Heroes · Neighbourhood · Stories

Passing on the brush: Bert Monterona

Artists at work: photo album

It all started with a series of photos a friend shared on Instagram. A mural panel, a table spread with paints and brushes, a still life of a watermelon and a wine bottle, a charcoal portrait of someone whose face and name somehow rang a bell. When I asked, my friend revealed he had become involved in a workshop called Training the Trainer with award-winning visual artist and educator Bert Monterona.

A resident of Canada since 2002, Monterona is looking forward to a well-deserved retirement in the Philippines. But before he makes the move back home, he’s preparing a second generation of artists to take up his cause of community mural painting.

“I am an artist and, at the same time, a social realist,” Monterona explains as we sit together in the East Vancouver garage that has been transformed into a studio for this project. Before us, on easels, stand the six 4×4 panels that make up the mural currently being painted by the youth of Migrante BC, a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of the rights of Filipino immigrants, permanent residents and temporary workers in British Columbia.

This is Migrante’s second such project in less than a year. The first artwork was finished in November 2011: the product of a workshop for young, new Filipino immigrants, which aimed to create awareness about Filipino migration issues. Participants researched statistics for a fact sheet on Filipino youth in Canada to provide information on the long delays in family reunification for Filipino families. Then, under the guidance of Monterona, they painted a portable tapestry that captures the presence of Filipino immigrant youth in Canada, their issues and their journey. It has since been displayed at various events both local and abroad.

The current project is partially funded by the City of Vancouver’s Community and Neighbourhood Arts Development Program. Each of the three parts of the mural tell a story that will surely resonate with immigrants from all over the world, not just Filipino-Canadians: scenes of working, of saying goodbye to loved ones and leaving a country that’s systematically being stripped of its resources and rendered unable to sustain its own people.

Monterona and the founders of Migrante BC are strong proponents of the notion that arts and culture can serve as a catalyst to provoke discussion about social justice and environmental issues. The young mural painters share this conviction. From different parts of the Philippines and a range of professional backgrounds, with varying dates of arrival in Canada, they share one thing in common: the immigrant experience. When they paint, they tell their own stories.

So it’s fitting that many of the figures in the mural are modeled on the artists themselves. During the conceptualization stage of the mural process, coached by Janice Valdez, one of the painters who has a background in theater arts, they arranged themselves in tableaux, which were photographed and projected right onto the canvas, providing a guide for the artists to start painting.

Now, as the temperature rises in the studio, the artists’ focus only grows more intense. This is the last weekend scheduled for work on the mural, and they must finish by tomorrow. Landscapes, faces, and objects blossom on the canvas. The main figure in one panel is given a different hair colour, the parade of work tools grows longer, and the ravaged landscape in the mining scene takes shape under the expert brush of Monterona himself. Over the bulldozed hillsides flies an eagle, searching in vain for a treetop on which to rest.

I’m particularly fascinated by a a ghostly figure hovering in the background of one of the tableaux. Cracks stretch across her wispy body and featureless face, and her silhouette is outlined by a dotted white line similar to those drawn around murder victims on TV police shows.

“That’s the identity of this woman,” explains Marjorie Eda, pausing in her brushwork to point out a figure facing sideways with her arm outstretched. Overhead, an airplane soars. “She’s leaving her old self behind. So not only does she have to build a new life, but a new self.”

“The mural is more than just a work of art,” says Josefa Sapelino. “To me, it’s a reminder that I can be more, that I can do more. In the same way, Migrante opens up new opportunities and horizons for us. Working on projects like this, there’s no room for self-pity. You meet many different kinds of people. You find out that you can help change the way others think, and that boosts your self-confidence.”

As the afternoon winds down, Jane Oridinario, the owner of the house, comes in to tell everyone to stop working and have some pancit. Around the kitchen table, the group discusses another project proposed by Valdez: a cultural arts program to be run in a space provided by the Vancouver Park Board’s Fieldhouse Studio Residency Program.

The program provides studio space for artists and artist collectives at no charge in exchange for community arts based engagement. Proposals are due the day after tomorrow.

“First of all, we need a name,” says Valdez. Several ideas are tossed around, but it turns out that inspiration is right under their noses. The group decides to name their newly founded arts collective PANCIT. Whether or not they’re granted a space by the Fieldhouse Program is still undetermined, but one thing is sure: Bert Monterona can rest easy knowing that young Filipinos are keeping community arts and social dialogue alive in Vancouver.

View the finished mural at The Monterona Exhibition, on from September 18 to November 1, 2012 at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia.

 

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