What Gregory Halili learned from painting skulls on shells

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

The artist's works in the recent years may have been considered macabre, but Gregory Halili believes that they are a reminder of life’s beauty too. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

In 2019, while Gregory Halili was busy painting on shells, a Paphiopedilum orchid bloomed in his garden for the first time. A month later, a second one also showed its beauty. By the next month, during a hot April day, the artist witnessed the flowering of more Paphiopedilums. The simultaneous flowering of these eccentric plants surprised Halili. Orchids, despite the more favorable conditions in Silang, Cavite, remain challenging to grow.

His lush garden is what keeps him busy these days. After all, the possibility of what one can do in a garden is endless. And right now, the task at hand is to uproot stubborn weeds.

Halili’s interest in plants stems from his childhood. “My father is a plant enthusiast and growing up in urban Sampaloc, Manila, our small house was filled with orchids and plants,” he says. “My childhood summer would then be spent at my mom’s family home in Indang, Cavite. It’s a real jungle back then! So, I guess, those memories ingrained the love of plants in me.”

These natural figures found their way to his early works as an artist. For instance, while still in the U.S., he made miniature paintings of Paphiopedilums in the early 2000s before he even saw them in person. He painted butterflies and lush tropical scenes too, which he conjured from his childhood memories.

But since he moved back to the Philippines in 2013, Halili has become more inclined to imagery usually related to death. His 2014 show “Memento” was a collection of memento moris painted on mother of pearl shells. There’s also the human skeleton he finished assembling in 2016 using ossified corals. And even when the artist is not dealing with something outright grim, there remains a reminder of mortality. Picture the series of eyes he did on mother of pearls.

Gregory Halili's "A Moment's Afire" (2020) from his "Glass Horizons" exhibit. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

His work in the 2020 exhibit “Glass Horizon” and the recently concluded SEA Focus in Singapore, departs from human anatomy and returns to the vastness of the natural world. Here, he painted butterflies and landscapes — both at their serene and tumultuous states — on mother of pearl and capiz shells using oil and, sometimes, volcanic ash. Bones may not be present in these miniature paintings, but they are still riddled with reflections on life’s fragility and the smallness of our existence.

In an email correspondence with CNN Philippines Life, Halili discusses the use of shells in his practice, his views on life and death, and why he doesn’t mind his works being labeled as macabre.

You discovered art at an early age. Could you tell me how and when did you realize that you can make art? What was your first artwork?

I still have my first surviving drawing of a helicopter done in orange crayon at the age of two. Like most children, it’s natural to simply draw and love art unconsciously. It wasn’t until early in high school that I started considering becoming an artist.

You’ve always been interested in exploring natural materials from nature as your canvas. You painted eyes and saints on ivory. Then, in 2014, you began using mother of pearl. More recently, you’ve been painting on capiz shells. Could you discuss these materials? How do they differ?

Using natural materials all started in the early 2000s (around 2002 to 2003), when I chanced upon discarded vintage and pre-banned ivory. As a miniaturist painter primarily working on papers at the time, I was very much interested and curious how the past 18th and 19th century European and American miniature painters created their masterpieces.

I’m always in awe when I see these types of miniatures in museums, particularly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which I frequently visit. I created my Relicario series using ivory. These works pay homage to the Santos or Saints that were inspired by Semana Santa or Holy Week processions. These ivory paintings were encased in Philippine antique relicarios, in a way making them time machines containing history.

"Deep End III" (2020). Oil on gold-lip mother of pearl. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

After a few years of experimenting with ivory, I went back into painting with watercolor on paper. But during this time, I longed to find a material that is closer to home — to the Philippines. So sometime around 2011, in a local trade store, I chanced upon these large, iridescent and gleaming mother-of-pearl shells, a contrast to the creamy and dull ivory. I was very excited with this new surface and started playing around with it and found that it has so many reflective properties. Each shell is different so there is continuous exploration and admiration with this natural material. Some of my very first eye portraits were done with mother of pearl shells and would continue to this day. The eye paintings reflected an intimate portrait, a remembrance and memory of the sitter. All of my subjects are connected to each other, each evolving from one another. My current works still investigate life’s memory and fragility, although in a different form. I wanted to find a material that is equally fragile and ethereal, and that’s how I experimented with capiz.

You treat the capiz with acid to make it suitable for painting, right? I wonder what happens if it gets too thin or fragile. Do they become unsuitable for painting? Or is there always a way to work around its fragility?

Actually, the capiz shell is already suitable to paint and work on as it is. Believe it or not, capiz is one of the most durable and resilient shells considering its thin surface. I can clearly remember seeing a shell trader stepping and walking on mounds of capiz shells and not a single one breaking. As long as it lays flat the weight of whatever's on top of it will be evenly distributed. That’s why the shell makes a perfect windowpane.

By treating it with acid, my goal is to actually make it thin, to the point of breaking and to the most translucent I can possibly make it. I wanted to capture that sense of fragility and ethereal quality just by looking at the material.

I find it interesting that your paintings somehow act as windows too. I just got curious, where are these capiz shells from? By any chance, were some of them culled from old windows?

I'm glad that you see it that way. These miniatures are really windows; each work draws you in and closer to my world. Capiz window panes have been used for hundreds of years, and I have been aware of that connection to my work. I actually used shells from an old windowpane for some of my earlier capiz paintings. But I found that I could manipulate the shell even more if I used the raw capiz. I get my raw materials from a capiz shell trader in Cavite, who sources them from Visayas.

Since the materials you use are culled from nature, how do you ensure the sustainability of your practice?

My current works practice is in the exploration of materials, but it is evolving. I’m a miniaturist so a piece of shell can go a long way. Someday, I will go back to works on paper or canvas, when I exhaust my materials. Or maybe go back to painting large-scale if my sight deteriorates as I age. Either way, one has to adapt and be resilient.

How did working with these materials change your perception of what art or painting is?

I’m trained as a painter, but I also know that art can be anything or with any medium or form. So, working with different materials and breaking the rules from what I learned reaffirm that art or painting is whatever the artist wants it to be.

You tend to be drawn to subjects that most people would describe as macabre. You painted skulls on mother of pearl and even created the human skeletal system with corals. I think there’s a tendency to relate these to death. And then some of your works on capiz somewhat have a grim sense too. For instance, you painted the eruption of Taal and coral bleaching. What draws you to these subjects?

I’ve painted my fair share of pretty subjects, believe it or not. I was once known as a butterfly artist, tropical scenery and moonlit painter. But after a while I’ve come to realize that the hardest to create and paint are the ones that seem simple and to our core. Breaking down the essentials, in material and subject matter, and remaining honest with yourself and work is the most difficult.

Seeing firsthand the destruction of corals (due to tourism), coral bleaching (due to climate change) and experiencing firsthand the fall of Taal volcanic ash (my studio was covered with ash and it took more than a month to really clean up), one can’t help but address these personal experiences, which the world knows anyway. My aim is to create a visual dialogue from my perspective. I agree that some of the work is macabre, but I see it more as our true connection with nature and current events.

"Crux II" (2020). Oil on volcanic ash and capiz shell. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

Are you bothered with the word macabre being attached to your work? If not, how would you describe the subjects of your work?

History will always associate skulls with macabre and death. But the current global trend, especially in the art world, that skulls and skeletons are becoming a norm in contemporary culture. No, I’m not bothered by the word macabre. I know my work will eventually evolve. If it doesn’t, now that’s scary.

You’ve been creating art during the quarantine. Have you noticed any changes in your creative process during this period? If there are, what are they?

2020 will be an unforgettable year. It has taught me many lessons. One of those is to be extra creative with what you have. I learned to be frugal with materials and minimize waste, but not jeopardizing the integrity of the work. Explore more. Go to different directions that I will not pursue otherwise. I actually started cutting, breaking, and assembling together found objects and the results are rather interesting. But I may take a step. I believe in staying creative just by going to the studio and work.

You often meditate on the fragility of human life through your work. What have you realized or learned about human life or death through your practice?

This may be a cliché, but time is really valuable. We are in a situation where we can’t just go out and see our friends, family and loved ones. Life is fragile. My art is a reminder of that. During this time of pandemic and isolation, it is important to surround yourself with art, any form of it. If you don’t have one, you are always capable of making one. I believe in the power and healing of art.


View "Glass Horizon" on the Silverlens website