Self-portrait, watercolor, 1.3” x 2”, 2010-2011, In Search of Paradise exhibition, West Gallery.
Culture Art

Q&A with Greg Halili: ‘Creation is a form of mental exercise that keeps me happy, sane’

The artist changing our minds about skulls and miniature work talks about learning to paint from Bob Ross, the power of homesickness, and the New York memory that still makes him cry. By DEVI DE VEYRA 
ANCX | Jun 13 2020

Not too many Filipino artists - young or old, dead or alive - can match Gregory Raymond “Greg” Halili’s vigour in exploring technique, medium or genre. While still based in New York, the artist’s early miniature watercolors depicting insects, some as tiny as pinheads, require a really close examination. Or a magnifying lens. 

It was followed by roughly thumbsize paintings of butterflies, the first edition of which was sold by New York’s Nancy Hoffman Gallery to a collector. A more ambitious installation, with 123 paintings of butterflies from all over the world (which took four years to finish), was shown in several institutions and museums in the US. 

The photo was taken when the artist was around five years old, drawing on the floor of the family’s house in Balic-Balic, Sampaloc.

For one of his first outings in Manila back in 1998, Greg exhibited works that were mercifully larger, 6” x 4” or postcard size. He described the West Gallery show, titled In Search of Paradise, as an homage to motherland, with watercolor renditions of the Philippine countryside, flora and fauna, alongside still lifes inspired by trips to local markets.

While he became known for sometime as a butterfly artist in the US, in Manila, Greg is largely identified with unsettling imagery; eyes and mournful icons painted on pre-ban ivory and shells, skulls resting on luminous mother of pearl, coral skeletons in repose atop driftwood. Greg seems to be on course for more haunting subjects, as seen in a recent work revealing a daguerreotype-like volcanic landscape rendered on fragile capiz.

“My work is an evolution,” Greg explains. “As an artist, it’s been said a lot na, you have to grow. And I just want to explore.” 

His body of work might appear diverse. But there is a common thread that binds Greg’s butterflies, flora and fauna, landscapes, skulls and skeletons together. The idea of connecting to nature and revisiting memories, expressed in a language that evokes nostalgia.

From the beautiful house he decorated with his wife, Monique, Greg talks about his happy childhood, the struggles that he faced in the US as well as his lucky breaks—and assuages our silly fear of skulls and skeletons.

Greg at age 12 with his younger siblings, Richard, Hannah, Ronald and Viviene posing near Virra Mall during the first anniversary celebration of People Power. They would leave for the US the following year.

A lot of artists were dissuaded by their parents from pursuing their passion. Did your parents question your decision to take up fine arts? 

Hahaha! Yes, my dad cursed me when I told him I was taking Fine Arts. He said I would go hungry. My mom kept on saying that a company job is better - stable salaries and all. So I told them I’m taking advertising! But of course, I had to follow my heart and my art. 

 

But did you have an early interest in art? 

Living in a time when there are no gadgets and children are forced to come up with something to entertain them, I guess drawing did it for me. My earliest surviving drawing was of a helicopter, done at the age of two. My early works were crude, much like any child who likes to doodle. 

I joined the art contests in school, sa Holy Trinity Academy sa Sampaloc. Nananalo ako, but I wasn’t good ha. Though my first interactions with serious art came at a time when my older cousin brought me to the National Museum. I must have been 10 or 11 years old, in awe of all the paintings. Especially the unforgettable Spoliarium. 

A high school-age Greg with the early works that he tried to sell to galleries in Staten Island. “I was hoping to make a sale so I can help out.”

Did your parents indulge your interest back then, when you were still living in Manila? 

They supported me. I remember they would buy me watercolors and brushes when I asked for them. So now, I really appreciate the fact that they still gave me  art materials, even though it was not a priority. 

At some point, my mother even asked a graphic designer from her office to come to the house, and teach me the basics of drawing. Like shading, forms, lighting and shadows, etc. 

The artist in front of the Nancy Hoffman Gallery’s original location in Soho during his first solo exhibit. (Right) Greg flanked by his parents, Edmundo and Olga, inside the gallery.

You mentioned that you had a happy childhood. What was it like?

I was very happy, I had friends. Kasi back then, when you’re a kid with no gadgets, you’re forced to play outside. So you become more imaginative in a way. 

I grew up in Balic-Balic, Sampaloc, in a humble environment with big trees. We lived in a house which was divided amongst my grandparents, my tita, tito, and three other cousins, and our family. Around 14 people lived in that house, not counting the helpers, yayas. Only a block away were other relatives, so it was really a family-oriented upbringing. 

All the neighbors knew each other. I remember there was a basketball court in the middle of the street, which became the unofficial plaza or playground. In the streets, we played all sorts of Pinoy games, turumpo, patintero, taguan. We also made kites using bbq sticks and paper, and it would really fly! Yung tsinelas na luma, gagawin ko’ng boat, yung lata yuyupiin to make into a car. Hindi nyo ba ginawa ‘yon?

With Soler and Mr. Malang, who are instrumental in introducing the artist to Manila’s art scene. "It was my uncle, who’s friends with Malang, who brought the two artists to our house.”

Make boats using tsinelas? Maybe my brothers, haha!

Simple joys. We were not well off. But I was very happy.  

 

Then you had to leave all that for a new life in New York. Nalungkot ka ba? 

Of course! I can still vividly remember the change, as a 13-year old going from one place to a different environment. That was a hard transition. It was a shock, because my world suddenly changed. I had to be more independent. Back then, I didn’t know if I was being a good brother or not. Kasi, when you’re a teenager, you’re more selfish. 

But I also gained new family members there in New York. So it’s really both happy and sad.

The artist with his wife, Monique, and daughters in the home that Greg designed and decorated himself.

How did you spend your last days in the Philippines? 

With family and friends, visiting them day and night. It was almost like fiesta and wake combined, with lots of laughter and tears flowing. Haha!

 

I’m always curious about what people bring with them when they start a new life in a different place. Do you remember what you brought with you?

The only significant items that I can remember are our family’s Santo Cristo and a few other religious items, which are still displayed at my parents home in New Jersey. We also brought an album of photographs to remember loved ones.

Broadway: A Moment in Red and Yellow, 2006, watercolor on paper, 2”x 10” image size, exhibited at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery.

During our phone conversation, you became emotional recalling a particular memory during your early years in New York. Specifically, the time you tried to make some money.

Hahaha! I took the bus alone into Staten Island. I tried to sell my works to the commercial galleries there. I was about 14 or 15, and I felt really sad not selling a single work when I went around Staten Island. I wanted to help out by paying for our school lunches. Whew, getting emotional again ...

From the age of 16 to 18, that’s when I really took my art seriously. I went around New York City, showing my small miniature paintings. I wasn’t really hoping to sell, but just to get someone, anyone, to look at my art and see what they think of it. 

Do you still have those paintings? 

Yes! I kept works from the early years. Oil paintings using student grade paint or the cheapest I could buy. I used the money my uncles and aunts gave me during holidays and my birthdays. You should come and see them in the studio. The large, earlier canvases are in storage at my parents’ attic.

 

Where did you learn to paint? 

Initially, I first learned from Bob Ross, who had a popular TV show teaching viewers how to paint. But I quickly started playing around with different techniques after seeing the major paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

For a while, Greg was focused on butterflies, lots of them.This was part of an installation with miniature paintings of 123 butterflies from around the world, shown in different institutions and museums in the US, including the Butler Institute of American Art, as well as the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Museum. A smaller, earlier edition made from 77 butterflies was sold by the Nancy Hoffman Gallery to a private collector.

You said that New York gallerist Nancy Hoffman is your first collector. How did that happen? 

I have been very fortunate and blessed to have met Nancy Hoffman. I vividly remember walking into her gallery one summer morning in 1993 (I was still a junior in high school), with my portfolio. I was already, in my mind, expecting to be turned down like what happened with all the other galleries that I’ve visited since the beginning of spring. To my surprise, I was told by someone in the gallery to come back for my portfolio after 3pm. 

When I picked up my works, I was again told to go to the office where Nancy was waiting to meet me! Intrigued with my miniatures, she actually bought 2 pieces (which I sold for USD 25 each) that same afternoon! 

And she gave you your first show ...

But it’s not as instant as it sounds. Nancy told me to keep coming back whenever I have a body of work. She continued to follow my progress, and gave me my first New York exposure in the NY Armory’s Art on Paper exhibition.  It was a success. In 1996, four of my works became part of a group show in Nancy’s Soho gallery. Two years later, she gave me my first solo show.

Little did I know, at the time I met her, that Nancy Hoffman is considered a stalwart in the New York art scene. She supported my art, and continued to watch my growth. Nancy also introduced me to mature and established artists in her gallery. She changed my life. 

Two Fish (Composition in Black), 2011, watercolor on paper, 2.1 x 2.5 inches painting on 10 x 12 paper

In the photo taken during your first solo show , your parents appear to be very happy. Did you feel that the show was some sort of validation? 

It’s more like an encouragement, and not really a validation. I was ready to make better and more challenging works. I just wanted to grow. My parents were happy because I was one of just a few Pinoys showing at that time in New York. And I was still in my senior year in college.

 

What Nancy did for you in New York, Soler Santos and Malang Santos did for you in Manila, right? 

Yes, Soler and Malang were my gateway to the Philippine art scene. My uncle, Jun Villones, is good friends with Mr. Malang. He would take them around New York. But one afternoon, my uncle decided to introduce them to me. Then, Soler and Mr. Malang invited me to show at West Gallery.

 

When and where was your first Philippine show?

My first show in Manila was late in 1998, at West Gallery when it was still in MegaMall. I showed a mix of tropical-inspired art ... insects, butterflies, still lifes, flora and fauna … all small works.  

I love MegaMall’s art scene at that time. That’s where I first encountered the works of Manuel Ocampo, Ang KiuKok, Ronald Ventura. I remember meeting Sir Chabet in 1999, through Mr. Malang. I even made mano to him hehehe. I didn’t know who he was. Hahaha!

(Left) Coconut Dream, 2002 (reworked in 2008) and Following the Equator II, watercolor and gold dust on paper, 4” x 6”, part of the 2011 exhibition, In Search of Paradise, at West Gallery.

You really like small works, especially when you were younger. 

Hahaha! I still have a few of them here. My first solo show consisted of microscopic insect watercolors, from pinhead to a quarter of an inch in size. I used to make flea paintings smaller than actual fleas. But that’s really more technique based, and just seeing what I can do with a brush. Then I learned that it’s not about techniques but how the subjects relate to scale. It also forces you to look in, and there’s the sense of going in and out. So, scale affects how you view the work. 

 

What, or who, influenced your painting style?

I’d like to say that seeing Latvian-American Vija Celmin’s show at the Met, and also meeting her there in 2001, changed the course of my art. If you notice, most of my works before 2001 were full of spectrum, and were realist in a sense. My palette toned down after experiencing her quiet, almost monochromatic but powerful works. The drawings of Antonio Lopez Garcia also influenced my art. 

But Mr. Malang gave me the best advice: “Yang art, patagalan lang yan.”

The artist likes to explore beyond the boundaries of his formal training, experimenting with different materials such as the mother of pearl used in the skulls series.

As you said, for a while you were known as a butterfly artist. What was behind the obsession?

I’ve been always fascinated by butterflies ever since our elders told us that they are our past relatives who have come back to join the festivities, whenever there is a gathering. 

I remember them as souls disguised as butterflies, a real metaphor for transformation. So I started painting works to relieve my nostalgia. 

Later on, I started including piña fabrics to create a Filipiniana and tropical connection. The context and idea of man-made along with nature continues to this day with natural material and human forms - like the skull shells for example.

 

I am guessing the West Gallery show titled In Search of Paradise, is the first to showcase, or convey,  your longing for home? 

My first shows here at West Gallery are really my “longing for home,” because I made those works in the US, deeply longing for nostalgia. I created the series, all with the size of 4 x 6 inches, the exact size of a postcard. It is an homage to the Philippines. 

 

I am really drawn to the landscape paintings from that show, which feels idyllic. As you said, they were somehow thematically along the vein of Amorsolo, but not quite. I like the curtain, which reminds me of the kulambo used in the provinces. Was that part of your intention, to convey an idyllic provincial feel?

Although these landscapes may seem idyllic, my intention was not at all to capture beauty. In truth, there is sadness and melancholy with these works as well. If you really “feel” closely, the works are about memories of the past that one may never see again. It is a paradise lost or paradise found. The curtain is a symbol of entering and leaving, remembering and forgetting. 

 

Coming home apparently sparked strong emotions that influenced your art.

The first time I went back, 1997, was a big change in terms of my subject. Parang Western art, tapos reigniting my passion for the Philippines. My whole subject became more nostalgic. The work became more about memory, history ... not to the point of being directly about history. 

For a 2012 Silverlens exhibition titled Love and Loss, Greg painted on both sides of miniscule pre-ban vintage ivory and mother of pearl pieces, which were then mounted on antique pendants and brooches. In photo, Mater Dolorosa (recto), Santo Cristo (verso), 2.76” x 1.587”, 2006/2011.

After the butterflies, I think you’ve become strongly identified with the mother of pearl skulls. Skulls are commonly associated with anything dark, evil, goth, etc. Which is so different from your personality. Or maybe I just don’t know you too well.

History has always perceived the skull as a symbol of dark and evil. It’s been ingrained in us, and understandably so. But contemporary culture is looking at skulls and skeletons in ways other than the old notion.

If you really think about the skull and skeleton without negativity, it is really a reminder of our being. It depends on how one looks at it in connection with nature - its forms, shapes and textures. Maybe that’s how I arrived at creating the coral skeleton and skull shells. My intention was not to look at it from a spectator's perspective. Otherwise, I’d be shaking every time I work on it, sometimes late at night.

I remember the quote that everyone is like the moon. We all have a dark side, which we never show to anybody. Others are just better at controlling them. I wear dark clothes. Does that count? Hehehe ...

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This last question is inevitable. How do you see your role as an artist at this time?

Ang daming nangyayari, starting with the Taal eruption. I like to incorporate these things in my work. Then ask how art should affect us, or how it affected me, in terms of the subject matter and the physical work. You just have to keep on creating. And that’s a form of mental exercise that keeps me happy, sane. At the same time it heals. 

We have to really examine what art is about. You really have to see the purpose of what you’re doing.