April 2017 Artist Feature: KATRINA BELLO

Katrina Bello is an artist whose paintings and drawings are about a search for analogies between the natural world and the human condition. Rocks, trees, grasses, and puddles are some of the imagery that are predominant in her works.  As a teenager in Quezon City, Katrina studied Industrial Design as her major at the College of Fine Arts in the University of the Philippines Diliman. She continued her commitment to drawing and painting when she immigrated to the United States and received her BFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts in Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.  Her work has been exhibited in the Philippines and the United States and she keeps studios in Quezon City, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Newark and Montclair, New Jersey. She is also the founder of the artist space North Willow in Montclair.


Janna Añonuevo Langholz: Hi Katrina, it’s an honor to interview you for this month’s feature. It’s been a pleasure to follow your work; I’m a fan of the tiny landscapes and still lifes you create. Could you tell me a little about your background and practice?

Katrina Bello: Hi Janna! It's been an honor to be part of the Filipino American Artist Directory, thank you. I appreciate very much your thoughts on my teeny tiny landscapes. Now that I'm back to making my very large drawings of details of landscapes and trees, I'm having some TBT moments now and reviewing and remembering my motivations and intentions in making the very small landscape drawings.

To start -- and addressing my background and and the origin of my drawing practice -- Davao City is where I was born and spent most of my childhood. It is a coastal city that is overlooked by the potentially active stratovolcano Mount Apo, and our family home is very near a black sand beach that we frequented. Nearby are small islands and several other beaches. Our family and extended families also had several farms in different sizes: from small enough to be in the backyard of our home, to a large one that encompassed several hectares of grazing fields, a fishing pond, and a very rocky river. It was a childhood spent with an incredible amount of freedom for the children of our families to explore the natural coastal, river, and mountain environments -- and a lot of it while barefoot which is why I have such spectacularly wide feet, haha! Our family lived in Davao until I was 15. And in the years of my growing up there, drawing was something I did a lot freely and not for any art classes while in my elementary school. Many drawings were done on paper, but what I found satisfyingly enjoyable and liberating was drawing on the rough seven-foot high concrete perimeter walls that bound the property of our home (perimeter walls were a standard in the city, by the way), and finding out that I could use the "uling" from our outdoor kitchen as a drawing material. Albeit very rough, very hard, and sometimes hard to get any usable charcoal from it, "uling" as a charcoal drawing material was plentiful and free.

Uling sold in a marketplace in Mindanao (mindanews.com)

Uling sold in a marketplace in Mindanao (mindanews.com)

After leaving Davao, then growing up in very urban Quezon City far from these natural environments, then coming to the US and living in even more urban environments of Manhattan and Queens in New York (from where I could not travel back to the Philippines for a long time after losing my Visa status, not having a green card, and lived there illegally for many years) -- I think having been away from Davao, unable to go home, very limited in my ability to travel, and not having access to rural and natural places -- created this desire in me to count on my memories of these places, especially memories of the tactile qualities of things in the environments, to recreate them in a manner that I felt strongly about: which is through drawing, and drawing them from memory.

JAL: Tell me about a place or an environment that has inspired you.

KB: A place that has inspired me lately is the Nevada desert, and specifically Red Rock Canyon and other canyons in the vicinity, which are mostly part of the Mojave Desert. My fascination comes not just from the specific ecosystems of plants that thrive in the desert, but also because the canyons and desert lay bare and very visible the forces of time and nature that have come together in the formation of this part of the planet, and clues to the formation of the rest of the planet as well. It blows my mind how our human concerns are diminished by this version of time's vastness. The experience of a desert is also something very new to me, having grown up in a country where there are no deserts, and having spent all of my adult years in the very urban Northeast US. I often wonder if what appeals to me about it is the analogy between the desert and the seas that were close to my home in Davao: how a desert also seems like a sea or ocean, that both exhibit a vastness, distance, precariousness, and some notion of the sublime.

JAL: How does your Filipino background come into your work? Are there any Filipino artists whose work you follow/are inspired by?

The Holy Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague built by Katrina Bello's grandmother. (flickr.com/photos/biagkensiak)

The Holy Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague built by Katrina Bello's grandmother. (flickr.com/photos/biagkensiak)

KB: With that notion of the sublime that I mentioned about how I feel about the desert and seas environments, I think it is a good point to talk about how my Filipino background comes into my work, as well as your question about any Filipino artists who have inspired me. All of my growing up and time in the Philippines is also being part of a very religious Catholic family. My grandmother had even built a religious institution and foundation in Davao that consists of a property of several complexes of chapels devoted to religious figures. It is called the Shrine of The Holy Infant Jesus of Prague and it exists to this day. Surrounded by a fervently religious family, especially my grandmother, the religious activities and rituals that I witnessed, followed, and even partook in, and especially being surrounded by images and icons of religious scenes -- I think the sense of awe, of wonder, of bodily experiences, the idea of pilgrimages, of being drawn to the sublime, of having belief in the power of the unknown, of something great and ungraspable -- I think these experiences formed me greatly in my way of imagining and visualizing as an artist, up to this day. So I can say that this combination of my religious experiences and experiences of said places greatly comprise my Filipino background which still exhibit their presence in my work today: in my approaches to making drawings and paintings about nature, my choices of what parts or objects in nature to base my drawings in, in the almost religious sense of wonder and bewilderment that I feel when it comes to nature and ecology.

And speaking of my family, I have an uncle -- my mother's older brother -- who is a filmmaker who was my first inspiration in pursuing the arts. His name is Briccio Santos and although our choice of medium is different, having a family member who is in the visual arts as a profession instilled in me, very early on in my childhood development, that the idea of being an artist and having life in the arts was something viable and fulfilling.

Film by Briccio Santos,  Manikang Papel , 1977

Film by Briccio Santos, Manikang Papel, 1977

JAL: Could you tell me about your current series (Barkscapes, Rockscapes, and Grassscapes)?

KB: My interest in nature and ecology and my memories of certain places are what led me to being interested in making landscape drawings and paintings. But because my specific interest is in the actual and physical experiences of walking through and touching the plants and things found on those environments; I make them the subjects of the landscapes, or even the landscapes themselves: grass, barks, rocks, puddles. The drawings are often very sketchy and gestural because the things they are based on actually have the same texture. Touch is an integral part of my art practice. And because drawing is about this directness of approach in mark-making, it is the medium that I find best to communicate my interest in the visible, external, touchable surface of the earth.

The choice of drawing landscapes out of grasses, bark, rocks, etc. -- this seems apt to me because landscapes are often the ground where the cultural, socio-political, historical, and also the subjective and the deeply personal are projected upon. If we study many of the landscape representations depicted by artists throughout the history of art, these preoccupations are revealed in the historical findings and studies on the context of the work, the biography of the artist, and also in the formal structures and details within the work itself. After looking the word up, I found that "landscape" is likely sourced from the word "landschapp" meaning a region, tract, a district of land. And in our age now where there is a growing interest in climate science and this era of the Anthropocene, a more heightened concerned for environmental protection, coupled with recent technologies that allows for the discoveries of climactic and geologic changes and occurrence that dates back further and further into the Earth's past -- these subjects and concerns make my interest in the landscape is even more pronounced.

JAL: What would you like to see more of in the art world?

KB: What I wish there would be more of are collective art spaces/studios for artists to work in. Space to work in is such a premium here in the US and financially out of reach for many artists. But on the legislative level, what I hope is a general greater appreciation of the arts and humanities in the country, and that one day a greater value placed in the arts will show in how our government allocates funds in the national budget. That currently, and even in the past, the US government's legislators have always targeted the shrinking (and eliminating) of the budget for the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is a reflection of the current attitudes and low value that is placed on the arts.

Also, what you yourself are doing, Janna, is definitely what I also want to see more in the art world: artists taking the reigns themselves and creating opportunities for yourself and other artists.  It is an admirable and heroic form of resistance to the concept that it takes large institutions to determine if what we're doing as artists are legitimate.  So bravo and may the forces be with you.

See more of Katrina Bello's work at: