I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about my sister’s art. There’s so many things I want to say, and I guess I’ll start with several stories.
Circa 1995 or 1996
Growing up, my sister and I always turned to art. We moved around a lot as kids, packing up our Javelin Street house to move to our father’s apartment, then to our uncle’s house on Grace Street, the Dolores Street house, our other uncle’s house in Carson City, Nevada, for a year and a half, then moving back again to Carson in California, settling in the Ravenna Avenue house, then the Neptune Avenue house, and finally, when both reached the age around 20, we moved our separate ways: my sister to Las Vegas with her family, me to three different states with/without my husband: Charleston, South Carolina, the Bay Area, and eventually to Norfolk, Virginia.
We must have moved over 10 times in the same city from 1 to 18 years old; there were other apartments, houses, and briefer periods I didn’t name. But art, our only tool of expression, was the constant in our lives. My sister and I always drew. We took our pens and colored pencils and bright markers and scribbled on anything we could touch, whether it was the church program, our math homework, or our makeshift birthday cards we would gift our father–to this day, my dad still keeps them tucked away in his drawers, looking at them whenever he misses us.
I was never as good as my sister at drawing. We started–like any Filipino American kid obsessed with anime, hungry for a kind of culture, any culture, that represented our brown skins, black eyes, coarse hair–with little cartoon characters, and even taped them to our black wooden dresser, making a magical princess-knight scene: our colorful, silver-haired girls battled dragons on the side of our drawer.
Then, my sister took up make-up. She took one of our lola’s mannequin heads for her wigs and claimed: I’m going to become a make-up artist for the movies. My cousin and I believed her: she took that white mannequin head and made it into a real zombie that scared us, painted it red and black with the darkest of browns, its eyes punctured, its mouth oozing with makeshift blood. I don’t remember if my lola was ever angry with her for ruining her wig mantles, but I do remember the countless of days that zombie mannequins would look down from our black dresser, eyeing me, giving me nightmares, and making me cry.
But we lost so many things as we moved. We lost those mannequin heads. We would always pack up the house, lose an item here and then, unpack, and begin again, collecting and collecting until we had to move again, packing and losing until we lost count, until we lost that black dresser and its princess-fighting dragon scene, our colored pencils, our drawings, our makeshift dreams.
I ran to books. Every time we moved, I would lose myself in stories. Since we moved so often, and our school district ran on a track system based on the overpopulation of students, I would move and enter another class entirely, losing the trickling friends I once had. Despite the fact I went to the same elementary school for the past four years, I had no friends and I would run to the school’s library every recess and lunch break, reading a huge mythology book on Ancient Greece. When we moved to Nevada, my aunt always took me to the library. I remember walking down the aisles of books and placing my hand on a thin jacket: a woman with snake legs graced the cover. It was a play on the death goddess Hecate, a jilted lover of Hades whose hatred for Persephone produced more and more snakes.
I would tell her these stories of monsters from my readings and she would draw them, molding them to life. With her make-up brushes, she would bring her hand to my face and mold new faces from the contours of my eyebrows, my crooked smile, my cheeks. For my sister: the act of creating brought her to life. She kept her hand on drawing. Even when the boys came into our lives and left. Even when she tried to move in with our birth mother, whose contentions and mental illness made it difficult to live with.
Life never did stop for us: it came like the rain and brought our family more hardships, more financial fuck-ups. But like the many women in my family, she didn’t give up: she majored in fine arts at Cal State Long Beach, took classes at the Art Institute of Los Angeles–Santa Monica, and each time life threw her off her course, she never relented. A heart that won’t quit.
It’s why I’m so proud of her work:
BY RACHEL SIPIN ESPANOLA
acrylic paint on canvas
Years ago, when I cofounded TAYO Literary Magazine, I wanted to collect and archive art that spoke to the Filipino psyche like nothing else did: to the hearts that won’t quit. Art that imbued the lost things that slipped from our fingers growing up, as we moved and moved from house to house, city to city, country from country. I wanted to relive my childhood through art, to retain this ineffable thing so tied to my own psyche, to my family.
And my sister’s art does just that. It’s why I’ve begun preparing to bring back the magazine full-throttle, honing its aesthetics and theme, getting it ready to showcase art just like my sister’s, just like so many other Filipino artists I’ve met across this country: those unrelenting hearts who hold occupations like medical assistants, nurses, drivers, teachers, Starbuck baristas, and yet, their real job is their art.
You can even buy her art and put it on a tote bag or a phone case. Check out my own here (I bought the bigger version):
You sincerely won’t regret it.