Eliseo Art Silva
Trans-national Muralist Combines History and Heritage in Art

Artist Interview: Eliseo Art Silva

Eliseo Art Silva is a well-known muralist with numerous works of art displayed in Seattle, California, Philadelphia, Maine and the Philippines. He is recognized for painting the largest Filipino-American mural in the U.S. in commemoration of the Centennial of the Philippine Revolution against Spain. The mural measures 145 feet x 25 feet and is called Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana” (Filipino Americans: A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy). His artistic goal is to reconcile the history of his lineage with the history of painting. He believes that art is the best way to document communities.

 
“I am a weaver of history and heritage. In my work, I tell stories that are grounded upon layers of culture creating a kind of contemporary folk art that attempts to find the border between mass culture and contemporary realism.” –Eliseo Art Silva, Artist’s Statement www.eliseoart.com
 
What was your educational background, art background/training? 
 
I learned to create my own art at a young age. I was painting in oil and acrylic at 9 years old and sold them. By 11 I was able to get training from a celebrated local artist from our area- Roger San Miguel, which introduced me to mural art. When I earned a scholarship to attend the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA), my direction shifted from decorative to art dealing with social justice and racial/national pride. An unforseeable Family decision to emigrate to the US prevented me from accepting a full-time scholarship with stipend to the prestigious University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts; and instead spent my college years in the US, first as a student at Riverside Community College, then earned my BFA at Otis College of Art and Design. I earned my MFA at the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art under the auspices of the late great American painter Grace Hartigan and art critic/writer Dominique Nahas. During my last summer at this school, I was granted a full scholarship to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture where I developed my artistic direction further through the mentorship of acclaimed painters and art critics.
 
 
Did you enjoy sticking to academic standards of learning the skills of art, or were you more experimental in developing your own style?
 
I enjoyed learning structure then experimenting with the forms.
 
 
What was a pivotal moment in your life, which encouraged you to become an artist?
 
My formative years at the Philippine High School for the Arts shifted my life's ambition to be a lawyer/ politician into an artist- the 'progenitor of civilization.' I was convinced that not since Juan Luna and his generation of artists had Filipino artists responded effectively to heed the call of every generation's art to transform themselves in order to transform others. Political upheaveals catalyzed by Filipinos such as the Delano Grape Strike and the EDSA Revolution succeeded as a political revolution but not as a Social revolution precisely because of the lack of reinforcement and enhancement from the arts and culture.
 
What do you think are important qualities for students and for emerging artists?
 
Before we create change-we have to first dream and imagine it. Students are still at this position to discover their voice, therefore at a position to imagine the direction of their vision. Important qualities needed are clarity in their vision, only then can passion emerge. Are you creating an object where everything that needs to happen happen within itself or is engagement a pivotal element?
 
 
What are the most satisfying aspects of your work as an artist? What are the true inner rewards? 
 
I think every artist has an inner desire for immortality. Repetition is a sure sign that an artists work has somehow entered into the popular culture. Creating something that did not exist before takes a lot from a person, but its ultimate manifestation into being; and, it's subsequent role to transform others are just some of the most satisfying rewards for an artist.
 
 
Were you inspired by old masters of the Philippines such as Ferdinand Amorsolo or Juana Luna? If not, were there any Filipino artists that inspired you as a student?
 
Both these artists inspired me but the Filipino master that influenced me the most is Carlos "Botong" Francisco. As a student at Otis I looked into the works of Alfonso Ossorio, Carlos Villa, David Medalla, Pacita Abad, and Manuel Ocampo. Before that, my formative years was largely shaped by the possibilities of Filipino art inspired by Roberto Feleo and Alwin Reamillo who were my art instructors at the PHSA.
 
 
Who are your favorite artists that are not Filipino? Do you try to incorporate their certain style into your work? 
 
My favorite artist are Francisco Goya, Kerry James Marshall, Shahzia Sikander and Barry McGee. The last three artists' art are somewhat reflective of what we call "graffitti art" or palimpsest; which I feel is the major artistic movement in our time. They also incorporate traditional artforms, then re-introduce them into new forms. My aim is to do the same with Filipino art. Although several Filipino artists have attained mainstream status, we cannot really say that we can walk into a museum and see Filipino or Filipino American images, forms and narratives. Is there such a category as Filipino Art within a non-Filipino discourse? I can most identify with Kerry James Marshall's desire to see narratives, issues, and images of his own African American community be seen in American Museums and painted in the grand narrative historical painting style.
 
 
What do you value more- the historical or the contemporary and why?
 
I value both, although in the eyes of Filipinos, they see me more as a historically inclined artist. I think the flaw in our sense of the contemporary or "modernization" is flawed. Instead of advancing traditional Philippine forms into contemporary use, we adopt "modern" or western, or non-Filipino methods and apply them in the Philippines. What happens is that this method will work for awhile but eventually will self-destruct, because it cannot take root on Philippine soil- because it is a method not inspired by our race, our climate or way of thinking.
 
 
What are you hoping to achieve through your murals? How do you want to influence or change people?
 
When I went through art school at Otis I was told by my art instructors that there was never any discrimination against Filipinos and that the only impression they have of Filipinos is that we are houseboys or maids and that they helped us against Japan in WWII. The department head of Fine Arts at that time even told me that mural art is only 'Billboard Art'- which meant that it was only visual garbage. These are the initial shock that reverberated through me when I created the enourmous Filipino mural when I was only 22 years old. I wanted to correct the way Filipinos see themselves first- because we define ourselves according to how others see us- and not on how we see ourselves. We are invisble because we project only our Spanish and American heritage, which is fine, but that collectively only totals 400 years of our collective experience. What is missing is the 600 years of Influence from our Southeast Asian/ Malayan Heritage- that's 60% of our holistic identity.
 
 
Are you represented by any commercial dealerships?
 
My focus currently is teaching and creating public art and have not actively sought commercial representation.
 
 
Has there been a person or an idea that has been a steady source of inspiration for you in creating your art? 
 
 Jose Rizal.
 
How has your family supported or challenged your career in the arts?
 
Without my family, I will not be an artist.
 
What is your “studio time” like?
 
I just recently began transitioning into 'studio art' after more that 60 'sites of public memory' completed throughout the US. My goal is to produce at least 10 art pieces a month, and start early, before daybreak.
 
 
Whose artwork, today, do you find most stimulating and thought provoking?
 
Manuel Ocampo
 
 
Are there any goals as an artist that you still wish to accomplish?
 
My goal is to achieve what the "Tres Grandes (Rivera, Siquireros, and Orozco)" achieved in Mexico- to reclaim their cultural heritage and aid in the advancement of a social and cultural revolution that is much needed in our motherland-the Republic of the Philippines. As what Rizal said: "...only then can we achieve peace: united, joyous and daring."
 
 
Do you have any guidance for the next generation of artists?
 
Try not to reinvent the wheel- we need to advance what has already been achieved; we stand on the shoulders of those that came before us so we can move forward our collective visions and dreams for our emergent national identity.
 
 
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