The funny thing about finding your identity is that you think it will be a process of discovery, looking through boxes of your old family photos and tracing your lineage through family trees and interview relatives for clues to your family's past and your role within it.
But what I have learned from researching my mother and her family is that the past is not always a solid fact. Rather, it is a collection of vague memories, and of sometimes accidental omissions. I've been reading Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino/Amercan Postcolonial Psychology by E.J.R. David, and about the intergenerational conflict that can occur between my parents' generation, the ones who left the Philippines behind, and my generation, the ones who grew up here in America, not knowing their roots. I used to think that not knowing much about my family history was a result of my parents being too busy trying to survive in America to spend time reassuring me with stories of the old country. But now I wonder, maybe they left because they wanted to forget, they purposefully left that part of their lives behind so they could start fresh in a new country, free of old expectations and limits.
I'm enrolled in an online class with artist and painter Catherine Kehoe, who paints figures, portraits, and still lives based on historical art history references or on observations in real life. She minimizes the details and reduces the painting to a combinations of abstract shapes, colors, and marks and yet still maintains the essence of what is the most essential in her subject.
I signed up for her course because I wanted to learn how to find that essential quality when I painted. I love to draw portraits, but I was starting to feel frustrated with slavishly copying photographs. What is the point of just copying the picture? I wanted a way to paint what I could see, how I see. And what I've learned is that the process of reducing the subject to its essentials requires that the artist make conscious decisions about what to keep and what to take out of the painting. And as those decisions became more apparent, I realized that I was starting to find a common theme in what I felt was important to me. I am starting to find my own artistic voice.
Working through this class, I've noticed that having a strong emotional connection to my subject is important for maintaining my energy and my focus. I found that using Catherine's drawing method forces me analyze the subject in a more intentional way, and as a result, my drawings feel more accurate, more personal even as I reduce the level of detail in the picture.
And as I worked through this process of drawing and painting this portrait of my grandmother, I realized that our identity is not only something we discover, but one that we can choose. Just as I pick and choose what shapes and lines to include in my drawing, I have the freedom to choose my own identity. I don't need to merely accept and carry on the way my family has always done things in the past.
It seems so obvious now, but I had never really thought of having these choices before. It was so important to me to gain my parents' approval and make them proud. But maybe I have done enough for them. Maybe it is time to take better care of myself. What do I want? What do I believe? At first going through these family photos filled me with pain and resentment, but now I think of it as a huge mystery. What are the things that I can see in these photos now that I am an adult? What did I misunderstand when I was a little kid? What influence do those old assumptions and limiting beliefs still hold over me?
I don't know where this investigation will take me or how long it will take, but I need to dive deep into this work now more than ever. I do it for my own sense of purpose, for my own sense of self. But I suspect that I am not the only one to feel lost and disconnected from their family and the intense pressure to succeed with the bare minimum support of your family and community. I want my work to show how I freed myself from these limits and created my own path. I hope it inspires others to do the same.