At 8 years old, she lay on the kitchen floor of her family’s small apartment in Hawaii, surrounded by crayons, colored pencils and little watercolor paints. She had lined her materials neatly around her. Perhaps if she kept everything orderly as she worked, her mother would not mind the mess. A blank sheet of paper sat ready in front of her.
Staring at it, she remembered yesterday’s hula lesson, dancing to the story of the sea turtle’s return back to the shore - back to the place from where it came after 30 years of swimming through the oceans of its young life. She knew what she would draw. The Navigator.
Using the pencils and crayons, she traced the outline of a turtle, exploring with hues of blended watercolors to fill in its colorful shell. Ripping out pieces from magazines and craft books, she glued together the turtle’s landscape - the island, the shore, the sea.
The small yellow flowers nestled in the kitchen’s windowsill caught her attention and she hurried over excitedly to look at them. She had planted them from seeds, watering and watching them grow and bloom each day. Bubbling with pride at the reward of her care, she plucked a few, went back to her work, and glued the yellow blossoms to her landscape. The turtle needed something bright to come home to.
As she created, she felt something deep within her tell her she was at home in this creative space. Perhaps it was here where she was truly born. “Mom! I want to be an artist!” she suddenly exclaimed, accidently spilling her dirty paint water in excitement.
“Vania! Please clean up this mess now,” her mother said as she stepped around her daughter’s makeshift studio.
Tousled out of her creative concentration, Vania felt discouraged. While her mother was supportive, she often felt lost in the constraints of small quarters and a culture that valued tidiness and downplayed the arts. She wanted to make a mess, to make things. In times like this she could not quite understand where she came from. But every good story needs tension, conflict.
She didn’t know it then, but It wouldn’t be long before her family would leave Hawaii. She would soon have her own ocean to navigates, her own chance to endure, stories to learn, and stories to share.
Today, Vania is an artist and illustrator who enjoys her own space in an “art studio apartment” above a quaint coffee shop in Elizabethtown, Pa. She is free to be as messy as she chooses. She invited us into her space, where she shared with us about her childhood, her faith, and her current exploration into family’s history that has inspired her most recent paintings.
Who or what inspires you now?
“I do have my artists whose styles I really admire, but I actually go back to Story when it comes to inspiration. Right now I'm creating a lot of work for a show coming up in August called “Worth More.” For all of my shows I think of a theme to work around, and it’s usually tied to a personal story. Right now, my own family history is really inspiring me. I don't know what thought or event prompted it, but I started to become interested in my maternal grandmother, because there are a lot of people in my family who don't talk about her. The part of me that loves stories and mysteries was like, “Okay, no one's talking about this. I want to poke the bear and see what happens.” I've been piecing together more of her life and who she was. I didn't know this before, but she came from a more prominent family. They had a lot of properties and one of them was a mango farm. The picture that seems to be coming together is one of a woman who, from what a lot of people say about her, was just really nice and didn’t complain. Which is a weird thing to say about someone. It makes me think she probably had a lot to complain about, and she did - my grandpa. A lot of people talked about how charismatic and friendly he was, such a strong personality, yet I thought it was weird that as a side note people would say, “Oh, but he also had a lot of affairs." He was in the US army, because the Philippines was U.S. territory at that point. I learned that it was really common for those men to have affairs. So my grandmother was all caught up in that. He actually left the family for five years because of an affair.
My grandma wasn't educated, so she worked on her parent's properties to make money, and she also rallied her kids to get jobs and band together and make it work. Then my grandpa just comes back five years later and expects to be dad again. My grandma couldn't say anything, so she let him. She was known as being very docile.
My grandfather was a person. Now, I'm working through forgiveness for this person I've never known before. I learned he was actually a guy who loved being hospitable. The house my mom grew up in was the place the whole community went to for parties on weekends. I realized that's where I must get my love for hospitality and having people over. I'm learning more about myself.”
How does your faith prompt you to create?
“I came to know Jesus at four years old, but of course I grew into my faith. My faith is a core part of me, and as an artist I just express who I am, so my faith comes out naturally. As I've seen art become a platform for hospitality and deeper conversation, I see the benefit in creatively expressing my faith. It becomes a bridge to connecting with other people, even if they don't share the same faith.”
How do you express your faith in your art?
“As I've been growing as an artist, there were people in my life who saw the potential in me expressing faith ideas. Yet within that are certain people not really knowing how to relate to things like abstract art. They put art in a box, as if the only acceptable art in the Christian faith is crosses and sunrises. So, some of them are coming at it from that angle. However. they did prompt me to start thinking, “Oh, this could really illustrate a deeper idea.”
I had one experience where my church wanted me to paint something for our women's retreat, and the theme of it was “being clay in the potter's hands”. Everything in me was saying, “I don't want to paint Christian paintings!” Also, hands are also really hard to draw! I decided to try it, and it actually turned out really cool. The process taught me some things, because one of the hands came out looking kind of like it had certain deformities. I wanted to fix it. But then something in me was like, “You know, what if that's just the person's hand?” It taught me to appreciate uniqueness and beauty. There was something in the process that taught me something. And so, it's almost like art-making is one of the many ways I work out my own faith.
I spent a year having a space at The Well, a worship night that happens at Folklore. What I ended up doing for that was going in not knowing what I'm going to paint, necessarily. I would feel out the atmosphere and what was coming through in the songs and the prayers, and just seeing where the painting would go. I had some really neat moments of stepping back and realizing, “Oh! this is what's happening around me. This is what I got out of worship.” It challenged me as well, because I'm a planner, and that kind of practice was spontaneous. The idea of painting as worship might be a little out there for some people, but I am really glad for the challenge it gave me - to see differently and try new things.
I had the space open for other people to join in as well. One neat thing I saw in that was people would paint pictures and give it to other people as they felt prompted. They were like, “I think this picture would encourage you. This picture is a metaphor for what God might be doing in your life, or who you are as a person, or how God sees you.” I loved when I saw people doing that, just giving other people paintings.”
In what ways do you feel creating and our humanity go together?
“Creating is such a natural way that we express who God is. The first few words in Genesis were “In the beginning, God created…” And so us creating is just emulating more of God's nature and character. We can’t actually create something from nothing, but in our own way we're reflecting what God did with the world. We’re being our Dad's kids when we create.
As I was working on this recent show, it’s been reminding me of how stories were passed on through generations, like in indigenous cultures. They didn't have a written language, so they passed on stories. Even the hieroglyphics we have through the Egyptians, we know about them because of what they wrote down or what they depicted.
So “Worth More” is kind of my way of playing into that. It’s a visual story that tells about a woman who I feel is a buried treasure in history. She did so much and she was so important to who I am now, even though I didn't know her. I want her story to be seen, and her importance to be seen. If she were alive today, it’s saying the things that I would tell her: “You are worth more than what you got. No one would have blamed you if you yelled at Grandpa or didn't take him back. You’re worth so much more. We did you a disservice in downplaying how important you are.” It’s my way of saying how important she is.”
As an adult, Vania still resonates with the story of the sea turtle. The journey of the great sea navigator is also her journey as an artist. “Art and creativity were suppressed in my upbringing, but in having my own space, I came back to who I am. I like to tell people the themes that come through in my art, without even really trying, are community, legacy and identity. That just seems to be what I'm about. Someone once told me she noticed that Home is a theme for me. She said, ‘I think you were trying to find your way home’. And she’s right.”
Vania’s art show, “Worth More: Letters to My Grandmother” premiered August 2nd at Benjamin Roberts Office Interiors in Lancaster, Pa. You can find a selection of pieces from this show for sale on Vania’s website, along with other prints and originals. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.