Colors to Paint
Pacita began her artistic career in her late 20's when she enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC in 1976. It was quite a career change, because the previous year she had quite surprisingly, turned down a full three-year scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, in order to study painting.
She dedicated herself completely to learning how to paint, as she had to start with the basics of drawing, perspective and composition, which all of her other classmates had already mastered. However, Pacita had something that very few students possessed, and that was a natural feel for color.
At the Corcoran Pacita studied under Berthold Schmutzhart and Blaine Larson and these two professors helped to launch her artistic career. Pacita then pursued further study at The Art Students League in New York and concentrated on still life and figurative drawing under John Helicker and Robert Beverly Hale.
Right from the outset of her career Pacita's painting was marked by a singular use of color. Her colors brought expressionistic and realistic paintings and drawings and abstractions dramatically to life. Experimentation with colors and materials was at the heart of much of Pacita's artistic success, as she gradually moved from still life and more realistic art to embrace abstraction with enormous zeal in the latter part of her career. She once said that, "I always see the world through color, although my vision, perspective and paintings are constantly influenced by new ideas and changing environments."
After her courses finished Pacita moved to Bangladesh with her husband, set up her studio in Dhaka and began to paint. Soon however, she abandoned the studio and headed outside where there was colorful action on streets teeming with people. It was here that she spent most of her time painting portraits of people, bazaars, and landscapes. This was a routine that she would follow in the coming years in Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Yemen, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.
Most artists who are considered global typically go from their home countries to the art centers of the US and Europe, but Pacita truly enjoyed going the other way, and relished the opportunities to get out in the field and paint, even though it generally was not easy environment for an artist. Fortunately, Pacita was completely at ease with people from other cultures and found that her efforts to sketch, draw and paint people from poor urban areas , rural villages and refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America were welcomed by her many subjects. It helped that she also always took the time to talk to people about their lives and children, and always carried small candies to distribute to the kids.
Pacita's most political paintings are her "Portraits of Cambodia", a thirty painting series done in 1979, which portray the lives of Cambodian refugees who escaped death from the ruthless Khmer Rouge. Pacita met officials from CARE and was invited to travel numerous times with international aid groups assisting in the Cambodian refugees camps along the Thai border. Pacita began sketching and painting powerful portraits of the displaced refugees that she met in the camps. She often said that, "I always believe that an artist has a special obligation to remind society of its social responsibility, and my portraits tell the real story of adversity, bitterness, boredom and not too often happiness."
Pacita was later spurred to do more political paintings in the Philippines, which was attempting to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship. Her most important painting in this series was "The Death of Ninoy", which depicts the assassinated opposition leader sprawled bloody on the airport tarmac. It was particularly traumatic event for Pacita because she had known him personally, as he was in the same political party as her father, and had visited him a few years before when he was living in exile in Boston.
Pacita's final series of socio-political portraits was done in the US and called "The American Dream". This series was a compilation of her immigration experiences both in America and abroad. In these paintings Pacita even cut up some of her earlier socio-political portraits and incorporated them into her new paintings to show Korean grocers, Ethiopian restaurant workers, Indian investment bankers, Filipino nurses, Vietnamese students, Cambodian ambassador and many others.
Pacita was particularly concerned about the plight of Philippine overseas workers, who she had seen struggle in distant lands under difficult conditions, often facing abuse, and working long hours in order to send money home to feed their families and send their children to school. In an ironic twist, Pacita's socio-political immigration series lead her back to her original career plan to be an immigration lawyer, helping people from around the globe to lead a better life in a new country.
Throughout her career Pacita constantly experimented with ideas and materials, and the most dynamic of her experiments resulted in her creating what she called "trapunto". This was an exhilarating and colorful sculptural form that utilized everything from handwoven textiles and cloth to beads, from mirrors and glass to collage.
With her trapunto paintings Pacita moved beyond the confines of the traditional two-dimensional surface by developing a technique of stitching and stuffing her painted canvases to give them a three-dimensional sculptural effect. She then began an almost magical process of transforming the surface of her paintings with materials, such as traditional cloth, mirrors, beads, shells, plastic buttons and other objects, which she synthesized with bold colors to create uniquely individualistic pieces of art. Underlying all of Pacita’s trapunto paintings is a vivacious spirit, vibrant originality and a volcano of color.
Textiles and Assemblages
Pacita was one of the few artists who successfully merged traditional textiles which she found on her many journeys, with contemporary painting. Like her signature combinations of vibrant colors, Pacita's incorporation of a complete range of collaged textiles from gauze and burlap to batik and woven ikat cloth, blend seamlessly on her hand stitched, painted canvases and play a complementary role to Pacita's emotions and color. Although there are some similarities between Pacita's textile collages and her earlier trapunto paintings, the former are significantly less sculptural, all are abstract, and more confident in a painterly sense.
Pacita's assemblages flowed easily from her use of traditional textiles, ribbons and painted cloth which she sewed onto her early trapunto paintings. It was only a short time before she continued to expand and significantly embellish the surface of her work by adding buttons, beads, rickrack, cowrie shells and then mirrors, all of which became regular features of her smaller painted assemblages.
Playing with Paper
Throughout her career Pacita constantly worked on paper paintings,collages and prints. However, during her last few years Pacita focused almost entirely on paper, starting with her 56 piece series of prints, paper pulp pieces and paper sculptures called "Circles in my Mind", which she did at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Pacita followed this work up with an array of bright and colorful, medium and small sized paper collages still utilizing the circle motif. Finally, as her intense energy level began to wane, she just made smaller works of art, but she never stopped painting, collaging and adding her signature sequins, mirrors and other materials.
Expanding the Palette
Pacita understood that to succeed an artist must take risks, and she did this incessantly, never repeating the same style as she explored a myriad of artistic media. In the latter part of her career she began to turn more seriously into printmaking in the US and Singapore and demanded that it show the same color and vitality of spirit as her work on canvas. She also began to work successfully with ceramics in Indonesia and glass in Sweden.
Some of her most monumental work however, was her ambitious public art projects, which included a large, six panel mural in the Washington, DC subway Metro Center, and the painting of the 55 meter Alkaff Bridge in Singapore and covering it with 2,350 colorful circles. Pacita completed the ArtBridge project only a few months before she passed away, and under the most trying circumstances , as her cancer had spread to her brain and spinal canal. Nevertheless, she assembled a project team to assist her and they completed the painting on schedule. Most people didn't even realize that she was sick, as she worked with a smile and did the project for free as her gift to the people of Singapore.
Art and Community
Despite the fact that Pacita spent most of her time painting in her studio, she still found time to be actively involved with the community that she was living. When in the US, she was very active helping to support a wide array of Philippine-American and other Asian-American activities and causes, with both her time and donation of paintings. She was also active in art organizations by serving on boards, giving courses and lectures, organizing exhibitions, and giving workshops to people of all ages.
Pacita's motto was, "Art is for everyone" and she really meant it, but she particularly enjoyed giving art workshops to thousands of children around the world. The children loved her enthusiasm, colors and her free spirit, and she felt one with them. For that reason it is not surprising that teachers and schoolchildren in Singapore, Manila, Cebu, Tianjin, and Greenwich payed tribute to Pacita after her passing, with numerous children's art programs and exhibitions.
Not surprisingly, Pacita requested that her large stone studio-home, that she built on her native island of Batanes, be used as an art center to give Ivatan children an opportunity to learn about the beauty and joy of painting and express themselves through art. Today, Fundacion Pacita Center for the Arts undertakes a range of innovative public art projects, art education workshops,and other programs which have generated tremendous excitement among the youth of Batanes.
Given all that she accomplished, Pacita received numerous awards and fellowships in various countries, but the accolades she appreciated most came from the many people around the world who enjoyed looking at her artwork. Pacita just wanted to provoke people, cause them to learn, and to make them smile when they saw her artwork. As she said, "I feel like I am an ambassador of colors, always projecting a positive mood that helps make the world smile."
Adapted from Pacita Abad's Obituary by Ian Findlay-Brown, Asian Art News