Katrina Bello: Non-Human Expressivity

By Etty Yaniv

New Jersey- and Manilla-based artist Katrina Bello draws on memories of her childhood in the Philippines for her work. 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.

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?

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; it was a place my family visited almost every weekend. Mine was a childhood spent with an incredible amount of freedom to explore the seashore’s natural features. We also had farms where we kept farm animals and grew vegetables – places that were 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 what it 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.

In the studio in Newark, New Jersey, 2018.

I keep a vial of this black sand with me. The sand is dry and has a cool gray color. Only when wet does it turn black. This black sand – the memories it evokes, 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 make 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 that altogether afforded me a means to communicate – perhaps even insist on – how important the subject is to me.

You focus on landscape drawing (including drawing installations), 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 about these places?

The idea of the natural world as “other” is something 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. The part that impressed me the most was Deleuze’s notion of expressivity in “A Thousand Plateaus,” which, according to de Landa, is not exclusive to humans, so he called it non-human expressivity. Using as examples the colors possessed by plants and animals, and the slow geologic shifts and movements of landforms such as mountains, de Landa elaborated 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. This idea that the natural world is our “other,” that we share similar abilities with it, 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 – and being as equally important as human life.

Populus, 60″ x 110″, charcoal and pastel on paper, 2018Photo courtesy of West Gallery.

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

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.

I attended 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 that the beach we spent our childhood on was now heavily urbanized, with many parts of the black sand built over with concrete to accommodate restaurants and other establishments. I am still grappling with the rate of change and continued urban developments taking place there and in the rest of the Philippines. I’m thankful some organizations are aware 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.

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

These extremes in size and scale is a drawing method that I started using 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 there is something vast, boundless, and expansive about these subjects. But at the same time, there’s 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: from 8 × 10 inches up to 24 x 30 inches.

But after graduate school, and the more I was engaged with my subjects through specific research, travel, and even artists residencies, the more I was feeling a sense of awe, care, and urgency. I was getting interested in wilderness conservation. I felt my work needed another way to communicate the weight of what I felt about those subjects. 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 attachment. As for the specific size choices, it’s pretty much a random choice: they are standard drawing paper sizes that are easily available in art stores.

Terra Macnoliceae, 60″ x 102″, charcoal and pastel on paper, 2020.
Hawak/Hold (Davao Gulf), 6.5″ x 9.5″, graphite on paper, 2019.

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?

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 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 a large drawing (see below). 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 I made the drawing from this composite.

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

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

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

On a more personal level, I am deciding on this grey tone because it most resembles the black sand of the beaches in Davao City. With the pandemic still having no certain end in sight, it is uncertain when I’ll be able to visit my native city again. Making the large drawings for this project is my way 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.

(Top image: Salix, 60″ x 92″, charcoal and pastel on paper, 2017. Photo courtesy of West Gallery. All photos courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on November 2, 2020 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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