Ever since news of Bree Jonson’s death broke last weekend, the local art community, along with the artist’s family, continue to await reports on what led to the 30-year old artist’s demise.
Jonson (pronounced Honson) passed away on the morning of September 18, Saturday. She was found unconscious in a hostel room in San Juan, La Union. Her companion, Julian Ongpin, son of prominent tycoon Roberto Ongpin, was arrested after police found cocaine in the room he and Jonson were in. Police brought Jonson to a hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Jonson hails from Davao. Her real name is Breanna Patricia Jonson Agunod. According to her cousin Jill Palarca, she used her mother’s maiden name as last name when she decided to pursue a career in Manila as an artist. Jonson lived with her mother, a veterinarian, after her parents separated.
While she graduated from an Industrial Engineering course at the Ateneo de Davao University, Jonson always knew she was meant to inhabit the art world. In her younger years, she frequently dabbled in writing, music, and drawing. In college—which, according to an interview with Artandmarket.net, she only finished “because of my parents”—she enjoyed welding or doing woodwork the most.
She longed to drop out of her college degree but in the end just pulled off what she called a “long con.” “After I graduated, I went to Manila under the guise of looking for a job and instead, enrolled in UP College of Fine Arts,” Jonson said in the same interview. “Even though I quit after a semester, I continued painting.”
Working on her thesis—where she had to time the movement of factory workers in order to propose systems for increased productivity—made the young Jonson question why humans were being treated as production tools. “Thereafter, I longed for the forests and animals of my youth in Los Baños, a province three hours south of Manila,” she said in the interview, “where canals have fishes, migratory birds flock overhead, butterflies flit about, and lizards, frogs and gigantic spiders abound.”
The natural world would become a favorite subject, or setting, in many of Jonson’s works. In an interview on the Artinformal YouTube channel earlier this year, she talked about her exploration into the rawness of the world, through her show, “Zzyzx.” The main subject of the show were birds, which she had been studying for the past few years. She said she pursued her longtime idea of putting the lovely creatures on canvas while she was on lockdown in a shelter of a cove in Bataan where she constantly heard bird songs. The website Breejonson.com describes the show as an invitation, or provocation, “to contemplate our separation from Nature, when in fact we exist within it.”
“Bree is one of those rare artists whose concern is to fundamentally enlighten us with the current state of the world through her art, however mysterious some [of her artworks] may be,” Gregory Halili, also an artist, shared with ANCX when asked to talk about Jonson. The two got the chance to work together in a group show for Silverlens Gallery last year in which the theme was the preservation of our vanishing natural worlds.
“She loves nature and we talked about its decline, but also its hope,” adds Halili about his friend. “People love her because she’s very intelligent and speaks her mind. We will deeply miss her. We all lost a great artist. She’s very young and full of promise.”
Her environment clearly had a potent effect on how Joson viewed her work. In the same Artinformal interview, she talked about how she moved to Malate in late 2019 and immediately fell in love with the old town because it was “messy, it was dirty, it was real Manila,” consequently describing her previous works as “too refined, too neat … I wanted to break away from that.”
She added: “I wanted the mistakes to be visible [in my work]. I wanted it to be raw. Because I feel like with rawness, with not much planning, then I work from a subconscious that is easily more relatable to other people who have not done the research I’ve had. ‘Cause all in all, I think painting is still all about the affect, the emotion that causes on the viewer. And I think to access emotion, one has to let loose.”
With the kind of reaction that Jonson’s passing elicited from the art community, it is clear she’s had a strong effect on many of its members. She’s been described as a deep thinker, very intelligent, unafraid to speak her mind. She can look fragile to some, and intimidating to others. In photographs, she can appear dangerously glamorous and captivating, but also come off as decidedly innocent in some, even ordinary.
Multimedia artist Tengal Drilon developed a deep connection with Jonson after meeting her in January 2017. He and some friends were preparing for a special booth for Art Fair Philippines at a makeshift studio in Rockwell, and many artists would drop by to simply hang out. Jonson was one of them.
She came in and didn’t introduce herself to anybody, recalls Drilon. “What was remarkable was that she wasn’t shy or introverted. She had conversations with us while we were working. I knew this person was interesting, outspoken, opinionated, and generally curious.” Their early exchanges were about art, the art market, the art scene, etc. “But we really got close when we started to talk about our personal lives.”
The two became close friends over time. They both loved animals. “She drew animals a lot, usually in states of primal violence or innocence,” recalls Drilon. “We both understood how animals reflect our own realities.”
Although he admits their friendship was complicated, he became her confidante when life and work became too much to handle. “She was a strong woman, but also delicate and fragile at times,” Drilon tells ANCX.
While they drifted apart at some point, the two managed to somehow keep in touch. Drilon recalls one of their more memorable conversations: “The year 2020 came and it was difficult for all of us. But I remember Bree having this moment of epiphany: how we artists can change society, how we can help or add value to not just culture but to people’s lives. She’d often tell me her plans. Not a lot of people know it but Bree was a big dreamer. Outside, she looked like a cynic, cool goth girl, but inside she really had hope, for herself, for her colleagues, for society no matter how dark things got.”
“She had the strength to really believe, and to make it happen,” Drilon continues. “She told me, ‘I just want to experience love and be happy.’ That was Bree’s motivation in life.”
‘Takot ako para sa kanya’
Meanwhile, Boots Alcantara, of the bed-and-breakfast Casa San Pablo, is one of Jonson’s collectors. He met the artist in 2013 when she was just starting her career and had just finished an exhibit in Malaysia. “What intrigued me about her art was she was a master of composition and contradiction,” Alcantara tells ANCX. “Her paintings assaulted the logical mind, pushed you out of your comfort zone, yet were beautiful and eloquent.”
Alcantara described Jonson as fragile, quiet, and reserved at first, but it didn’t take long to see her fearlessness—in her art and in her life. “In those early years, her small studio was in the unseemly side of Makati,” the collector recalls. “She would walk the notoriously dangerous streets alone. Takot ako para sa kanya, but when I cautioned her, she would laugh at me.”
Over the years, they would meet up to talk about art, over salad—“she didn’t eat meat, and didn’t eat much”—and drinks, from noon to whenever they’d feel like ending the day. “She was fascinating, daring, and generous,” Alcantara says. “She was sensitive, open, and didn’t want to be put in a box.”
Alcantara recalls the last time he visited her in her studio and found huge paintings leaning on her walls, “beautiful birds, not in flight, but falling through the air.” Jonson told him they were all endangered birds and named all of them. He asked her if she could pose in front of the works for a photograph. The artist laughed and said she didn’t know how to pose. But she opened a bottle of wine, and poured them both a glass, sat on the floor, and laughed as she said, “Go!”
“As she sat there, I asked her about her dream to study taxidermy,” continues Alcantara in his written recollection. “It struck me then that her fascination for taxidermy was another expression of how she was curious about mortality and preserving beauty beyond death. She answered, ‘I am all in for art now.’ Now her paintings hanging on my walls will preserve the beauty of her soul.”