“I believe in the rule of art for social change.”
So says Bert Monterona, an international award-winning self-described social realist artist. Through the creation of massive art murals featuring motifs that highlight social justice topics, Bert hopes to use his art to inspire dialogue and ultimately become a force of good for this world.
Bert grew up in a very poor family of farmers. Only by earning a scholarship was he able to attend schooling from high school all the way until college. And it was in his second year of high school that he fell in love with art, nurtured by a group of professional artists at his school that organized a young artists society.
“During my high school education there was a group of professional artists who nurtured the young artists, and they organized this young artists society,” he said.
By the time he was in college, Bert was actively honing his craft. His scholarship permitted him to only take engineering courses, but he found some friends with which to share in his love of art.
“When I was already in college, I was so active in art. I had three friends who were also interested in art. We were really interested in taking fine arts, but we couldn’t afford it. We just took engineering courses because that’s the only offered scholarship. But every weekend we went out to do some on-the-spot paintings, landscapes. We climbed the mountains and painted the whole city, and sometimes we just put up some still life object,” he said.
The way in which Bert and his friends self-taught themselves art helped them develop their own unique styles. Though Bert was struggling in his engineering courses, his art was getting noticed, and the peer and guidance counsellors at his school developed him into a peer facilitator, where he taught an art workshop for students after school. Even some of his teachers ended up enrolling in his workshops.
After finishing university in 1985, he was offered by his school (Mindanao State University) a position as a teacher of architectural drafting. However, before he started teaching, while he was exhibiting some of his artwork in Davao City, his work caught the eye of someone special. Ms. Aida Rivera Ford was the founder of the Ford Academy of the Arts in Mindanao, and she happened to like Bert’s art.
“She liked my work, and asked if I’m a fine arts graduate. No, my major is architectural drafting, but I also have some basic drawing skills, and I was already teaching art through the guidance and counselling centre as a peer,” he said.
“She asked, can you come back next week for an interview? We really need a teacher. I said, I will be leaving tomorrow. If you want to do the interview right now, I’m ready.”
“So I was interviewed right away, and I did a demonstration, teaching still-life drawing,” he said.
Bert was offered a job as as the artist in resident and teacher in that school, which he accepted. The following year he decided to branch out and do his own thing, and he organized his own alternative school, the Mindanao Alternative Center for Visual Arts, which lasted until 2002.
Throughout that time, Bert was a full-time visual artist, providing all kinds of visual and graphic services, such as making posters, designs, comics, murals, and also some political artwork for rallies and campaigns. He also won a few art competitions both at home and abroad. Bert was a finalist in the Philippine and Asean Art Competition in the Philippines, and the winner of the International Mural Festival in Winnipeg, where a massive mural he worked on for two months took first place from amongst a crowd of international artists. the 25’ by 40’ mural was displayed on the street in public for all to see.
In 2002, Bert and a dozen other artists and cultural workers were invited to the Philippine Independence Day celebrations at the Plaza of Nations in Vancouver, BC. Bert provided the backdrop for the performances, and also scheduled an exhibit at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC.
But during his visit he again met another special person. Bert was introduced to the owner for the Vancouver Film School, who then invited Bert to become an artist in residence at the VFS in 2004. After Bert’s one-year contract was complete, he applied as a Provincial Nominee (sponsored by his boss) for him and his family to live in Canada permanently. He was successful in his efforts.
“I think it is very rare for an artist to land in Canada as a Provincial Nominee because what they are looking for is scientists, mechanics, constructions specialists, people with special skills,” he said. Bert thinks some of his international competition credentials helped him get in.
Bert knew going in that he would face a lot of challenges coming to Canada. But he says it’s all worth it, for his family.
“For me if I have a choice, I will not really migrate, because it’s really hard for an artist to survive in a country like Canada, otherwise you will sacrifice your art and do something else different for your livelihood,” he said.
“But I’m so lucky because this is really the best country for my two kids, not for me as an artist . . . they really love this place. And for me, even if we will be rich in the Philippines, the quality of life they are enjoying now, it’s the best,” he added.
Philosophy of Art
Bert believes that his art can play a huge role in social change. His paintings frequently feature motifs and symbols of peace, justice, human rights, and the environment.
“I believe that there is a social function of art. I believe that paintings are materials for wall decorations, but they are also a path for education,” he said.
“Using art, it’s easier to transmit some issues, because it’s like a neutral force. Like, if you’re talking about human rights, it’s easier if you do it in painting and discuss the painting about human rights, rather than right away speaking about human rights . . . not all people like issues, but through art it’s more easier. It can facilitate dialogues,” he said.
Bert lives a quiet life these days. His kids are all grown up, with one being married, and the other in post-secondary school. He is separated from his wife. For three days a week he works as the caretaker of his old bosses’ property in the Vancouver West End, where he also stays. The rest of the time, he devotes to his art.
“For the past 10 years it’s a hard struggle . . . but now that the kids are adults, it’s time to start again,” he said.
He says the challenge now is to get recognized by the established artists in Canada.
“I think to be a good artist and to be recognized is the most challenging thing, because even if you are recognized in the country you came from . . . in western countries, they’re always controlled by western concepts and ideas, and the people running it. They are always circulated or binded on that kind of circuit, so if you are from outside of that circuit then it’s a huge challenge for you to penetrate or get in,” he said.
“So I always believe the power or the strength of my creativity of my work, but it’s not really good enough to be recognized and to deserve the circuit so you will be part of the circle,” he added.
He is also living a bit of the starving artists’ life, whereas people back in the Philippines people think he has lots of money from some of the international competitions that he has won, which is not the case.
“If you see my tapestries, they’re not really commercial pieces. Who will buy those huge and issue-oriented tapestries?” he said.
Bert hopes to change that. He has started producing artwork that can be hung in galleries or as decorations, as that is more commercial friendly.
“Now I am starting to make some works that if I stop working or doing other jobs then I can survive as an artist financially,” he said.
And despite the long and winding artist’s path that has brought Bert from the Philippines to Canada, he now hopes to take his art and his message to the rest of the world, before bringing it back home to the Philippines.
“I want to travel around the globe with my art, bringing the issues of global warming, peace, and justice to people. I’m now preparing for an exhibition tour first maybe around Canada, and then maybe in Europe, then back to the Philippines or Asia. And then I can publish my first book,” he said.
“I’m already here in Canada, but I still believe I have a responsibility to work for peace and justice and development in my homeland,” he added.