Mia Ongpin Herbosa is one of the most coveted painters and portraitists in the Philippines to date. Through tranquil observation and expression of the life she leads, she continually creates rich visual depictions that are widely recognized in both local and international art scenes. (Mia Herbosa)
One could even say that it didn’t come as a surprise when Mia Herbosa developed an interest in the arts at a relatively young age in view of how she is a descendant from two illustrious bloodlines of Damian Domingo and Jose Rizal. Either way, her numerous works already speak volumes of the innate talent she possesses.
Her career essentially started after she graduated from Ateneo de Manila University in 1991, and through years of learning at the Art Students League in New York, her works were exhibited in various galleries throughout the world. She also garnered prestigious awards from distinguished organizations such as the Edward McDowell Travel Grant.
Currently, Mia Herbosa lives and works in New York and as Likhaan’s first featured artist, we asked about her artistic journey and early influences among many others.
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What moment in your life did you realize that you wanted to become an artist?
When I was 17, I knew that I wanted to do art because, among many other things, it was a therapeutic activity that calmed me down, centered my thoughts, and focused my energy. I found the creative process to be magnetic. I also realized that it made me happy to create something worthwhile that pleased me, my friends, my family as well as other people who saw my work.
In a nutshell: I felt good about it. So when I finished high school, I took the initiative to study painting at the Madrigal Art Center in Alabang under the private tutelage of Henry Braulio. Throughout those years of lessons, he helped foster my interest in art and we even formed a good friendship.
After that, can you describe your creative journey?
My creative journey has been a blessing that’s filled with many magical moments. In fact, there were times where I felt the existence of unseen forces that helped me in each of my endeavors.
Looking back to when I started college in Ateneo, I tried to pursue Fine Arts, but they didn’t have that degree yet. What they did have were related creative electives under Interdisciplinary Studies — so I ended up choosing that course. I clearly had the direction and the creative impulse at that time, but I still needed to learn the techniques and the tools. At any rate, a lot of the teachers were skillful and every single one of them encouraged me to pursue art.
One of my teachers was a Jesuit priest named Fr. Rene Javellana and he proposed that I pursue my studies abroad. He gave me a brochure to the Art Students League in New York and with my curiosity piqued, my path somehow led me to that city and that school. I ended up studying there on and off for about 20 years in total, and I believe that’s where everything started for me.
I did shows not only in New York but also in other countries like Hong Kong, Italy, and Japan. My first solo show was actually at the old Ayala Museum and it was a huge success. After that, people kept inviting me to do exhibits. It was like a ball that started rolling… and it’s still rolling. It’s definitely a blessing that I’m grateful for.
Our lives truly are multifaceted and this part of my life, which is my career, was a lifesaver. It was a grounding force that allowed me to exist… Do you know how people say that they find God everywhere? For me, I found God in art, and I believe that if you can find work that lets you find God somewhere, it will live on its own to help and inspire others.
Whatever you build lives on its own.
How was it like to be in the Art Students League?
I’m actually still connected to that school. They accept people of all ages and it’s like an eclectic group of individuals from all over the world! Everybody has a persona. You could be sitting next to a professional or a total beginner. Someone could be an abstract painter, a realist, and everybody collaborates with one another. There are even those who don’t speak English, so you got to know each other through your art. It was an incredible environment and it was great to be surrounded by creative people. After all, I am the kind of person who ‘absorbs’ a lot, so that kind of company and inspiration comes into my paintings.
At the Art Students League, they even offer this amazing McDowell Travel Grant Prize in which some students will be given funds for a 4-month journey to any place in Europe. When that trip ends, the school will give you an art show in order to showcase what you’ve learned and what you’ve done. They hire judges for this from all over the USA, and naturally, it was a goal for everyone in the school to win. Back in 2000, I won that prize and it was an amazing experience that I will never forget!
How did you arrive at your current art style? And what do you think are some of the important themes in your work?
The manner in which I paint is a mix of all the many instructors I have studied with in New York, the museums I’ve been to, and also the self-taught learnings that I had to do whenever I was at home in Manila honing my craft.
You can say that it is mostly training in life drawing, as well as painting from real models who sit for you weeks at a time. Or it’s still life set-ups of real fruits and flowers that have a limited life span as you paint them. You struggle to learn until you are able to finish or understand your work. I guess it would be a mix of classical realism and Impressionism to a degree. Nature and light are your teachers as much as the instructor is.
As for the theme of my work, it has always been my life. Every painting was a stage in my evolution, my growth as an artist, and as a human being living in this world at this point in time. I’m not sure what my work aims to portray, but it is up to the viewer to find out.
Do you have a favorite piece of artwork that you’ve created?
‘Balthasar’s Queen’ by Mia Herbosa (2017)
I have so many. Maybe the most recent one is ‘Balthasar’s Queen’.
It has colors that appeal to me and the image is strong, yet so simple.
The model is also beautiful and mysterious, but still of the present time.
In this work, I seem to have achieved something that I had been reaching for a while. I also won a big award for it at the Ridgewood Art Institute in 2017, so it made it more memorable.
I remember how the award was announced on Three Kings Day and I named the painting after King Balthasar — so it had synchronicity.
This piece is now part of Bangko Central’s art collection.
When did you first start selling your work, and what would you say has been the most challenging aspect when it comes to selling?
I think my first commission was in 1993 which is a year after I left for New York. I had to paint the granddaughter of my tita (aunt) and I remember feeling extremely thrilled and grateful for it.
Now I don’t really sell my work, per se. I work on the paintings, show them in exhibitions or fairs, and then they sell — or don’t sell. I put a price and if people like it, they buy it. That’s mostly how it has worked out. But maybe, the most challenging aspect to selling is when I have to make sure that I am persistently working at my easel whilst connecting to reasons on why this is my vocation.
It helps when I make the conscious effort to constantly learn and stay inspired because that’s when the process takes seed. It’s also important to have the discipline to schedule regular exhibitions (no matter if it’s solo or in a group), get things framed, shipping on time, and meet deadlines.
What other challenges do you face as an artist?
Loneliness. Many things are created inside one’s mind and it’s transferred on the canvas.
For instance, there is one thing that people don’t realize about artists. It looks fun, but they don’t see the work it takes to get to the finished product. People don’t get to see the ugly phases that a work goes through. After all, as a creator, you need to have the patience and fortitude to get through the hurdles involving your art because you’re trying to reach a high standard that you set for yourself. Nobody else is your boss but you have to answer to that voice inside you that says: ‘this is not done, this is not finished, this is not what I want’. The whole process is basically cerebral.
Let’s say, I’m doing this particular pattern in a painting and it has already taken me 2 weeks to do it. It’s driving me crazy because it’s almost like needlework. It’s exhausting. But since I want it so badly, I want to go through it because I know I can do it. I want to do it.
It’s not about getting a pat on the back where you expect someone to say, “Oh, you’re so good,” but rather a simple matter of release… And once you achieve what you want — it’s all quiet. Nobody knows the struggle you went through in that particular section of your painting because it was just all in your head. It can really be psychologically draining; but in the end, it’s a work of love and you go on to the next hoping that you learned something from what you’ve gone through. I guess this is why I enjoy being with fellow artists because, without any explanation, we already know and carry similar struggles.
Speaking of which, there is also that challenge of wanting to be in a community; but in my experience, the creative process tends to work best when done alone because there are certain things that are hard to share in a group setting. It’s an odd predicament to be in but it is also what drives me to paint. Besides, there seems to be a profound connection between the frustrating feelings of loneliness and the exhilarating feelings of discovery when I do things on my own.
Who are your biggest influences?
Master artists I’ve seen in Manila i.e. Luna, Hidalgo, Amorsolo, Manansala, Magsaysay Ho, Edades, Delotavo and many artists from museums in the US and Europe.
People who had risen above the mundane to create things of sublime beauty and transcendence, and make you think of things other than your own life excites me. People who are able to transport you to other worlds through their work inspires me. Those who can convince me to accept another perspective on life without speaking will always hold a place in my heart.
How about your main sources of inspiration?
Museums, art books, exhibitions, classical music, and nature. I like walks in nature, the trees, the flowers… all those peaceful things. I also like to do yoga and meditation. I am currently reading a large book on Antonio Lopez who is a Spanish painter, as well as books on Tantric Yoga and Darshan.
When it comes to artists, a lot of them capture my attention. Naturally, I find inspiration in my instructors and in how they devoted their entire lives to working on and teaching their art.
Usually though, I am drawn to artworks that are honest or display something real about humanity. However, I usually like composed pieces that are soothing to the soul. It could be sad, melancholic — but not chaotic. I look for an innate sense of order or natural arrangement of things, like that which is found in classical beauty.
When do you feel most creative?
I’ve always been a nocturnal person. So it’s an interesting paradox that I am a night person who’s mostly creative or energetic at dusk, and yet I only paint in daytime light.
How do you overcome creative blocks?
To find relief, I try to take it easy on myself and gently ease my way into feeling inspired again. For this, I like to watch art documentaries on YouTube because I like to constantly learn about art and artists. I want to know how they lived or what prompted them to strive for the perfection they achieved in their life. What lights their fire? Why does passion keep us going? What drives someone to keep painting or drawing until their last day? It’s all very interesting to me to learn how each artist leads their life.
I love learning new techniques as well. Even if I am almost 30 years in the field of painting, there is always something new to learn and it is so enriching!
What do you think is an artist’s role in the community?
A catalyst. A deviant. This is because an artist thinks differently.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring or new artists, what would it be?
Follow your bliss, listen to what is coming up from inside you and follow it. Life will make a way for you.
Do you have any exciting new projects you’re planning to launch in the near future?
I’ve always wanted to start an art school that is similar to the Art Students League of New York that I love so much. But because my life has always been between Manila and New York, I’ve been unable to do it — I’ve never stayed in one place for more than one year at a time!
Maybe in the near future, I will have the chance to settle down in Manila and finally start one… Maybe in 5 years… or before I’m 60.
What are some goals you’d like to achieve with this platform?
I’m not sure yet what my goals are yet, but I’m sure it would be wonderful to reach a wider audience through this platform!