art center in Zambales with fellow artists such as your wife, Plet Bolipata, and your brotherin-law, the renowned violinist, Coke Bolipata. CASA San Miguel has many resident artists like Jazel Kristin, the Pundaquit Virtuosi, and the scholars (the sons and daughters of local fishermen) learning to play the violin. How has living and working with so many artists and visitors influenced your artwork? How has living in the Zambales beachside reflected in your paintings?

I paint in a studio in the middle of a mango farm surrounded by the sound of a sometimes wailing sea and the chirping of the birds. My immediate environments within the home and in the outskirts of the farm present an engaging scenario of various characters that I have come close to and mingled with. My exposure to the children my brother-in-law teaches at CASA San Miguel—the ones that scatter around the farm on Sundays and find spots under the trees to practice their instruments—have now figured prominently in my recent works. The grass fire that my neighbour never fails to ignite every summer is a worrisome incident that has gotten the barrio people to converge into my space to protect and empathize with me. There are religious rituals that give pomp and circumstance to the practice of the faith. And of course, there is the sea—a character in itself—that is sometimes disconcerting when my wife worries about “imagined tsunamis in her head,” but is a refreshing blue field of delight on hot summer days.

There are so many artists today who copy your style. How do you feel about this and how do you respond to this?

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We all go through this stage in our careers. But my advice to these young artists is to find their identity and create their own visual language. One’s personal background and life experience is a treasure trove of ideas which we can use as content to create our individual art.

Tell us about your upcoming exhibits and projects. My wife, Plet, and I just finished our solo shows at the BenCab Museum last summer. Both of us will hold a joint exhibition of paintings and intermedia works at the Wada Fine Arts in Tokyo by September. I’m excited to go back to Japan since my last trip as a resident artist at the ARCUS Ibaraki in 1996. Before the year ends, CANVAS will come out with a book of my early illustrations of Aesop’s Fables published in the 1990s newspaper Manila Chronicle.

What places and events would you like to visit in the near future and why?

Our next trip is London to see the sights and visit the Tate Modern, of course. Hopefully, we get to meet again international artist, David Medalla, during our stay. I wish I can take my wife Plet to the most romantic capital in the world, Paris, and tour the museums we haven’t seen yet. It is also my dream to visit Mexico to check out the murals of my favorite triumvirate: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.

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