EliseoSilvaEliseo Art Silva

Eliseo Art Silva is a cultural activist, painter, educator, and public artist. He has his B.F.A. from Otis College of Art and Design, an M.F.A. at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and has attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He has received many awards and presently serves as the Mural Corps Instructor for the City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program. He established the Filipino American National Historical Society’s Pennsylvania Chapter and has served as the Pennsylvania Events Coordinator for Gawad Kalinga. Eliseo has been involved with the Asian Arts Initiative as an instructor for the Youth Arts Workshop, a participant in the Artist in Communities Training (ACT) Program, and as the Initiative’s nominee for the prestigious 2008 Independence Foundation Fellowship for the Visual Arts. In Eliseo’s newest project, Painting Memories: Revisions in Southeast Asian World Heritage Sites, he aims to visit, study, and document World Heritage Sites in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

How would you describe your family and your first experience wth the arts?

My father owned a movie theater, which had a profound impact on me. And my mother started a business with a restaurant and a bakery. So I had a venue to show my work because we had buildings to show my work. When I was young, my first paintings were sold at our businesses. At a young age, I started drawing while helping out my mother in the bakery, trying to create these paper containers for what we call pan de sal. They're hot rolls for breakfast. And it has to be freshly hot, so right out of the oven, we have to immediately seal it with a brown paper bag that we create from manila paper and sticky rice.

Most of the time, I just kept drawing on those pieces of paper when I was very, very young. And my mother just caught on to it and decided, "Why not buy him a whole set of art materials?" And I was encouraged at an early age to do work, murals. Actually I did portraits of my parents because there are a lot of portraits in the house. And I was so amazed at how it was created. How magical-that it's not a photograph, that it's painted. So I was fascinated by that-I was surrounded by it.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

As an artist, your responsibility is to yourself. You have to be true to yourself. And you have to do what you feel you're passionate about. I think that it's really my mission to be an artist. The moment I lay a brush stroke on this wall, I feel a spark coming from the heavens into the brush, into the wall. This is not made up. It's really what convinced me that this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. Because I felt that, this is something that few people do-that I have to do, or no one's going to do it . . . I mean, I claim to want to transform communities and neighborhoods through my art. Who am I? I'm just one person. And there's a big responsibility. So, I guess what it is, is that you have to be able to give more of yourself-more than what you could give in order to create a work of art.

I think that my goal in connecting art and community is to humble myself basically. The way I say art and culture is a transformative force that humbles you, that makes you surrender to a higher force, a higher being-that is what is important. And in terms of the Philippines, the American dream is the transformative force. It is what makes us humble. But, optimistically, it's the local culture that transforms us, that humbles us-not the national culture. The national culture is just sort of an embellishment that we do once in a year, for Independence Day or something. But, it's the local culture that humbles us. So that is the aspect that I am trying to do.

But the problem for me as an artist is that nobody knows anything about Filipinos, so how do I connect to a larger audience and have my art be accessible, reachable to a larger audience? So, I have that problem, where I want to be able to teach and educate my people and other people about my culture. But then how do I connect? So that is the problem. I guess in public art, I wanted to create that articulation, that correction in terms of perspective so that Americans would understand what the history is, in terms of our perspective. But, in terms of art, I wanted to be able to bring out that transformative part, the humbling part of my culture, and use that to transform others through art. So that is the main passion I have as an artist.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

The first time I heard of the Asian Arts Initiative was when I was at the Mural Arts Program. I was working with Cathy Harris on the Filipino mural, and I saw this flyer about an artist for their Big Picture program. And I inquired about it, and they said, "Oh you'll be perfect for this, you should apply." So, I immediately put my resume together, my slides and all that. And then I did the interview and it was just heaven sent. I was able to find a community immediately after I came here to Philadelphia, upon moving from Baltimore, when I didn't find a community in Baltimore. Of course my community is always Singles for Christ, every time I move, they're always there. But in terms of my artistic community, it was the Asian Arts Initiative. And so I was able to find like-minded individuals who are artists, who are activists, who are trying to give Asians more prominence, more importance.

The thing that was challenging to me at that time was just the balance between the American-born, and then the ones born outside the country. Because I had youth as students-all of them were born outside the country. So there is this issue that I was sort of confronted with immediately after getting to Asian Arts Initiative, which helped me a lot because it made me understand how equally important it is to address that aspect of culture, because I always see myself as a Filipino in America. And I realized that a lot of Asians in America don't necessarily embrace the mother culture. They have their own culture here, and that is equally important as the culture from the motherland . . .

The main problem with Asian immigrants is the disconnect between the parents and the children. And I think a lot of youth come to the Asian Arts Initiative and they begin to understand their parents, where they're coming from. And the same way if their parents come here, they could understand where their kids are coming from.

How do you seek to grow as an artist?

When I make murals, I reach down deep inside and try to find out what it is that I want to say in one sentence. Even if it's the stupidest thing, it has to be that. And then it has to come out of my design, and the way I design it. It cannot be just putting together a collage of images. It has to come from something deeper within-there has to be some sort of purpose. It has to be purposeful and objective. That's how I learned with the Asian Arts Initiative. There has to be a purpose. There has to be a direction. You cannot plan a whole Chinatown community project without being specific about what are the needs of the community. What do you want to address? I mean there are a lot of different considerations to think about.

All of these things really for me are about trying to spark the imagination of the young people. The ones that need this the most are the young people. And if art could make them connect, or make them participate in something that is bold, dynamic and brave. Something daring-like if they see a play or a mural, and they want to be part of that imagery of revolution. They connect to that particular image, they connect to that particular scene . . . Anything that allows them to live out something that is not within their own particular life, I think that is a big step.

Can you describe a show or project that had a lasting impression on you?

In my experience, the most powerful work I've done is my first mural, the Philippine-American mural. Looking back at that project, I was twenty-two years old, and before that I was just pissed off at my school because my teachers were telling me that there's no racism against Filipinos. World War II is all they connect us with. But what I'm saying is that there are a lot of cobwebs of history-a lot of cobwebs. And it's hard to imagine in one big picture what your history looks like. But being able to put together all the different things that's already in your mind about your culture but has never really been brought together in one image in your community that everybody could see, that in itself, I think is a big accomplishment because images are powerful. Images are transformative.

So I think that facilitates dialogue. That facilitates inspiration. It's already filtering a lot of the different injustice that has been done. First of all you're bringing out a history that hasn't been told, that hasn't been discussed, that has been ignored. One of the things that struck me in the past was that Americans don't talk about the Philippine-American War because they are ashamed there was even a Philippine-American War, that they even fought Filipinos. Nobody wants to talk about that. So the mural that I did was a platform. People come to me and say they cried in front of my mural. It's a site of public memory, you know? It's a cultural landmark. I want murals to be that way. Murals should be sites of public memory-they shouldn't just be a pretty picture on a wall that's been imposed on a neighborhood. It should be a validation of that neighborhood-a validation of their stories. A validation of who they are.

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