Katrina Bello – Non Human Expressivity

In the studio in Newark, NJ, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

New Jersey and Manilla based artist Katrina Bello draws on memories of her childhood experiences in the Philippines. Ranging from small to large scales. her drawings depict geological layers as vast fields of textures and colors – alluring us to sense the awe in vastness while also inviting us to get close and sense the fragility and tenderness in each detail.

AS: You were born in Davao City in the Philippines and you are currently working in New Jersey and Metro Manila in the Philippines. Tell me about your background and what brought you to drawing – why drawing?

Katrina Bello: It’s the memories and experiences of the natural environments of my childhood home in Davao City in the Philippines are what propelled me to start making the kind and size of drawings that I have been making recently. Davao City is located in the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. It is a coastal city that also has dormant volcano Mt. Apo, and so the beaches on the coast near the foot of the volcano have fine black sand. The black sand made the sea appear opaque, dense, and unfathomable.

We lived near that beach and it was a place my family visited almost every weekend of our childhood. It was a childhood spent with an incredible amount of freedom to explore the seashore’s natural features. We also had farms where we had farm animals and grew vegetables- places that were also considered our playgrounds. But it was in this black sand seashore environment that my siblings and I felt the greatest sense of freedom, fright, daring, exploration and curiosity. Perhaps there was something in the darkness of the sand and sea that fueled our imaginations. We were aware of the life that lived in those opaque depths, but in the absence of seawater transparency, we had to imagine how the underwater life and terrain looked like. My brothers and I would make vivid drawings with crayons of that unseen underwater life. Interestingly, I cannot recall us using any blacks, grays or tones resembling the color of the dark sand and opaque water. Our drawings were colorful.

I keep a vial of this black sand with me. The sand is dry and appears more like a cool gray color. Only when wet does it appear black. This black sand- the memories that they evoke, the landscape it is from, its ties to a homeland that I cherish- is perhaps the reason why drawing has become my current medium. With the use of charcoal, graphite, and gray-toned pastels, every drawing that I am making feels like a recreation of this landscape. And as for choosing drawing as my primary medium, there is something in the drawing medium’s directness of contact, the weight of my hand against the paper, with the lightness or darkness of the line dependent on the pressure of my hand that altogether afforded me a means to communicate -perhaps even insist- on how important the subject is to me.

“Populus”, 2018, charcoal and pastel on paper, 60 x 110 inches, photo courtesy of West Gallery

AS: You are focusing on landscape drawing (including drawing installation), especially of remote places like deserts, seas, mountain ranges and forests. You say that you see them as “the other” to our human world. Can you elaborate on that idea and reflect on what fascinates you there?

Katrina Bello: The idea of the natural world as “other” is an idea that I learned from a 2007 lecture by philosopher Manuel de Landa, delivered at the European Graduate School. It was a lecture on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and the section of the talk that impressed me the most was Deleuze’s notion of expressivity in “A Thousand Plateaus”, which according to de Landa was not exclusive to humans, calling it non-human expressivity. Using as examples the colors possessed by plants and animals, and the slow geologic time scale shifts and movements of landforms such as mountains, De Landa elaborates on the idea that nature possesses ways of expressing itself through color, marks, shape and movement just as humans utilize our voices, marks and movements for expressions. It is this idea that the natural world is our “other” that we share similar abilities with is what I think collapses any hierarchies between what is human and what is not. I find that it is an argument for all things belonging to nature – from the most common animal life, plant, rocks and other inanimate things – to being as equally important as human life.

“Salix”, 2017, charcoal and pastel on paper, 60 x 92 inches, photo courtesy of West Gallery

AS: How do you think your experience of migrating from coastal environments that have undergone dramatic change impact your work?

Katrina Bello: When I left Davao City as a teenager of fifteen, it meant also leaving the tropical surroundings that formed my values and ideas when it came to notions of home, play, place, and especially freedom. It wasn’t until another fifteen years later that I saw Davao City again. In those years when I was away from my native city, I lived in dense urbanized cities: first, in Metro Manila, then to metropolitan New York City, and then Jersey City and Montclair in New Jersey.

Having been away during the years that I was growing up later attending college in the Philippines and the United States, through the distance and my education, I gained new perspectives on my native city that developed during the long absence. That time away was an opportunity to learn about the precious ecological diversity of my native island home and how much of it is under threat because of increasing urbanization and deforestation. Unfortunately, being away kept me from witnessing the dramatic changes that Davao was undergoing. When I finally visited it again, I saw the beach that we spent our childhood in as now heavily urbanized, with many parts of the black sand beach built over with concrete to accommodate restaurants and other establishments. I am still grappling with the rate of changes and continued urban developments that are occurring there and the rest of the Philippines. I’m thankful that there are certain organizations that are conscious of this and make it their mission to preserve what is left of the precious natural resources there. It is my hope to work with one of them someday.

AS: You are using paper of either 5 by 8 feet or 5 by 8 inches. What does scale mean to you and why these specific dimensions?

Katrina Bello: These extremes in size and scale is a drawing method that I utilized only recently. Making work about landscape, my personal memories of it, the fleeting nature of memory, ecological concerns about the vanishing wildernesses and environmental health- I find that there is something vast, boundless and expansive about these subjects. But at the same time, there’s also a great sense of fragility, impermanence and vulnerability tied to them. I’ve been working with these subjects for over a decade now, and earlier in my art practice, my medium had been both drawing and painting in sizes what I would call medium-sized: between 8×10 inches up to 24 x 30 inches.

But after graduate school, and the more I was beginning to be more engaged with my subjects through specific research, travel, and even artists residencies, the more I was beginning to feel a greater sense of awe, care and urgency about these subjects. I was beginning to be more interested in wilderness conservation. I felt my work needed another way to communicate the weight of what I felt about those subjects. And it was then that I found that making very large drawings allowed me to convey them. Through the large 5×8-foot drawings I want to communicate the qualities of vastness, wonder, awe and uncertainty; through the small 5×8-inch drawings, I want to communicate fragility, tenderness and emotional attachments. And as for these specific size choices, it’s pretty much a random choice: they are standard drawing paper sizes that are easily available in art stores.

“Terra Magnoliaceae,” 2020, charcoal and pastel on paper, 60 x 102 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

“Hawak/Hold (Davao Gulf),” 2019, graphite on paper, 6.5 x 9.5 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Tell me about your drawing installation Rockscape (2016) – idea and process.

Katrina Bello: This work is based on a memory of a stream that was full of large boulders outside the city limits of Davao City- a stream that my family and extended family frequented throughout my childhood. I was around six years old when I last visited it, but my memories of it are so deeply ingrained. I never had a chance to visit it again but my relatives had mentioned that it had long since dried up and no water flows in it anymore. This “Rockscape,” piece was a way of recreating how I remember it. And just as memory is fleeting and changes over time, this piece consists of many different parts that can be moved around and adjusted to the location it is installed in. It can be scaled up, scaled down, installed completely flat against the wall, or as a composite of flat works and three dimensional pieces. At one point, it was so scaled down that it fit inside a drawer.

AS: I am curious to know what is your takeaway from this installation project – how do you compare the process of drawing on a flat surface versus engaging with a three-dimensional space?

Katrina Bello: Because the idea behind the “Rockscape” piece also comprised a personal memory of my siblings and I playing and hiding between the large boulders (and even at some point almost getting caught in a flash flood), the execution of the drawing needed a way to convey that sense of playfulness. I first started this piece as a large flat ten-foot long two-dimensional drawing, but it did not communicate the dynamic qualities of the subject. It wasn’t until I started cutting up the drawing that I arrived at the decision of turning it into a drawing installation that is pictured here.

One of the most satisfying outcomes of the project was seeing toddlers actually hiding and peeking behind some of the three-dimensional floor pieces during one of the times it was exhibited. My takeaway from this project is my awareness that it is certain qualities of my subject that set the requirements of what drawing method is necessary to convey my ideas. In this case it was the sense of playfulness that necessitated that I make a piece that the viewer can walk around (or even move the pieces!). In other times, video was also called for as a more appropriate means, and I’ve made several of those too.

“Rockscape,” 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Let’s take a close look at your large seascape drawing in the group show Personal Landscape at the Montclair Art Museum – how did you start it and what was your process.

Katrina Bello: This drawing is part of a larger project that comprises this large drawing, small palm-sized drawings, and videos based on the drawings. The project is about the Pacific Ocean: its health as a precious ecosystem, but especially how the ocean is also this vast space that lies between my two daughters who each live in countries on the opposite ends of the Pacific. The project started with this large drawing pictured here. I wanted the size and scale of it to convey to the viewer the sense of depth and vastness of the subject: the vastness of the ocean, as well as what I felt about the physical distance between my children. To make this large drawing, I counted on photos I took of the ocean in Santa Barbara, California where my younger daughter lives, and the seas in Davao City. I created a composite image based on these multiple photos, and so I made this drawing from this composite.

“Hawak/Hold (8.7832, -124.5085),” currently installed at the Montclair Art Museum, as part of Personal Landscapes group exhibition. From 2019, charcoal and pastel on paper, 60 x 102 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

AS: You are having an upcoming solo show at the Visual Art Center of NJ. What can you tell me about the body of work you are preparing for that show?

Katrina Bello: For that show, I’m currently working on drawings that are about visual analogies between patterns in bark, water and landforms. I’m still working on deciding if the show will consist solely of large drawings, or if it will be a mixture that consists of those, along with small drawings, photographs, video, and I’m even considering sculpture. For the whole project, I’m envisioning all the works to be unified by an overall grisaille color and to make the drawings appear hazy, in relief and looking like craggy landscapes.

In a more personal context of the project, I am deciding on this grey tone because it most resembles the black sand of the beaches in Davao City. With this current pandemic still having no certain end in sight, it is also uncertain when I’ll be able to visit my native city again. Making the large drawings for this project is my imagination of being there, with each grey mark or stroke of charcoal or pastel becoming a form walking on that dark landscape of black sand and dark sea, as if I am there again and closing the distance between this remembered place and myself.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com