Jel’s gathered art are material maps of where she’s been
Jel is searching for something. When I’m faced with her art, I’m searching for something too. I don’t know what I’m looking for but I catch myself wanting to see the intricacies of her work up close, even closer. Every now and then, I’m surprised by another element in between the forms. There is comfort in dwelling in spaces that share a single architect. It is obvious that each collage, albeit differing in design, is built by Jel. I think of her as an architect in the most fundamental sense.
Filipino artist Jel Suarez built her collage practice from objects she has fortuitously gathered and arranged. Her art is openly informed by the physicality of the materials prevalent in her work, often composed of wood, stone, and paper. In a conversation with B-Side, she shares about her process and experiences that shape her art.
Place, active and passive
When exploring Jel’s creative process from start to finish, there is an intersection of activities familiar to homebuilders — acts of searching, finding, deconstructing, unfolding, settling, and mapping. While searching and finding are easily confounded to mean the same, the two activities differ in their relation to time.
Searching is an act of looking for something, while finding sometimes denotes the successful end of a search or the fulfillment of one. Finding may also pertain to a passive and accidental discovery without having been prompted by a search to begin with. At work, Jel flows between searching and finding.
You might infer that the artist is a homebuilder. She builds homes: physical ones, which structurally house found objects, as well as a figurative sense of belonging. I ask her about home, then in contrast I ask her about movement. Place is involved in both senses of the word, the verb and the noun. To create a collage or an assemblage within a space, she arranges the positions of objects gathered from various cities.
These inherent dualities in her art result in the duality of activities audiences mirror. They don’t simply view Jel’s art; they are urged to explore it thoroughly. Searching turns into finding, then finding feeds back into a continuous search. The viewer is at play with objects laid out between grid lines, like pebbles mounted on the surface of a box. The artist builds landscapes out of things she has found during her own travels and displacement.
Building on continuity
Jel can’t pinpoint how each assemblage differs from one another, except that she built them in different phases. “Until-unti ko siyang nabubuo,” she says, recalling that she accumulated each material little by little. Similarly, her shows relate to previous ones; an element of continuity unique to recent work. Looking back at the beginning of her career, she admits to taking time in those early years to explore her style. She has since dabbled with printed matter, altered books, installations, and still life.
“Mas free yung trabaho ko ngayon,” she says, now more certain of herself. Her work evolved from collages to more three-dimensional assemblages. She describes art and object-making as both projection and reflection of her life.
The small processes required in slow building reflect her ability to reclaim things from the past. Jel shares that she had previously been in a state of healing. She acknowledges that while nobody is ever fully healed, her art reflects the intention to continue. “These are the little things I do to feel alive,” she says, describing paper-making and book-binding as therapeutic.
“I personally like na may continuous na ginagawa ang mga kamay ko.” There is a calm continuity in nipping away at pieces of paper for hours on end without having to overthink it. She is able to create fragments of work while watching TV, reading a book, or spending time outdoors.
“I don’t have to be inside a studio to do it. As someone who shuttles between places, I needed to devise a way for me to work without being confined to a space.”
Jel busts the myth of an image that depicts every artist in a manic state of creation inside the four walls of a studio. She is now able to work from anywhere. Moving from Metro Manila to Bacolod during the pandemic saw changes in her perspectives and ultimately the aesthetic and landscape of her work.
Responding to movement
The variety of objects appearing in Jel’s art is a direct response to changes in her own life. “Malaki din yung effect of looking for materials that are portable,” she says. Jel constructs work from items sold in surplus stores, second-hand shops, and book sales between cities she has visited and resided in. “My work responds to flow. From one place to another ako kukuha ng mga bagay. What I accumulate is what I assemble.”
“These Tomobako boxes are very intricate. I can place different things inside and then I can dismantle them to create bigger forms.”
The Japanese wooden boxes in some assemblages traditionally encased fragile porcelain and ceramics. She repurposed wooden chess boards too. Sometimes they’re used as platform for smaller pieces to stand on. Other times, the boards are taken apart to extend the piece’s vertical perimeters.
Salvaging wooden frames from surplus shops, Jel reworked into collages. To her surprise, thick layers of paper inside the frames revealed yet another intricacy to traditional Japanese woodworking. She sorted through them to create a window-like effect. Framed scenes lend the illusion of rivers and lush mountains.
“The usual colours of the paper are gold, yellow, and green. It’s like I was mining for colours.”
Objects in Jel’s art share an element of portability. “Nag-e-expand ang materiality nila.” They transform into bigger forms inside the gallery and then conceal themselves into smaller pieces that are carried from place to place. “I want to explore more aspects of the assemblage and I want to make it more engaging with others. I want for them to have a full interaction with the things I accumulate.” She encourages gallery visitors to physically touch some of her pieces.
“I like the idea of people acting in a non-linear way towards the objects. I let people feel the way they do about my art.”
The artist witnesses interpretations audiences derive from their unique experiences of the art instead of supplying a single unchanging meaning behind them. “I like watching them interact with the found objects especially since I don’t put much meaning into everything I do,” she adds.
Reaching out to community
A self-taught creative, Jel’s formal education is in Psychology. She taught as a pre-school teacher. Today she marries years of art-making and teaching despite belonging to different realms. Jel lights up when she talks about the type of free will and unrestrained curiosity that guides playtime and learning through childhood. She hopes to evoke a similar experience, where there are no rules when interacting with art.
“I feel like I’m currently regressing to these sensitivities. As children, when we flipped through books, wala naman right or wrong way.”
The artist relinquishes control of how her pieces are utilised once they are displayed in a gallery or taken home by a collector. This is a manifestation of the open-ended interactions she envisions. “Someone told me they were going to let their children play with the cards [in an assemblage]. It was scary at first but this is one of the best compliments [I received], that a child will be able to play with my work,” she recalls.
Jel connects with individuals with specialisations outside of the formal art setting, involving them in her search for materials by showing them what she intends to make. Most found objects in her art are at their last leg of life and considered by most as discarded waste.
“They become excited with the object’s potential.”
She fondly recalls when she had some books bound in a photocopying shop in Manila, where staff are more accustomed to working with text-heavy academic books. The image-heavy books in contrast were returned to her with thumbprints between the pages.
“The cut-outs in the books are very tactile, so [it looked like] they really enjoyed flipping through them, almost like Braille.”
When asked how her art contributes to the local contemporary scene, Jel circles back to her two worlds: art and education. She invites other artists and friends to teach young children in workshops, sharing strategies to break down tasks into smaller processes for kids to follow along.
“Mas buo work mo, if you’re doing something else other than art. A bulk of what I do [in education] affects my process. I try not to make my work too personal because this might limit my art to only exist within myself,” Jel explains, bringing a dose of self-awareness in her words and actions.
Life cycle of things
Having come from a conservative background, Jel’s foray into art came later in adulthood. With peers in the music and the film industries, she rediscovered her creativity during college years. “Since art-making is an extension of myself, I think gathering and transforming things is just a natural process for me. This is my outlet to feel alive and to express myself.”
Retracing early tendencies of being a scavenger, young Jel collected beautiful shells, textured stones, colourful stationery, and other precious trinkets. She tucked them away inside a box in her bedroom and hid them from her parents. Today she pours her energy into the same act of collecting and shares it with the world.
“Even if it’s an organic process, when I’m creating a collage or an assemblage, I feel like I’m in control and I’m in my best power.” Jel leaves detailed instructions on how to display every piece, likening this to a new toy: unpack this way and unfold as such. Despite recognising her own particularity about the layout and position of materials, she lets the objects lead the way.
“Hindi ako gagawa ng show out of a theme first. It’s about how I interact with the physical aspect of my work. Their physicality dictates how I’ll work with them.”
She clarifies that any themes inferred from her art are usually the result of conversations between her and the writer she taps to create show notes for an exhibit, after the art has already been built. Together they dive deeper into understanding her art and herself.
Almost like a conductor in an orchestra, she organises the symphony of materials collected. “Someone sent me a picture of my art displayed in a vacation house. I saw it and I didn’t recall what I did. I remembered more of what I was going through or where I was living at the time I made the piece. That is what I associate with my work.”
Learning about Jel’s art is inevitably tied to stories of change and embracing life’s curveballs. The imagery depicts place, marking a disposition for movement. Partly influenced by geography and location, her art doubles as cartography. Perhaps this way, Jel is able to retrace her own steps.
Her body of work is becoming a map of where she’s been and the many seasons of her life. The artist and the scavenger are in some middle place. The scavenger finds the objects, which the artist builds a world for. An unattached Jel sets them free for someone else; she must return them to the world.
“I know I’m finished with the work when I feel that it can exist in another place already. I try not to attach myself to the objects kasi iniiwasan ko mag-hoard.”
She stresses the importance of holding a temporary space for the objects with the plan to let them go eventually. Her practice of detachment is rooted in a fascination for continuity. Jel is inspired by the idea of gathered objects holding past, present, and future lives, and her role in this cycle.
“Masaya ako sa thought na may gumamit, gumagamit, ginagamit ko, at may gagamit pa ulit ng objects.”
Seashells on the seashore
Unlike most adults, Jel hasn’t entirely stopped playing since childhood. She’s regained the same inclinations and wonder that prompt a seven-year-old on a sandy beach to gather all the pebbles and shells she can, simply because she can. It’s a remarkable thought that she hones a practice of curiosity and sentimentality, which audiences may resonate with. She transfers an awe for small things into someone else’s hands.
“I do hope you feel like you’ve arrived in doing these pieces. It was clear when I spoke to you that you knew where you were, even if you may have felt that you didn’t have enough words for it. I hope you sent them out into the world feeling happy and free.”Excerpt from a letter written by Iris Ferrer to Jel Suarez in October 2021
Doubling as show notes for arrivals, retrievals, the letter depicts both the artist’s and the writer’s shared longing for specific activities, trinkets, and features of loved ones that constitute everyday home life. They collect memories, sensations, and postcards to make the time away worthwhile. Iris and Jel at one point or another, seem to have been in the middle place during different times in their lives in opposite parts of the world; wherein much of their sensibilities as creative wanderers were being carved.
From Manila with love, I feel compelled to write them both:
Dear Jel and Iris,
Don’t ever stop playing with the world around you.
When I think of you, Iris, I imagine you street-side with a journal, next to a cup of something warm. When I think of you Jel, I see you scooting over your latest find, pocketing a piece of nature in a piece of linen, shoreside.
Jel, it’s been so wonderful to see the little worlds you’ve built. They look like homes.
I hope you are both always home inside and outside of yourselves. See you when the tide pulls me in another time.
Jel is a part of ongoing group exhibition at MO_Space curated by Gary-Ross Pastrana entitled An Aging Double. Jel will also be a part of the finalist exhibition for The 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize in Art Central Hong Kong from May 26 to May 29, 2022.