Often, before you’re introduced to the artist, their art introduces itself. Looking at deceptively simple portraits of children at play: three dots for their eyes and mouth, pastel hues and a fluffy lightness brushed on canvas—it’s easy to assume that the artist behind these paintings might be as characteristically hushed and meek.
But if you ask anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting Migs Villanueva, they’d tell you the former President and CEO of a manufacturing company, turned literary award-winning writer, turned visual artist with a distinctive eye for painting children, is such a dynamic and commanding presence that hushed and meek are the last things you’d think of when describing Migs. In fact, the contrast between her soft paintings and strong personality is somewhat of an irony.
What isn’t ironic is Migs has been exhibiting her paintings for close to a decade, and a constant theme in her art has always been “the essence of a child.” Migs explains, “there’s an innocence, and yet a native intelligence to life. They know things without you having to tell them. That’s what I’m very curious about.”
“Initially, I wanted to do non-representational art.” Migs says, “I wanted to do abstract because it seemed to me more intellectual and conceptual work. But I didn’t get into the groove at the time.” Migs recalls an unfortunate episode that clicked everything into place: “One day,
I saw two kids being chased by security outside a building. They were sniffing rugby. My eyes locked with the girl who was about 10 or 12 years old. That was difficult, I was so bothered by it that it moved me. When I got home, I tried to render them in an art form.” The piece was called “Shaw Kids,” and it became the take-off point of a now constant theme in her art—young life.
Less poignant, more reflective
“In the beginning, my art was like that, [reimagining] those street kids from Shaw. So it was scrawny little kids that had big heads,” Migs says, explaining that the three dots on the children’s faces were intentional “because I wanted it to look like you can’t identify a specific person, so it can apply to any or all the street children.”
Then as time and her work progressed, so did her recollections. “My friends would say, ‘O, your kids are getting richer, gumaganda na yung damit nila.” Migs goes on, “It’s because I started to play with children’s dresses, and my childhood memories would always inform my art, so I would paint the dresses I wore as a kid.
People of my age group would remember and say, ‘I had a dress like that when I was a kid,’ because that was the fashion then.”
Where her early paintings captured the unease of troubled children, her more recent works spring with a sense of whimsy and carefree delight. Tiny humans decked in their Sunday best, playing a game of “it” under blanket covers, running outdoors, or skipping rope. And where there used to be flat, illustrative imagery, now there are rounded figures that play with shadows and tones.
As for inspiration: “I’ve come a long way from the [paintings of ] street children,” Migs says. “But there’s always children. I don’t know, I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. I think my favorite part of my life was when I was a child because everything was new to me. I would watch everything and I would retain everything. I was a very curious child.
Gifts of curiosity and creative pursuits
“Four or five years ago, I was experimenting with materials,” Migs says. “That was the period when I was obsessed with dresses. I would put metal screens on the canvas to form dresses and make it three dimensional. I would form clay flowers and add it to the canvas. It was tedious. I still have the materials, but lately I’ve been doing straight paintings more.”
While her work’s motif remains more or less the same, her process and medium remains ever-changing: “My thing is, I wouldn’t do the same thing twice.” The reason, Migs explains, “I feel guilty about repeating something when it becomes automatic. I always try to do something differently. If not the image, then the process by which I make them. That’s why I don’t know if I’ll be tied to any style.” Her work has spanned oil and acrylic paintings on canvas, on wooden slabs, pastel on paper, pencil sketches. As much a play on variety and spontaneity as the stories they contain.
Migs weaves stories in paintings as skillfully as she does with words, having won five major literary awards (three Palancas between 2002 to 2005, and an NVM Gonzales award in 2001 and 2002).
Her art would inform her words, and vice versa. “Initially, I was able to juggle it. I was heavier on the writing side, and then later on, I would put the two together. I would paint a piece and then write a short description essay with it,” Migs says. “But then the tide turned when I started doing solo shows.” She gave up a lot of the writing hours and concentrated more on her paintings because, Migs confesses, “Writing for me is more mentally taxing. Painting is more comfortable in a way because you’re not so much mentally drained by it. There’s more play in art.”
Writing also introduced her to her mentor, iconic artist Mauro Malang Santos. “We’re one of the very few lucky ones,” Migs says while telling the story of how she came to study art informally under Malang’s guidance. Migs finished with a Psychology degree from Ateneo and didn’t have a formal background in fine arts, despite always having drawn and sketched. Through sheer interest and intent, she and a friend joined the (now 50 years old and running) Saturday Group of Artists. Her plan was simple: to learn how to paint from the best.