Here and Now, Six Questions for Mel Vera Cruz; Huelgera, Lee, Merikhi, Schwarz, Moran, El Anatsui, Lukub; ukulele sounds by Honoka & Azita, Taimane, and Fuchigami.
HERE AND NOW
I’ve mentioned previously that I had moved my main website from Wordpress, where it had been for over a decade, to Gator Website Builder. It has taken some time to get used to the new way of editing my site—so different from the Wordpress block editor—but I’m happy to say that I’m starting to “get it.” Do visit the site at https://jeanvengua.com.
I think I’ve got the “Six Questions” ball rolling now. Tonight’s issue, appropriately #66, features Mel Vera Cruz. The June 18 issue (#68) will feature LindaLay. Enjoy!
I’m very happy to introduce artist Ismael (Mel) Vera Cruz, who answered the “Six Questions” for this issue of Eulipion Outpost. Mel is based in San Francisco; I’ve been aware of his wonderful work in the community there for some years, including his graphics and public art projects. He is currently involved with the Minna-Natoma Corridor Art Project.
1. Where did you grow up and how did that (or any other significant experience) influence your art?
I was born in Manila but grew up in Quezon Province, Philippines. When I was young, I had no one to influence me as an artist because it was a remote area where art was never a priority. I grew up playing in the “jungles” of Quezon but like most children, I already loved drawing before starting school. I remember using a nail to draw a big jeepney, that my dad’s friend used to own, on our wall on the stairs and remembered showing it off to my mom. My family was well off because my grandfather who died before I was born owned huge parcels of land with coconuts as the main crop. My father had no interest in taking over the business because he wanted to become a doctor; he became mayor of our town instead. I had 12 siblings. I was the 10th. I saw that out of the 13 children, we were three generations apart. The first generation were mostly influenced by our aunts and uncles who were very conservative. The second were teenagers during the late 60s and early 70s so they were hippies.
My hippie siblings were the ones who somewhat started rebelling against the conservatism in the family. I said somewhat because we had no reason to rebel against my parents because they fully supported us. I was influenced by the hippies because I was able to observe them growing up. The hippie siblings started the idea but me and my younger brother were the ones who were defiant. We were rolling stones. I was an alcoholic and drug addict for about 30 years starting right after high school. I didn’t realize I was an addict because I can function. During all the drinking and drugs, I was always making art and I think it saved me because I was never a bum. I graduated in fine arts and had a job as illustrator and graphic designer after college. I was able to support myself and help the family financially, so I never felt condemned by them.
I never excelled academically because Tagalog was my main language growing up and when I got transferred to a private school in Manila in grade 5, I was demoted to grade 2 because I had no idea what the teachers were saying. They were speaking English. Because of this, they assumed my level was equivalent to grade two, so I was demoted by a supposed to be non-graded school to grade two for maybe half a year until they thought I caught up. This made me an introvert. I got over this, but I blame that demotion for my addictions because it made me feel stupid. I thought I had no future. I was vomiting before going to school every day because of the feeling of being misunderstood but I realize now that that was also a blessing because I never became part of their system which I’m very thankful for.
During 2nd year high school, I requested to be transferred to a public school because I can’t comprehend the language they were using and felt so lost. I also had trauma going to a public school because it was looked down upon, but I was so happy deep inside because, besides Tagalog as the public school’s first language, they have electives where you can choose your own passion. I chose graphic arts of course. That experience still put a smile in my face because even if water was pouring inside when raining due to holes in our ceiling, I felt I was in my element. I was already doing abstract paintings during high school. I wish I had kept them. I kept my defiant mind and followed my own beat until today. I realize now that I already had the strength of mind not to be caught with what most people and institutions think what should be which helped shape my direction. I didn’t understand at first, but I thank my parents for letting me grow up in Quezon province and let me experience people as they are and nature as it is.
2. What’s your creative process like? (Could include processes, objects around you, timing, spatial needs, impacts from current events, etc.)
Art for me is my main language. It is universal because there’s no relays or translations. It hits us directly, so my creative process stems from whatever I was doing at any stage of my life. I used to follow traditions when young but realized it was meaningless to me. Following Eurocentric dictations felt like I was aping their styles and attitudes which never suited me. I was a wild child and, as I said, can’t be locked in by restrictions. It’s normal for everything to expand so I always follow my instincts and thankful I’m able to do that through my art process. Of course, making a living is a different story so I have that side and my borderless side. I never had a studio and felt I didn’t need one because for me, the world is wide open not to take advantage of it. During my advertising days, I created art on the side of my drawing table while designing print ads and doing story boards for clients.
I use my experience as subject and materials. Being proactive is important in my process. For example, when I worked as a digital printer in a CD silkscreen factory, the tools and materials we use were the same tools and materials I use in my art process at that time. I don’t buy my materials in art stores as much as possible because besides being so expensive, I feel they were dictated traditions that traps my mind. I retained and still keep some of the materials from that CD company until today till there’s a need to show them which I know will come someday. I can tell when a boss is conservative, so I know when to let them know and when not to. If I feel my boss is conservative, I don’t let them know and just do it because I know they won’t understand because for me art is holier than the mundane and I don’t judge myself as a thief but like a “Robin Hood,” someone who contributes to humanity thru my art making. It pays off thru being different so my subjects tend to lean on this thinking. I feel it always involves transgression in any theme that I’m working on.
3. What puts a damper on your creativity? What do you do—if anything—to remedy that?
Everything is an opportunity for me so I immediately realize that any situation good or bad can be transformed into something positive. I have done a lot of artworks while sitting when I had gout attacks unable to walk, drive to my job and move except with my two hands. During my addiction years, I used that for my mind to expand and be open, so I had a ton of production during those years. For me, happy or sad is an opportunity, but it happens in my day jobs because some bosses are so conservative that they are so scared for anyone to break the status quo. I understand the disciplines involved between my day job and art making, so I had to deal with this a lot at work, but patience is key. I don’t burn bridges, so I let them know, sometimes in a not-so-nice way (out of frustration) how I feel, and it works every time with a lot of patience on both sides. I don’t break rules without a valid reason, so it takes a lot of convincing, proving, and charm on my part.
4. Does age factor into your creative process, and if yes, how?
Definitely. I was so egoistic when young so my main purpose in making art was to impress and I’m so thankful I matured and was able to dissolve that kind of ego. I think the mind can be compared to the universe. It just expands by itself so I realize I cannot stop and just let it flow until I stop breathing. I learned how to slow down though. I promised myself I’d stop learning a new process after tattooing but I can’t help it because I see a lot of things that interest me, like I have a friend who works in construction who knows how to weld so if I get the chance, I’d like to learn that.
Nothing is permanent so my attitude these days is just to let things flow and not force anything because I had proven through my experience that everything I need just pops up right in front of me without lifting a finger. It’s just a matter of recognizing and grabbing whatever I think is beneficial. Trust is very important for me. I rely on friends and network to push me because I noticed once I put something out, it just keeps on rolling into something unexpected which I love, with a lot of help from my friends. I love working within a group. As I said, I have dissolved my selfish side of the ego so working within a group satisfies me specially for my community and all that it’s fighting for. I enjoy being in a group because for me, the goal is not to be the best but to be unique and of course the knowledge that my art is directly being used somehow to help out. I wish I had this mindset when I was younger because I was very individualistic in my twenties. Being able to digest which matters most through maturity is a great thing for me.
5. What are you working on, currently, and what’s inspiring it?
I’m working on the Minna Natoma Art Corridor Project where I was chosen as one of the artists to design the pavement on Minna Street in SF. The design I made was inspired by the Banig, so the pavement will look like a Banig when finished. This project was way beyond my expectations because I lowered my target a long time ago. This came as a surprise because I’m just so happy to think that I have done enough to make my art be remembered and I think this was one of the reasons why I was able to say that things kept on expanding by itself so I’m just happy to receive it. I had my artworks in book covers by American Pinoy and Pinay poets/authors as proof to myself that my art will stay for a long time, but this Minna Street project is so satisfying for me because my design will be part of a world-renowned city which is San Francisco. I only watched the TV series in Manila during the seventies and never in my wildest dreams thought that my art will be part of the “Streets of San Francisco,” so I know that my work will leave some impression after I die. The thought that I will leave a legacy for my people inspires me a lot.
6. What’s your favorite imperfection?
All imperfections are my favorites. I have no choice but to like them because they are natural. I love this question because I worked and lived through imperfections all my life; that’s why I don’t erase mistakes in my art. I just heard that a flower will not bloom without the filth in its roots. Errors are part of it because like a flower, life will not bloom without it. To each their own but I don’t understand why some don’t understand this and try their best to be clean and proper. A real garden for me is when it is left alone and let nature take its course, so I see and understand the beauty in being natural. Imperfection is just the opposite of being perfect. I’d prefer to be in the middle. They are one like yin and yang so why look the other way and ignore the dark side? I don’t intend to impress anymore so I’m not worried showing my imperfections. It’s obvious we cannot see the light without the dark. Like male and female, we need to recognize both. I related right away to the Japanese Kintsugi when I encountered it because I understood it deeply. Imperfections are my badges of honor, so I proudly display them in my art.
Bio: Born in 1964, Bay Area based Visual Artist Mel Vera Cruz has been an advocate for his community for more than two decades. He had a 9-year background in graphic design before migrating in 1995 in the US from the Philippines. Mel blends his experience in communications, printing, illustration, tattoos, and graphics to create art that evokes his sentiments for what he is. He incorporates recycled materials with his process making original works that reflects his past, present and future.
He does not have a gallery representation or a formal studio and thinks life experiences are more than enough as source for his process and inspiration. He is a muralist, painter, designer, father, teacher, public and street artist who works with nontraditional materials that appears mostly in the streets of SOMA in SF. He presently works as graphics artist for Caltrans for 15 years and lives in the East Bay with his wife, two kids and in laws.
I couldn’t pass up the title, “Good Things that Bad Art Makes Us Do” by Pablo Huelgera in his newsletter, Beautiful Eccentrics.
In his newsletter, Barry Lee Art, Lee writes, “To love me is to see me as Disabled and Non-binary.” He offers “writings & pieces of art . . . in the hopes to bring a little bit of peace, self inquiry, and joy to your day.”
Sarira Merikhi is making new art for Iran. Her sardonic icons are featured in Dao Bao’s Art House newsletter.
Yello is a Substack newsletter on visual politics by Hunter Schwarz. He notes: “Digital campaign ads are A/B tested to catch your eye, memes drive political narratives, and entire movements have launched on the power of cell phone footage. It’s time to take a deeper look at the images that shape our politics, and the stories behind them.”
Slow down: It’s what your brain has been begging for (by Rachel Moran in Psyche).
El Anatsui considers his studio to be a sacred space. See the finished pieces: “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui”:
I bought one of these cylinders the first time I visited the Philippines. I had no idea about the work that goes into making them: Reviving the Maranao Lakub:
It’s Ukulele night at the Eulipion Outpost. Got some Girl Power here for you:
It’s hard to decide what video to choose for Taimane Gardner; her skills are off the charts. Here she is relaxed and just hangin’ out at home playing “Carmen” and “Phantom of the Opera”:
Kris Fuchigami’s beautiful adaptation of Carlos Santana’s “Europa.”
It’s always a plus when I get this newsletter out before midnight!
Have a beautiful weekend . . .
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Wonderful interview with Mel. His openess is amazing.