Elmer Borlongan: Painting as if Life Depended on It


(Reprinted from Vision Petron Folio September, 2011)

Photo by MM Yu

In his book, “Letters to a Young Poet,” the eminent advise of the Rainier Maria Rilke to a budding poet seeking counsel to his poetry, he remarked: “one must ask oneself in the most silent hour of the night, must I write? And if this rings out in ascent, if you meet this question with a strong, simple “I must” then build your life in accordance to that necessity. Your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign, and witness to this impulse.”

Aki, Acrylic on canvas, 1993. Pinto art Museum Collection

This thought came as I view the body of works of visual artist Elmer Borlongan. With a career spanning more than 25 years, mixing three coats of paint with a bleeding heart for the downtrodden of society has been his life. Seriously drawing as early as 11 years old, Elmer would eventually be trained to be a muralist and comic illustrator. A fine arts graduate of University of the Philippinesin 1987, Elmer was part of the defiant art group Salingpusa and eventually Sanggawa, a collaboration of artists during the 1990s that painted murals tackling the major issues of the day in a unified and creative manner often fusing satire and strong comment in our society.

As evident, one does not see bright skies and colorful landscapes in his pieces, rather one realizes that in his dark and desolate images, one is renewed with hope in this urban decay we all lived in. Often elongated and contemplative, Elmer’s cast of characters shows their private sorrow and quite psyche. We often pass by and take them for granted – the sampaguita vendor who has to work before school, the group of young boys in over grown shirts who beg and live in the streets, the drivers lounging in car parks waiting for their bosses to emerge from their respective appointments. 
Gabay, Oil on canvas, 1994. Enrico Santos Collection

What makes Elmer special is he is one of  us. His paintings with starkly figures isolated in a desolate city have won for him honor and awards in art competitions. He sees its value in them in promoting one’s artistic message and distinct style. Also his continuing education would also come with teaching art to street kids hoping the imagination would pave for them the promise to see life in a different perspective. 

Since marrying another painter, Plet Bolipata, they have settled in Casa San Miguel, an arts initiative center promoting community development, in the middle of a mango plantation in San Antonio, Zambales. After judging in Vision Petron 11, we asked Elmer some questions in relation to his art and career path:

When did you decide to become a painter? 
I started painting when I was 11 years old. My aunt introduced me to painter/art teacher Fernando Sena. I then enrolled at the Children’s Museum and Library, Inc. or CMLI art workshops in Quezon City as a scholar. I have been painting since then.
What is it in painting that makes it best for you to express your thought
and ideas?
The art of painting is a tedious process but I enjoy it. I can spend hours contemplating in front of the canvas drawing and slowly applying layers of paint. 

I start with an idea in mind and manipulate the images by exaggerating the proportions to heighten the emotions of my subject matter. There is no limitation in forms. 

The artist is in complete control of the art materials to express his vision.

Who were your influences in your artistic style? Would you have major periods in your impressive career? How did you come up with your images you are known for?
My training in UP Diliman College of Fine Arts exposed me to many foreign and local artists. As a young art student, I admired the powerful works of Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Egon Schiele and Balthus. 

I am moved by the murals of the Mexican triumvirate Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueros. My favorite local artists are Danilo Dalena and Onib Olmedo. I decided to experiment and expand the figuration of human form. I wanted to depict the everyday life of ordinary people without the constraints of academic training.

As you have been product of art competitions having won some yourself, what to you is the value of these contests to one’s long-term artistic endeavor?
Winning in art competitions is a confirmation of one’s artistic abilities. Being recognized by the art community will boost a young artist’s confidence to pursue his chosen field. In a way, it is also a ticket to being accepted in major galleries and a good introduction to art collectors. 

We read that you are inspired by this quote by Vincent Van Gogh, “Not a day without a line.” Can you briefly discuss your work discipline? 
Drawing is a constant habit of mine. I always bring a sketchbook wherever I go. Most of the time, I draw from memory. Sketching is an exercise not only for the hand but the mind as well. I keep dozens of sketchbooks tuck away in my studio.

I would go through them seeking for images to develop and then translate it in large canvases. My painting hours are from early morning till late afternoon. Evenings are spent for reading and watching movies.

What would you proudly consider your major works? Would you have a dream project, something you still want to achieve in the future?
I will leave that question for the public to answer which ones are my major works. I treat everything equally. If given a chance, I still want to work on large-scale paintings and public art for many people to view. 

A retrospective of my works will be a great culmination to years of struggle as a visual artist.

Pag-ahon, Oil on canvas, 2011. Louie Bate Collection

You were part of Salingpusa, an art group created public murals whose powerful images were very critical to the times then and were social commentaries. Looking back now, how has the group influenced or molded you into a better artist and person?

Salingpusa played a great role in my life as an artist.  I met Dr. Joven Cuanang, a supportive patron of the arts, who gave us young artists the much needed emotional and financial support required to make it in the art world.  I bonded with fellow artists who were good friends and equally minded in the pursuit of art.  

You are now based in Zambales, has the distance provided you with a better perspective as to your art practice?  
Whether in Mandaluyong or Zambales, I still keep a regular schedule of painting from 8 – 5 p.m.  My subject matter is still about the human condition but probably injected with a little bit of provincial laid backness.  
Being away from Manila has allowed me to step back and see the bigger picture.  Here, you realize, Manila is not the center of all things.  Commercialism is not the “be all and end all” of this community.  Farming and fishing are still integral means of livelihood.  Life here is very simple.  The air is fresh.  And the surroundings, neat and clean.  

Drivers Lounge, Oil on Canvas. Artist Collection
When one thinks of an Elmer Borlongan piece, there is always something to learn from and a way of understanding society. Although dark and with tension, are you still hopeful that one day we will see smiles in your figures someday?
My vision is to record images in my environment.  I’m still drawn to subject matter that is witty, disturbing and yes, dark and filled with tension.  You may not see them smiling but deep inside you know they are surviving happily in their own little way.
What would you advise the young artists of today?
Keep painting despite the financial limitations. Use what is available. Study the works of masters and create your own identity. Open your mind to your surroundings and follow the developments of Philippine Contemporary Art.