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Using silk as a platform creates a lighter, almost ephemeral feel, no matter how big the artwork

Swiss-based Filipino artist Marissa Gonzalez has just come off from her second Manila exhibit, Under the Mediterranean Skies, staged at ArtistSpace of the Ayala Museum, which ran from January 29 to February 12, 2015. Her first, The Road to Silence was also held there in 2013.

Gonzalez, granddaughter of President Elipidio Quirino, distinguishes herself by using the raw silk material used for the barong Tagalog – jusi – as the unique canvas for her exquisite paintings. We recently caught up with the peripatetic Gonzalez, who generously shared details of her artistic journey, the fine process of painting on ephemeral material and life as a transplanted Filipino in suburban Switzerland.

TASTE TRAVEL & TRENDS (TT&T): How did you start painting?

MARISSA GONZALEZ (MG): After being a photographer for some years, I gave in to my curiosity about painting. So when a colleague of mine at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), where I work, told me that she had a good teacher in silk-painting techniques, I asked for the address and enrolled in her class. From mostly abstract nature of painting on silk, I discovered that I was actually a figurative painter versus an abstract one, so I had to take lessons in drawing techniques via water colour painting on paper. From there, I studied Swiss folk art with a teacher from Appenzel where I was taught how to paint with acrylic on wood. Then, I also studied under a Swiss French master who taught me painting techniques with oil on canvas.

TT&T: Tell us, what inspires you as an artist? Describe your creative process.

MG: I am a very visual painter, and when I see images that move me, I decide I have to paint them and I do. However, what really drives a goal-oriented person like me is to schedule an exhibition and work toward a full collection.

TT&T: Who were your mentors?

MG: My very first mentor was the late Sonya Ner. Then curator for the Ayala Museum, she put me on track as to how to build a collection for an exhibition. (Artist) Juvenal Sansó was also very kind to me and generous with his advice. All my teachers were great in their patience.

TT&T: How did you decide on jusi as your canvas?

MG: It was Sonia Ner who suggested that I try painting on Philippine fabric so I could exhibit in Ayala Museum some day, and since I was already versed in silk painting techniques, she pointed me in the direction of jusi.

TT&T: How did you obtain the material?

MG: When my mother was still alive, she would purchase jusi from the Philippines and send it to me each time I needed the material. Now when I travel to Manila, I return home with my own supply.

TT&T: What are specifications in jusi as your materia prima that you look for?

MG: Once I decided that I was a figurative painter, and chose a specific style – that of trompe l’oeil – I studied the rules of this style. One of the conditions is that the painting need not be framed. So with jusi woven with the sides already neatly finished was perfect for me. I also discovered that I like to paint on big format, and with the width of jusi that measures 92 cm and can be as big as 150 cm long, really suited me as well. I also like the material because no matter how big a piece is, the fact that it is on silk gives the painting a lighter feel, almost ephemeral.

TT&T: You established your studio in Geneva; tell us a little about your life there.

MG: I live with my family in a town house in a small village called Chéserex in Canton Vaud, 21 km away from Geneva. It is a village of 1,000 inhabitants, surrounded by the Jura mountain chain in neighbouring France with farms growing apples and grapes and where cows graze a few meters from where we live. It is a pastoral and bucolic place in picture-pretty Switzerland.

“Painting is not just about inspiration. It is also hard work, discipline, unflagging motivation, and yes, an unbridled passion. My collectors have commented that I am a committed artist, and that’s what makes my work appreciated. You get what you see.”

I live a simple and suburban life, with a great job that I love that allows me to sprinkle my existence with fun and interesting trips during the year to help me have my iodine levels repleted with the view of the sea and by eating seafood. I love travelling to Spain and my favourite spot is Costa Brava. My better half, Leo and I are foodies and each opportunity we get, we try to sample new food, and find inspiration for new recipes to prepare back home, using our children as test guests.

Painting-wise, our living room allows me sufficient space to work on the floor, next to a shelf that contains all the materialsthat I need for my art.

Because of the size of the paintings and the very liquid nature of the paint, I

have to paint sitting on the floor with the artwork stretched out on a frame and laying flat on the floor. My schedule during weekdays makes me spend my day in Geneva at work with frequent lunch dates with my friends, and only allows me two to three hours of painting at night. On weekends, after all the errands are done, I have from six to eight hours to work on my paintings.

TT&T: How long does it take for you to finish a painting?

MG: Paintings differ in amount of detail and level of intricacy, and in size. Obviously, the smaller paintings with smaller details can be finished quicker than the larger ones that take longer. On average, I can finish one painting per week. Since I started working on jusi in 2000, I must have done more than 220 paintings.

TT&T: Do you have personal favorites?

MG: Basically, I like my work as I am the one who chooses my themes. But it is true that some paintings have a special place in my heart. That is because I am so surprised (and humbled) at the end result and it makes me feel really good that I achieved the mood, the colour or the flavour I set myself up to achieve. Sometimes, it is because I like the colours more than others.

TT&T: Do you keep some paintings for your own collection?

MG: At home, I hang my paintings done with watercolours on paper that I have framed and those are not for sale. But in between exhibitions, the walls are covered with my silk paintings.

TT&T: How do you advise your customers in caring for your paintings?

MG: A jusi painting can be framed under glass on both sides, or can hang by the scrolls that I present them with. If they are not exposed to direct sunlight, the
colours will not fade. They can be kept free from dust with a simple shaking of the painting or passing a clean brush over it. With such care, there is no reason they should not last a long time.

TT&T: How do you go about conceiving a theme for your exhibitions?

MG: Normally, I start with loving one painting, and weaving a whole show around it. When I decided upon a previous show called The Road to Silence, I had just come back from Strasbourg in France, where the impressive cathedral woke up a yearning in me to paint the rose window from outside and from the inside. Then, I produced more paintings and presented a collection of cloisters, church interiors, courtyards and the like.

“I have no doubts about my Filipina-ness. And while I may not speak deep Tagalog, I can certainly get by with Taglish. I still eat Filipino food as often as I can, and my values are definitely Filipino.”

TT&T: How much time do you need to prepare for an exhibition?

MG: Never less than one year. One cannot rush painting, and since I am still working full time, my painting time is limited. However, I paint every single day.

TT&T: What have you learned of yourself, your art and the people who buy your work?

MG: Painting is not just about inspiration. It is also hard work, discipline, unflagging motivation, and yes, an unbridled passion. My collectors have commented that I am committed artist, and that’s what makes my work appreciated. You get what you see. There is no need to second guess what the painter is trying to depict. People have also commented on the uncluttered aspect of my paintings. However, I have to admit that I am increasingly attracted to more detailed work.

TT&T: You have exhibited in New York, Geneva, London and Manila. What were the highlights of each?

MG: What made each show special were the visitors. The most motivating factor were the kind words that I received, the appreciation of one’s work that translated into a sale and the knowledge that somewhere in the world, one of my paintings is hanging on someone’s wall.

TT&T: Describe the experience of exhibiting at the Ayala Museum.

MG: That was where I met my early mentor Sonia so it was my very first dream to exhibit there. When that came true, I could not get over the overwhelming interest in my work that resulted in a show that sold out on opening night.

TT&T: Are there other venues in the Philippines you would like to show your works?

MG: Manila is always a place I am proud to be a Filipino painter as it is my place of birth and where my family and friends live. I would also love to exhibit in the BenCab Museum in Baguio.

TT&T: Do you see yourself as passing on your art and craft to others?

MG: I will definitely teach some of my techniques, but not now. I barely have the time for myself. However, I try to encourage people to study techniques if they are interested in painting and I’m happy to say that I know of at least two persons who have since become painters after speaking to me. I have also donated my work for causes like scholarships for Filipino students.

TT&T: How much of your Filipino roots continue to affect you despite having lived away from the Philippines for over 30 years?

MG: I have no doubts about my Filipinaness. And while I may not speak deep Tagalog, I can certainly get by with Taglish. I still eat Filipino food as often as I can, and my values are definitely Filipino. I think I have passed a lot of those values to my only daughter, Audrey, who is half Swiss. In a perfect world, I would love to spend, post retirement, half of the year in the Philippines, and the remaining half, to be divided between Switzerland and Spain.

TT&T: What is your advice to those who may have the artistic inclination?

MG: Study techniques if you suspect you may have an interest in painting. That will tell you if you can achieve your dreams with hard work and perseverance.

TT&T: How do you measure success as an artist?

MG: This is a hard question to answer. Success is intangible especially for a painter. I am inherently insecure and I try to do better each time.