As someone whose biggest fear is to forget things, Shannah Orencio is an assiduous collector. The habit, which she has nurtured since high school, has led her to accumulate things that represent, capture, or extend the memories of faces, places, and events, all organized and tucked away in boxes. Nothing to her eyes is insignificant: “candy wrappers,” “a seashell by a beach trip,” “a deflated balloon from a party,” “letters given to me by friends.”
But what hold the most association for the artist are flowers, which either marked milestones, were given to her by people she held dear, or procured directly from flower shops in Dangwa. Nothing is ever wasted. For instance, the flowers that were part of the installation of her exhibition, Soul Companions, were resurrected in the works of succeeding show, Vase Life, with a few blossoms permanently preserved in resin.
The pandemic, however, found her sources run dry. As events were limited, flower shops were closed, and friends became remote because of lockdown orders, the artist had to find ways to acquire her well-loved flowers. What the artist did was she “foraged” them from the gardens of Pinto Art Museum and her neighborhoods, the unique combination of flora uniquely marking these places. To Put to Gather, To Put Together is the result of the months-long searching, collecting, and painting flowers, alongside twigs and the carapaces of dead insects, from these sources.
Rather than depicted in a tidied-up manner and composed with an eye on bountiful beauty, the works in this exhibition are spare, acknowledge the presence of decay, and allow the infusion of negative space.
“The resulting boxes are not at all as put-together or as cookie-cutter beautiful as my early ‘Flower Box’ series, but I find these boxes have a lot more stories than before,” the artist narrates. “Given the significance of what was and is happening in the world right now, I have come to associate the boxes with the phases in my life as I go through this pandemic…As I look at my boxes I see pages from a visual diary, each piece a narration.”
As markers of the places where the flowers came from, these paintings “represent a certain day, a person, or a place put together to form a portrait together of what used to be.” Orencio’s works may then be seen as an index, a metaphor, a visual symbol of what has come to pass. While the viewer may not be privy to what the flowers symbolize, the works convey the stark sense that something is being acknowledged, commemorated, and treasured. Whatever it may be, the flowers serve as proxy to it.
The urgency to paint, to record, to make something permanent is prompted by the fear of Alzheimer’s, which runs in her family. “When I think of my grandmother, I think of her love for gardening and plants, how she lost her connection to everything as her Alzheimer’s fully consumed her,” the artist states. “There is a fear that someday I will succumb to that fate given that Alzheimer’s can be genetic so keeping memorabilia and recording important happenings and people has always been a habit.”
The act of painting for Orencio is a “repeated attempt to memorize details of the past they represent and, in doing so, preserves them, not only tangibly in the form of paintings but in the process itself that helps ingrain these moments, places, and people in my mind.” Memories, which extend the shelf life of events, are not enough, as they themselves are prone to slippages and erasures.
“Not all fragments will last forever,” admits Orencio. “Most of them will slowly deteriorate. A lot of them have started to crumble, but the ones that will last will stay with me for a longer period and these are what I will hold onto for as long as I can. But hopefully these paintings I have made will last longer than I can remember.” To Put to Gather, To Put Together is the artist’s heartfelt attempt to arrest transience: Ars longa, vita brevis.
To Put to Gather, To Put Together opens virtually on September 8, Wednesday, on the Pinto Art Museum website. The show will go on til end of October 2021.