Text by Kinah Praise R. Baguan. Images courtesy of Shell National Students Art Competition.
Identified as one of the prestigious and highly anticipated platforms in the Philippine art scene, the National Students Art Competition (NSAC) founded by the Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation, annually convenes aspiring young artists, masters, and art enthusiasts to champion Filipino artistry and creativity.
From being contestants to becoming one of the renowned artists they are today, Shell alumni – Alfredo Esquillo Jr., Jose Luis “Junyee” Yee, and Francis Eugene “Isko” Andrade commemorate their artistic journey.
Tell us about your NSAC winning piece.
Esquillo: I won twice for NSAC in 1991 and in 1992
My 1991 piece was a realist painting that depicted an old female beggar set against a dilapidated, rusty wall of roofing sheets, used commonly along streets of Manila. The beggar, looking straight at the audience, holds a rosary. In the piece, I wanted to convey the message that faith helps Filipinos in their survival.
My 1992 piece was a composition based on a short story, the Last Leaf. It portrays an old lady passing by against an old wall of adobe and bricks. The vines that grow along the wall have 1 last leaf. The presence of the last leaf and the old lady creates a symbolic relationship within that moment of passing. It talks about life and how we cling to it as meaningfully as we can.
Yee: I was living as a squatter (now informal settler) in Krus na Ligas in Diliman that I can only make a foot long assembled of different wood that I collected around the area titled “Hangman” that won only an honorable prize. My second attempt is titled “The Last Mile of Ho Chi Minh” of a santol wood which is bigger than my first entry. I again, to my disappointment, won another Honorable Mention. This piece was bought by the late Jose Drilon while my “Hangman” was bought by Alemars. A month after I won my second Honorable Mention prize, the Vietnamese hero, Ho Chi Minh.
Andrade: Yung una is yung ‘Ipinagkakait na Kalayaan’ sa oil acrylic category ang tema noon “Art Spark”. Ang ginawa ko non mga brush yon na nakaplastic tapos inililibing na. Wala na eh parang nung time na yon susuko na kaya nililibing na. Yung pakiramdam na para sakin kalayaan yung pagpipinta kasi doon ako nakakapag kweto at doon ko din nailalabas yung mga saloobin ko tapos parang ipinagkakait sakin dahil sa mga dumarating na pagsubok sa buhay. Pero yun nga pinilit kong tapusin para maipasa at sa kabutihang palad nanalo naman at naging 1st place. Sa pagkapanalo na yon nagkaspark ulit eh mas nagkatiwala ako sa sarili at lalong lumakas yung loob ko para ipagpatuloy yung pagpipinta.
Pangalawa is yung This is ‘NOT a PAINTING This is a DIARY’ sa Watercolor category naging 2nd place naman yon. Base sa tema na “Highlights” ang gawa ko doon is yung babae na nakatalikod na tinatakpan yung likurang bahagi ng kanyang katawan. Kapatid ko yon eh bilang nag iisang lalaki saming magkakapatid para sakin yung pagkakaroon nila ng menstruation is isa sa highlights ng buhay ng isang babae mula doon kasi maari na silang magkaroon ng anak.
Pangatlo naman yung ‘Forgotten’ Watercolor category ulit tapos 3rd place naman tapos ang tema ay “Metamorphosis” Ginawa ko noon yung gown ng nanay ko pangkasal is inilagay ko sa hukay. Para sakin kasi may stages yung buhay ng isang babae na parang sa butterfly. Sa kababaihan kasi sa pamilya ko di nasunod yun kumbaga ung ibang stage nakaligtaan na lalo na yung pagpapakasal muna bago mag karoon ng anak. Kaya naisipan ko ilibing yung gown pang kasal kasi nakaligtaan na siya.
Who has influenced you the most as an artist, and how has this influenced your current interest in art?
Esquillo: Renato Habulan. I used to visit his studio, together with schoolmates from University of Santo Tomas where we were studying Fine Arts. During our visits, he would tell stories about their struggles as young artists during the Martial Law years and how they protested against it in the streets. He also gave me the opportunity to be an apprentice for him, doing underlayers of his works, for a short period of time. Many years passed by and we’d always meet and talk, resulting in many exhibits and collaborations we did together. And up to the time that I established Eskinita Art Gallery in 2017 as a small artist-run space, we created a program called Tuklas. This is a mentoring and grants program that became a symbolic effort to continue the tradition of mentoring that we hope to pass on.
Yee: Michaelangelo was my greatest influence since high school days up to now, but not because of his works but because of his passion to search for a new way of doing his art and his wide accomplishments beyond visual arts to the field of architecture and beyond. Maybe his influence on me was one of the reasons that I was not satisfied with painting and sculpture that made me venture to an unknown field of Installation that I pioneered.
Andrade: Maraming nag impluwensya sakin mula noong elementary pa ako. Siguro yung mga taong nasa paligid ko, mga kapwa ko artist. Sila kasi yung mga taong nagpapalakas ng loob ko na gawing yung isang bagay na kinakatakutan ko gawin, mag explore at lumabas sa comfortzone. Kamustahan tapos kwentuhan tungkol sa arts tapos yun na magkakaroon ka ng lakas na loob at di ka na matatakot na gawin yung bagay na yon. Tapos sobrang gagaling kasi nila nakaka inspired para bang wala akong dapat gawin kundi galingan din. Yung pakiramdam na kumpitensya in a good way. Hindi ko ginagalingan para masabing mas magaling ako kaysa sa kanila kundi ginagalingan ko para magalingan ko yung sarili ko.
How do you define your social role as an artist?
Esquillo: I have always been tackling themes and commentaries about our society in the hope that the messages in my works will reach the public and enlighten them. But it is only now that I have witnessed how project-making can create better results as far as reaching out to the public is concerned. Here at Eskinita Art Farm, an extension of Eskinita Art Gallery, I realized how spaces can be redefined to be as inclusive as possible. More people come here to view exhibits, appreciate nature together with the art. It has become a space made more public, where art really belongs to. And we are launching a public art festival here in Tanauan, called Art in the Lake. It will be joined by many art groups. The collaborative works will be displayed via a procession from Eskinita Art Farm up to the baywalk where the works will be installed. It is a community project that we hope to create a new tradition of public artmaking. Here, I saw more sense and meaning in art through initiating projects that I know will benefit the community.
Yee: I define my social role as an artist as constant and committed by my works in different fields not just in painting and sculpture but also of Installation that addresses my concern about social ills of the country and the problem of the environment. I started environmental art through my Installation works since my first outdoor One-Man exhibition of Installation using indigenous materials and cultural traditions.
Andrade: Ang role para sakin ng isang artist is to inspire, to educate and to connect yung bawat isa. Parang storyteller din na ikinukweto namin mga nangyayari sa kasalukuyan para mapagkonekta yung future at ang past.
What are your personal struggle/s when you decided to pursue a career in the arts?
Esquillo: It was not easy in the 90s as a young artist. There were fewer galleries, fewer art buyers and collectors. I did not work for a company ever because I wanted to work full-time as an artist. I joined group exhibits and art contests regularly. But to survive and to help my family, I had to earn money regularly. So I accepted and did portrait commissions, while still being active in the art scene.
Yee: My personal struggle started when I left the comfort of my home and the love of my family because my father wanted me to be a businessman like him. I grew up with a yaya that when I ran out of money in Cebu City where I was stranded because San Carlos University did not offer a degree for Fine Arts that I ended as janitor in a funeral parlor and later as make-up artists for cadavers and finally as an apprentice embalmer. From 135 lbs I dropped to 95 lbs. in 11 months but I refuse to give up even if I long for the comfort of our home and the love of my mother.
Andrade: Maraming struggle. Kaunaunahang struggle ko is yung pera eh. Wala kaming pera noon para makapag-aral ako. Ang nagwowork kasi para samin noon is yung tatay ko tapos naghiwalay sila ng nanay ko kaya ganon yung nangyari walang may trabaho. Buti nalang at di kami pinabayaan ng tita ko nakapagcollege ako.
Pangalawa is yung mga taong nasa paligid ko lalo na yung pamilya ko na tutol noong pinili ko na yung art para maging isang career. Tutol sila kasi yun nga wala naman daw pera doon ano daw magiging work ko pagkagraduate. Mas gusto kasi nila yung praktikal na pagkagraduate mo makakapag apply ka kaagad ng trabaho.
Pangatlo is yung paano ko sa kanila papatunayan na mali yung nasa isip nila. So yon handon yung kaba at pagdadawalang isip na baka nga mali yung pinili ko. Mahirap eh minsan panghihinaan ka talaga ng kalooban kasi para siyang sugal na di mo talaga alam kung mananalo ka ba or matatalo ka. Pero un nga di ko malalaman kung di ko susubukan kaya sinubukan ko lakas ng loob, pagtityaga at tiwala sa sarili ang baon ko. Inaral ko din yung mga galawan at mga pasikot sikot para di ako maligaw sa gusto kong puntahan.
What do you advise aspiring artists from based on your experience?
Esquillo: The purpose of art is realized not just in creating it, but more through sharing it.
Yee: I always imparted to my audience in my talks and to young artists who seek my counsel. The fundamental truth in art making is that art making is not a “hanap buhay” It is never a “ hanap buhay”. One should not make art thinking if it will sell or what will sell. If an artist is good enough, sooner or later people will buy his works. If an artist is good enough, sooner or later he or she will be recognized. An artist should not think what will sell because he/she will be thinking like a businessman instead of an artist. It is not also true that artists will grow hungry. The artist should support his art by working part time in any work he/she can find and do his art in the evening. Or work in the evening and do art in the morning. If you do this, you won’t starve and at the same time enjoy the joy of making art without the unnecessary concern of starving or living a life of hardship.
Andrade: Valuable lesson marami eh isa na dito is yung pagpapakatotoo sa sariling art ko. Ginagawa ko lang kung ano yung gusto kong gawin na hindi nakaka-agrabyado ng ibang tao. Natutong makinig lalo na sa mga taong alam kong may experience na sila don. Kapag alam kong makakatulong sakin yung mga payo nila at di labag sa paniniwala ko ginagawa ko. Tapos ginamit ko yung pagkakamali ng ibang tao para matuto ako.
Regarded as continuing the legacy of the Social Realists, Alfredo Esquillo Jr.’s paintings executed in figurative realism expose the paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions of Philippine social life. Art critic Alice Guillermo wrote in Asian Art News: “[Esquillo’s] organization of elements defies familiar convention. While his figures are unrelentingly realist, Esquillo is not content with the figurative realism of elements organized in a single-point perspective”. One of his winning pieces, “Daang-Ligid Krus” resembles a famous scenario in the procession of Black Nazarene. It is a masterpiece that is closely identified with Esquillo wherein his art interrogates Filipino identity, and attempts to capture its hybrid character by employing imagery commonly sourced from religious iconography, Filipino psyche, and experiences.
Jose Luis “Junyee” Yee
Known for his pioneering work in installation, Jose Luis “Junyee” Yee creates something out of nothing. Art writer Alice Guillermo writes of Junyee’s oeuvre: “[Junyee’s] sizeable body of work definitely established the trend in indigenous material. Rejecting sculptural volume and solid mass created by carving or molding processes, his work assembles, binds, and weaves together various shapes and organic materials such as dried pods, twisted roots, banana pulp, coconut shells, twigs, and coconut fiber.
Francis Eugene “Isko” Andrade
Andreade’s prowess lies in the subdued yet limited palette of four colours, how he poetically uses objects to capture the viewer’s attention and evoke moods. His winning piece entitled, “Pinagkait na Kalayaan ”, depicts a literal burial of Andrade’s art, as symbolized by his paintbrushes, which are wrapped in plastic and buried in soil. The hyperrealist piece has emotional undertones, yet it conveys a hope that shall be pursued in the near future.
Beneath the differences in styles, media, and aspiration, their artworks lie a common experience that in a way, contributed to and powered them to be the celebrated artists they are today.