I want my art to show the world that we are loved;
that though this world is fleeting, doomed to fail on its crowns, there is light that whispers through us.
This whisper does not run out of breath. It is always speaking. (We don’t always listen.) It has a melody. It can flow clearly or indistinct – like a humble breeze, wordless. Gently, sometimes forcefully too, the whisper propels us forward.
Nobody else hears the whisper you hear. We’re not meant to. We can’t.
The whisper calls us by name, every time. We don’t notice because we think the whisper comes from our center, from the honest part that just can’t lie. But the whisper is not of us, not made from us. If it were, it would be made of filth.
It is a voice we know. Or think we know. Or think is ours.
It is not.
But it is a stirring from so deep within us, no two people can experience it in the same way. It is at times a jolting feeling. Not the kind that makes you jump in fright, but the sensation of faint electricity somewhere in the anatomy that biology can’t describe. The specific feel and touch of the whisper is different for each person- a tingling, a straining at the jaw, a tickle in your side, a half crescent of a smile, a coolness on your lower back, or valleys forming between your brows.
That moment that you will look back on as that flame of inspiration, that pivotal moment, that nanosecond of magic; that is the moment when our soul truly hears the whisper. We don’t know it as it occurs, though we might feel the clues. We understand only when the moment has passed, when we have taken a step back to look at what has been formed, created, grown through us. It is also then that we doubt and simultaneously shrink back in awe. We feel alive in the most vulnerable, fiery, stumbling kind of way; because we allowed the whisper to speak not only to us, but through us and out into the world.
We can only afford to hear a whisper, because if we could hear the full voice in all its power and beauty, we would simply explode. There is no room in our human flesh to hold anything remotely as magnificent or significant.
I want my art to show the world that we are loved. Even if the art might speak of darkness. Even if the art might make you feel emotions you’d rather not feel. Especially when the art lifts you up. Even more if the art challenges who you are.
I want my art to make you understand that you are loved;
that though this world is fleeting, doomed to fail on its crowns, there is light that whispers through us. When we do what we love and when we love, we hear the whisper.
When we let the whisper speak through us, like a prism, we are given the opportunity to disperse light into the world.
A note on this piece: Yesterday afternoon, I launched my work, what wakes you, an art installation of paintings and poetry inspired by a stunning sunrise. At the close of the exhausting but beautiful day I was overcome with gratitude to God. I couldn’t do much else as I sat in awe, considering how He would allow us selfish little humans to experience art, creativity and inspiration — and to walk as witness to His exquisite creation that we continuously choose to destruct. What a Creator! As I began to process it all, and the journey of bringing my art into public space, I began to write the words that turned into this piece. (See more updates on my art here or here.)
Happy July 1st! Where did the first half of the year go?
Here are a few things I am thankful for today, the midpoint of 2014.
Whenever I am tired and feeling overworked, I try to remember how difficult it is for too many others to find a livelihood. I am blessed to have two jobs that are stable, safe, challenging, and engaging. I continue to love what I do.
I feel the love of God when He plants a seed of an idea in my mind, and allows me to discover it. These are ideas for things to do – whether personal, professional or in between – Buhay Makulay activities, independent projects, creative initiatives, process improvement, troubleshooting, an interesting perspective, ways to mentor my staff, new ways to approach the classes I teach, or new adventures to go on. These are all gifts from above.
3. Hope after the storm.
In the wake of devastating SuperTyphoon in November last year, and in celebration of the 8th year of the annual Fairs – we’ve taken our Buhay Makulay Children’s Fair on the road. The children and their communities continue to teach me about hope.
Because of the #3, I’ve been able to travel the Philippines a bit more this year than most years. We’ve played with children from Capiz, Cebu and Leyte. Hopefully Iloilo and Negros in the coming months too. And I finally made my return to Singapore to visit my older sister – a plan six years in the making.
#3 has allowed me to do some community art. But in the past few months, I’ve been craving personal art-making time. I cannot always fit it into my schedule, but since reading a beautiful novel about Claude Monet, going on a painting afternoon, purchasing a sturdy & easy-to-carry sketchbook while in Singapore – I’ve picked up my drawing pen again and vowed to restore art to its rightful place in my life. I also want to start dancing again – and by dancing I mean, not Zumba..
Twenty four was a great year. Looking back at the adventures of the past twelve months, my gratitude just spills over. It was whirlwind of so many beautiful and challenging things.
As I write and reflect, one thing seems to stick out: I learned a lot this year.
Sounds like a pretty ordinary statement because isn’t all of life a journey of learning? (Yes!) But even so, this past year more than the years that have preceded it, has gifted me with some serious learning opportunities.
My explanation for this is that my learning came hand in hand with my sharing (of the learning). But the sharing has added all the value for me.
One of my favorite games as a kid was “Teacher Teacher.” Alone, with a friend, my stuffed toys, or imaginary students – I would pretend I was a teacher. I’d make a lesson plan, grading sheets, and then conduct a lesson, complete with the reprimanding of unruly students.
Sometime in just the past twelve months I remember considering: “I think I’m am finally a teacher.”
There is still so much left to learn and discover; but I believe it was this year, at 24 years old, that I considered with more intention than ever, my role as a mentor and teacher to those in my circle of influence.
From June to December last year, I was leading Likha, a Buhay Makulay program. Over the course of six months, we met with a group of 31 children from the urban poor sector. Most of them live under a bridge and are considered invisible and unrecognized in their city. We were mentoring these little ones through movement and visual arts. Play used as learning. On one particular Saturday I was teaching them about complementary and contrasting colors. At the end of the art making session I realized that they got it. They grasped these basic art concepts! Sure, these weren’t deeply-scientific, mind-blowing theories, but it felt like an achievement nonetheless. They may never use that piece of knowledge again, but it’s the process of discovery that we valued. Despite barriers of economic or social background + my weakness in the language, something made it through – and clicked!
(Teaching this group of children was an entirely different experience from teaching my Sunday schoolers who came from some of the grade schools in the country and were completely used to well-equipped classrooms, the routine of a rigorous school day of reading, writing, learning, and communicating with others.)
It’s been a few years since I discovered how much I enjoy facilitating small to medium sized group activities/workshops, handling group dynamics both serious and silly (which by the way I would have never pictured, as the shy little girl I was). And now I feel I have grown even more. I’m learning to teach the way I first understood teachers as a child – in a classroom setting.
Every day is a learning day for me.
“I think I’m am finally a teacher.”
I was led here by many different but sustained “sharing” experiences of my year 24:
I was teaching Sunday School to 4th graders every Sunday at 10:30 am. Two Saturday mornings of each month I was facilitating art/life lessons with children from our city slums through Likha, a program of the Buhay Makulay Children’s Project Inc. To get that program running, I mentored a group of teenagers from similar backgrounds, who now served as volunteers and youth leaders in Likha. I was teaching roughly 15 (muscle-burning!) fitness classes a week at PlanaFORMA to folks (mostly women) of all ages. I was teaching Zumba regularly at the same studios, but also with lovely senior citizens at my church, two Wednesdays of each month. I was mentoring and managing our full-time staff at The Paper Project. More recently, I’ve gone on the road with Buhay Makulay, traveling to communities affected by the typhoon last year to share a vision of hope with children.
Over and over again, I am grateful for these windows to serve, learn and be given inspiration by the people around me. Aren’t we all just students of life?
We employ women survivors of abuse, victims of oppression or women escaping flesh trades like prostitution or trafficking. These women are our precious card makers. We make handmade greeting cards.
Our cards have more soul and story than that musical e-card you sent out for the holidays. They are likely more special than the last card you saw your neighborhood bookstore. Our cards make it to thousands of stores across the United States through our partners at Good Paper. Recently our work has also made it to Australia and Germany too. But that isn’t the special part.
People have often commented that my job must be sad or depressing – because of the history of abuse or oppression in my worker’s lives. If you think my job is gloomy too, you are focusing on the wrong side of the story. In fact, my job is the exact opposite of sad and depressing.
At The Paper Project Inc., we focus on the hope of a life renewed. And we start with a simple craft. This craft provides a stable livelihood and a community in which to grow.
A full life can still be led by those who have been broken.
I love to share the story of our card maker Esther*:
Esther used to wander the streets of Metro Manila. She had been abused in the past, had no contact with her parents, and for a long time didn’t even have a copy of her birth certificate. With scarce opportunities for livelihood, having barely started high school, Esther now turned to vices for survival. One of our partner organizations referred Esther to us after seeing her waste her days away, hanging out at street known for gamblers, pick-pockets, pimps and prostitute pick-ups.
We welcomed Esther into our workshop where she learned how to cut and assemble cards out of handmade abaca paper. The training process is actually not as easy as it sounds. The individual parts of the card design can be very small or intricate. A card maker must learn the precise art of cutting all sorts of shapes that were sometimes easily the size of your tiniest toenail. Edges have to be smooth. Assembly has to be accurate. We pride ourselves in high quality craftsmanship. You’ll see it across all the products we create.
You never know how each new trainee will take to the work. Not long after her start with us, Esther was overheard on the street by her social worker, speaking confidently and excitedly about her new job. She boasted to friends, but in the most earnest way possible, about her work in a nearby city’s business district. She was hopeful and full of excitement.
She was talking to her friends on the same street where other women continue to trade their bodies for their next meal.
In her new community at The Paper Project, Esther bloomed. In less than eight weeks, she was given the privilege to train other women in cardmaking. She was even earned the responsibility to manage the quality control of our completed cards. Today she continues to thrive in our card making workshop.
Just having a basic uniform transformed the way Esther carried herself. Having a place she needed to be at, where attendance was taken and where she had assignments to complete – this transformed her sense of daily purpose. A pay check at the end of two weeks and women to fellowship with – these transformed her lifestyle and self-worth.
In every card, a story of hope. And hope grows.
Maybe one day you will also hold in your hand a card lovingly made by one of our beautiful women.
I could barely wrap my head around this predicament. For the first time in a long time, I had the luxury of having a whole day to myself! When was the last day I had nothing scheduled? No children’s workshop to run, no fitness classes to teach, no work to supervise, no meeting to attend, no reports to write, no spreadsheets to look over. Not a single pressing deadline! The daily grind could wait until tomorrow. Or even the day after. I was beginning to fear I was forgetting something!
“You should probably stay home and do nothing then,” my brother told me when I shared my bare-boned Saturday plans, “This is rare.” With two day jobs and a number of volunteer positions – a quiet, slow day is a treasure!
Despite the day off, I was determined to do a number of things; a number of restful, enjoyable, life-enriching things:
1. Wake up slowly, but not too late in the day.
2. Not do anything work-related – not even problem solving in my head, checking emails or reading work-related articles.
3. Write, read, or draw.
4. Not waste away the day scrolling down social media news feeds.
5. Watch a film.
6. Do some chores.
I don’t think I did too bad. I woke up a little after nine in the morning – not too early nor too late, with many free hours ahead of me! I steered away from even thinking of work obligations, and except for checking my email twice (just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything urgent!) I didn’t even look at my favorite management or leadership blogs. I wrote, read and drew. I spent very little time on the typical social media sites, even less than I do on a regular day. I watched multiple films, not just one – great sappy background to my drawing session, pairing well with the heavy rain outside. I even got my laundry done! (I had to feel at least a little bit useful!)
But really, I spent the entirety of my day drawing. (Read more about ithere.) All the hours working in my sketchbook yesterday reminded me of the wealth of time I spent simply working on art in college. I had to, it was my major. And for every hour of class in college, you were expected to work a minimum of four more hours outside. More often than not, that wasn’t really enough time to get your work done. Making art is really much more time consuming than most people expect. You could be working on a square inch of space for days! A small piece of art is sometimes made up of thousands of tiny strokes, all patiently put together by hand.
It was this process of creating art that really helped me understand more about the process of learning. Here are a few reflections:
1. Just put in the hours.
When you don’t, it shows. Sometimes the hours are spent staring into space or doodling aimlessly, your mind experiencing a drought of inspiration. Sometimes the hours are spent making “bad” work. Sometimes the hours are spent in tedium, drawing dot beside dot beside dot, or drawing and redrawing and redrawing the same darn green pepper. Put in the hours, even when you feel like there is no learning or no progress. It’s practice, it’s all an investment. Those hours clear the path for a mind-blowing moment later, that breakthrough you thought would never come.
2. Walk away from your work and come back. Then step back. Look at it from a different part of the room.
If you’ve ever stared at a single word long enough for it to become the most absurb collection of letters you have ever seen, then you know what a difference it makes to spend some time looking away. Stand too close to your work for too long, slaving over whether you have drawn that crease in the paper just right, and you may later discover that you obsessed over something of little importance to the sum of all parts. Stand too close to your work for far too long and it may appear absurd, flawed and out of proportion. Walk away for a minute and come back. Walk away for a day and come back. The space between you and your work will give you a fresh perspective, a point from which you can see how to move forward.
3. Don’t be too precious about your work.
There was a time when I was given this advice often. I valued each simple sketch and drawing too much, instead of dismissing them to practice and process. If you’ve been able to draw it once, you can draw it again, my friend told me. I wasn’t accidentally making bad or good drawings. A single well-proportioned drawing wasn’t the last. They told me to trust in my skill and ability. I soon began to enjoy the impermanence of my sketches. I would draw a figure on the canvas with charcoal, then spray it with water, so that the charcoal dancer would dissolve and drip away. Then I would do it again. I would draw, then spray, And again. It was a healthy practice. When I began to let go of my work, it opened up my learning ability. Instead of hanging on to small victories, I was practicing towards creating work more profound than any of the quick sketches I had drawn and let drip away before it.
4. Let someone have a look and give a word – even when it is still in progress.
We learned, worked and progressed in public space. We failed, fussed and made ugly mistakes in that public space too. This was an important difference between the studio art department and other academic departments. There was less private time for you to get an acceptable draft before eyes landed on the budding fruit of your labor. You can’t hide your embarrassing scribble of a portrait when your professor tells the class to take a walk around the room to see everyone’s progress (or your lack thereof!). You just have to surrender to the rawness.
Art students worked in the studios – day, night or both. Someone could be looking over your shoulder at any point from first pencil sketch to final painting, a witness to every awkward, misplaced, discolored mark in between. Of course this wasn’t always the case, but it encouraged humility. It was never just your best foot forward. Your dirty laundry was often in plain sight too. I ended up loving this process and even relying on it. I sought out the feedback from others to better understand and approach my work. You need people to respond to what you do, whether or not you’ll take their advice in the end. The friends I invited back to see my work or my studio, were those who took the time to form an opinion about my work and give a critique, no matter how brief or informal. Those that only had praises, they weren’t half as interesting or valuable to have around.
I may spend less time on my art these days, but these lessons enrich my work. It’s no matter that I work in an environment so removed from the me that drew on a canvas with a stick of charcoal in one hand and a spray bottle in the other.
Thank you, Grant Snider and Bill Patterson for the comic strips in this post.