“MY wife and I met many years ago through a mutual friend. We were both in the same industry, as we both took up Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, but I was ahead of her by quite a number of years. You see, I’m 15 years her senior but the first time I met her, I was already smitten. Unfortunately, though, during that time, she was already taken. Years passed and being in the same industry, I would bump into her every now and then. The time finally came when she was available, and I grabbed the chance to ask her out. Years later, as fate would have it, I ended up marrying the girl of my dreams,” Rom Villaseran said.
This was the story relayed to us by visual artist Rom Villaseran, a classmate and friend from grade-school days in Ateneo de Manila University. Some years after marrying the girl of his dreams, though, Rom slowly changed and his mood swings became like a pendulum. He shared that his emotions would swing from extreme joy one second and uncontrollable depression the next. He knew he needed to get a grip on his emotions, as it was already affecting his relationship with his wife, Kara. That was when his wife told him that he needed to see a psychiatrist. Soon afterward, Rom found out what was wrong with him. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks, as described in the National Institute of Mental Health (https://goo.gl/RJhWc5).
Though it was difficult for him to accept, the diagnosis shone a light, and everything finally made some sense to him—the wild mood swings, his difficulty socializing and his unwillingness to leave the house. The realizations also brought some clarity to his early childhood, when he already felt like an outsider who never seemed to fit in.
Shortly thereafter, to get his mind off his internal demons, he began painting a five-by-four-foot portrait of something that meant the most to him—his wife Kara. Titled Sibol, the striking black-and-white piece punctuated by bright yellow bumblebees and a single flower became the catalyst for the whole series that made up his latest exhibition, Ilaw ng Buwan.
After painting a portrait of his wife, he then painted about his life, and it became his outlet. He didn’t stop painting until he was able to fully expound and somehow release to the whole world the dual personalities that existed within him. One was the original: extremely creative, very honest, fiery to a fault, and generally uncaring of the world outside; while the second was the created: a mask to wear around normal people that allowed him to interact with human beings properly. The former was the beating heart of an artist, but the latter was his inevitable connection to the outside world, something that was necessary for him to survive. His honest and raw emotions expressed his current mental state, resulting in a rare series of self-portraits.
Both of Me is a marvel of an artwork, especially when situated within his usual oeuvre. Large yet simple, expressionist in stroke, and possessing no hidden details, it can almost be called an anomaly. It succinctly and honestly expresses the two characters populating the same being, the duality of the artist.
Villaseran’s knowledge of his condition obviously became a source of painful—and, better yet, illumination. The artwork I Am is the artist embracing who he is. The other self-portrait depicts a large figure emerging from the shadows, a faint light illuminating only his gaunt limbs and massive ram-like horns. Beneath it is an upside-down wintry landscape, barren save for the silhouettes of trees and houses, and a large dead tree in the center. At the painting’s very top is a hint of shimmering gold; a slight blue haze mirrors it directly opposite, representing a brightly illuminated daytime. This is Villaseran admitting his Hades archetype personality and accepting its inescapable consequences.
His other pieces in the exhibit were much smaller in size, still snapshots of his mental state, but less introspective. Pusang Itim shows how Villaseran thinks his cats must see him. Halikan is about how he enjoys being a couple with his wife Kara, even until death. His Sampung Anak ng Gabi series is an elaboration of fictional characters that exist in and are inspired by the evening, the time which Villaseran believes to be the most magical part of the day.
Ilaw ng Buwan looks past its aesthetic façade to look unabashedly into the depths of a person’s lowest point. It’s not all beautiful, and yet it’s not all pain either. Villaseran skillfully and precariously balances on the tip of a knife to present a breathtaking outpouring of his own personal feelings. The artist is right to favor the magic of the nighttime, the craft of his mind’s eye, as it illuminates the darkest depths of the human heart.
The entire series is like stepping inside an emotional echo chamber where each artwork reveals a facet of Villaseran’s innermost humanity bouncing and reverberating with immense relatability, but there is an underlying beauty in the madness of it all.
Villaseran ended our interview by saying, “I love my wife to the very depths of my soul, but there are days when I feel like a monster—like someone who doesn’t deserve her. There’s something wrong inside of me, like my internal wiring must have gone haywire or something, but it’s a good thing I finally know who or what I am now. I’m the same person who I was before my diagnosis, but I’m also different. What’s important is my undying love for my wife, my family and my art. And that will never change.”
The exhibit Ilaw ng Buwan was held earlier this month at Galerie Stephanie, Unit 1B Parc Plaza Building, 183 E. Rodriguez Jr. Avenue, Libis, Quezon City. For inquiries, call 709-1488 or e-mail [email protected].