Body and Soul

March 2002, South China Morning Post

By Robin Lyman

There was never any doubt that spirituality would feature strongly in painter Wayne Forte’s art. Born in Manila to a Filipino mother and an Irish father, he received a Catholic education in California and some of his earliest memories are of masses in the old Spanish missions.

“My first experience of really looking at art was in the church and I always wanted to do art for the church. Although it’s another part of what I do, I never really wanted to do anything but paint,” Forte, 53, recalls.

As a reminder that his faith is inseparable from his art, some of Forte’s etchings are owned by the Vatican. One of the paintings on display at his one-man show at the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery is broken up by a verse from the Old Testament and another depicts Joseph at the Nativity holding a lantern.

But beneath the apparent religious overtones, Forte insists the theme of this exhibition is the human body, and the sense of spirituality he says forms the core of his art is expressed here in more sensuous terms. Most of the works on display showcase strangely contorted nudes, which have become Forte’s signature style. “Initially I painted landscapes,” he says, “and then in about 1985 I thought, It’s time to tackle the figure seriously.’ That’s when this style of work developed. I still do landscapes and still-life and work with biblical themes, but I think I’m probably considered more of a figurative painter now.”

Although Forte always works from life, many of his subjects are seen assuming poses beyond the reach of even the most flexible models. Freed from the constraints of the physical, his subjects are nevertheless almost painfully constricted in terms of space, often being forced into tiny boxes. “There are thousands of ways to tackle the figure and I started out pretty methodically,” he says. “I knew that I wanted the figure to have power and I struck on the idea of squeezing it into a space so there’s a reservoir of energy. I also wanted the figure to have a relationship to the edge of the format, so the illusionistic space becomes an actual one. These are poses people cannot actually get into, but they are accommodated gradually throughout the drawing, into the box. They grow organically into that space.”

It is an idiosyncratic view of the human form, but Forte’s influences are apparent in the style. As well as the religious art of the mission churches and Mexican revolution paintings of Diego Rivera, he cites Matisse, Braque and Picasso as having had a decisive effect. “I started using the written word the way a cubist would to break up a space. Braque or Picasso would break up a space with lines – I would do the same with letters and text about what I was thinking at that time. Often what I’m really thinking about is my relationship to the model and what that form is suggesting to me,” he explains.

A preference for rough texture and uneven surfaces for his paintings reflects both Forte’s desire that they should be experienced close up and at a distance, and the fact he works quickly and prolifically. All the paintings on display here were produced in a burst of activity last year.

“I do work fast. I’m interested in paint doing what only paint can do, which is squish and drip and all those physical things. I want the person to experience them in that way from up close,” he says. “Then, when they step back, the illusion kicks in. I’m much more interested in that than spending hours on every detail. We have photographs for that.”

Another distinctive element of his art is the use of a limited palette to create an extensive array of shades and tones, another area in which the influence of the cubists is apparent. “I think it’s much better to use fewer colours but to use them to maximum advantage – to stretch them and force them to create as many secondary colours as possible. The most colourful paintings are three colours plus black and white, and a lot of them are only one plus black and white,” he says. “I do ladle in interference colours, but I don’t use them to model the form. Every now and then there’s a splash of blue, which I then cover up, but some things will show through at the end, almost like accidental colours.”

Christian Artist Finding Community

June 2003, IMAGE Magazine

by Wayne Forte

I WENT to graduate school at University of California, Irvine, where
conceptual and performance art were the only approaches that were taken seriously. As a painter, I felt ostracized, but this didn’t bother me too much. I reasoned that an artist needs to stand apart from his community and culture, the better to objectively see and comment on it. I figured that feeling like an outsider was just part of being a real artist. Alienation was the legacy I’d inherited from my heroes, Van Gogh, Munch, Goya, Rivera, Picasso, and the Abstract Expressionists.

This kind of reasoning, typical of most American university-trained art students, helped me to endure the next decade holed up in a storefront off Western Avenue in the seedy part of Los Angeles. I was painting large, empty views of the L.A. freeway system-a subject which matched my sense of displacement, alienation and rootlessness. I spent whole days languishing on a couch in my studio. In retrospect I can see that I was slowly drifting into depression, though it seemed normal at the time. I felt that my art had no purpose except to reflect my despair, and to me that seemed appropriate enough.

In the depths of this depression, I came to believe in Jesus as the Christ and started studying the scriptures. For the first time I heard about community and its importance to one’s emotional and spiritual health.

Twenty-five years later, my wife and I belong to a church with a well-established visual arts ministry, a group of about two dozen who work to facilitate a connection between artists and craftspeople and our church community. We have bi-monthly meetings, quarterly dinners, and collaborative workshops. We’ve staged two nationally attended arts conferences reaching out to other churches seeking to use the arts in ministry, and we mount several invitational art exhibits each year. Pastors and members purchase the work of church artists, and provide them with friendship and encouragement. But none of this was easily attained, and there’s still room for improvement.

The relationship between artists and the church can be fraught with misunderstanding and suspicion. The artist may not understand his or her real need for community, and may therefore be reluctant to insist on it, especially when it involves something as personal and precious as his art. The church doesn’t always understand the way the artist’s role has changed in the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. The artist suspects that resistance or indifference toward his art means that he is not accepted for who he is, and the church suspects that it might be better off without the artist’s rebellious spirit and questioning nature. It takes longsuffering patience and love on both sides to get to a point where the rewards of the relationship are perceivable.

In the early years of our ministry, I was asked to do work-intensive decoration projects that didn’t really require a trained artist’s point of view or insight, and I felt like my gifts and skills weren’t really understood or respected. After some soul-searching I explained my frustration to the pastor and we worked to find other church members-illustrators, decorators, designers, architects, art aficionados, and students, to help with these jobs. At other times, we spent a lot of money to hire skilled artisans, which increased the church’s appreciation for hand craftsmanship.

Educating the congregation has been a key ingredient to making our arts ministry fruitful. The average church member needs some groundwork laid before he can be expected to be a sophisticated, or at least sympathetic, viewer of the art. Most believers welcome this opportunity since, doctrinally at least, they are committed to loving the artist and using his gifts. Artists can initiate this dialogue by inviting pastors and church leaders to museum or gallery exhibits, or just by taking them into our studios for private viewings. Just hearing about how it feels to be a Christian artist is a big eye-opener to most pastors.

It also helps to look at resistance to art in the church as an opportunity to educate rather than a roadblock-and the artist should remember that he too might learn from the exchange. I once did a large painting of a rooster with the caption the damn thing woke me up scrawled across the bottom. When my pastor saw it he suggested I change it to ….and Peter wept, which is more subtle and resonant.

Often our visual arts team is called on to explain our choice of imagery on some project. In a painting about the Exodus I once used a jarring, central image of a snake to refer to Christ, which caused concern among the congregation until I reminded people that Christ likened himself to the serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness. In another painting, a skull at the foot of a cross caused questions until I posted a note explaining that Golgotha meant “place of the skull.” I feel that Christian artists need to be willing to find new symbols for our generation as the old ones exhaust themselves-or more often, to go back and resurrect forgotten symbols.

Rather than feeling put out when people in my church question my choice of imagery, I’m flattered that they’re looking so closely. In many cases I’ve spent hundreds of hours composing, resolving, then editing the painting, so I’m happy to have feedback. I want the paintings to cause people to re-examine their presuppositions, so in that sense, if people are asking questions, the painting is working. And I do think it’s healthy for an artist to be held accountable to a community. I question the Modernist myth of the artist as Lone Ranger, holed up in his atelier and not accountable to anyone.

The paintings I make for use in our worship services often evolve over time. Since we usually have only a month, and sometimes only a week, to come up with visuals, the painting that goes up in front of the congregation is usually an early draft. While it’s up there I can do some revising in my head, and after the series is over I may work on the piece for months to resolve it. I like this open-ended process because it allows for input from the community and God. It allows for my confession and revision and acts as a metaphor for redemption. Picasso said that he never made a masterpiece that wasn’t at some point a total disaster that he felt incapable of resolving. I take this to mean that even Picasso relied on the existence of an interceding God.

Today I feel confident in encouraging Christian artists who feel isolated from the art world as well as the community of faith. Speaking from experience, it seems to me that being a Christian artist has distinct advantages over being the secular kind. A Christian artist automatically has something important to paint about, as well as a constituency of people who share his convictions and understand his language, symbols, and narratives [see front cover]. And a Christian artist has a necessary role within the community of the faithful, where his gifts add to the spiritual dimensions of the community and the community makes a difference in his life, too.

The artist’s nature is to think big, to dream, to be a perfectionist, and to go out on a limb to achieve his goals. Therefore the artist is more likely to suffer. But the support of the congregation, the spiritual covering from the pastoral staff, and the connection to other like-minded artists can provide a safety net whenever the inevitable falls occur.

In Search of My Roots

April 2005, Filipinas Magazine

By Wayne Lacson Forte

 “And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”  The Gospel of Matthew 13:6

My parents wanted me to grow up to be a “good American” and thought that an ethnic identity would only impede my progress. What they didn’t realize is that even though I left the Philippines at a very young age, science confirms that my brain was already more than 90% formed. My subconscious already contained the sights, sounds and especially the smells of my tropical country and its people. My mother and my ya-ya had already cradled me in their arms and pressed me against their warm olive skin. They had fed me the foods that Filipinos will always crave no matter where they live. They had comforted me in a language that I didn’t understand or speak, yet whose gentle sing-song tones had already touched my heart. Even at such a tender young age, my roots had already grown deep.

I was born in Manila in 1950 to an American father and a Filipina mother. My father served in the US military and my mother was from a prominent Negrense family. When I was barely three years old we moved to Santa Barbara, California.

We didn’t socialize within the Filipino community of our town. My parents were reluctant to discuss anything from the past—I got the message that they wanted a fresh start in a new place and as they said, “this was the best place in the best country in the world.”  I couldn’t argue with that so I just tried to fit in as best I could.

Our only connection with the Philippines was the rare visit by a family member. I eagerly anticipated these visits because I felt so loved, accepted and valued by my Filipino relatives. I craved their special brand of affection, their expressiveness, their way of being.

I grew up looking different from others in my overwhelmingly Caucasian high school. When kids would call me “chink” or “jap” in an off-handed, dismissive way, I understood it was meant to be an insult. However, what bothered me most about this racial bigotry was not so much their ignorance nor that I was neither Chinese nor Japanese but that I really had no idea of what I was. I was too young to remember anything about the Philippines. I had no solidarity with any Filipino community or even a Filipino friend that I could talk to.

One day I approached my father privately in his office, asking him why I was being singled out in this way. I could sense anger slowly rising in his voice. Taking my passport out of his desk, he threw it at me saying, “Show them that! You are 100% American!” Needless to say, this response only confused me more and even made me feel ashamed, as if I needed to hide something.  I also understood that ethnic identity was a taboo topic in our family.

When I turned 21 my aunt and uncle invited me to visit the Philippines for the first time since I left as a baby. I remember thinking, “finally, I will understand who I am!” My relatives lived in Quezon City but commuted to Manila most every day. My favorite activity was to tag along and just wander the gleaming avenues of Makati, the oceanfront along Roxas Boulevard, the winding maze of Divisoria (of course, always with their driver close at hand). It was a fascinating place and I felt at home in many ways. However, I am a 6 foot tall mestizo and this didn’t go un-noticed. Kids would follow me taunting “hey Joe, GI Joe!”  Oddly, I felt more American than I ever had in America!

Ironically, it wasn’t until I was 24 yrs old and living in Paris that I finally found community with others like myself and discovered that I was not alone. My Lola had paid for me to spend a year in Europe studying. Through my Filipino cousin who had also been studying there for some years, I met a group of ex-pat Filipinos: artists, designers, writers and students, all refugees from Marcos’ martial law regime.  We were all strangers in a foreign land and therefore equally displaced. As these new friends accepted me, talked to me about their own emigration experiences and provided me with a long sought after fellowship, I learned to accept myself.

So, to answer the question, “What is the most important lesson you have learned about being Filipino in America?” I would answer, “Unlike a tree, a person can grow cut off from his roots but it is often a painful and disorienting process.  When the pests and storms come, there is nothing like a strong, deep set of roots to support and nurture a tree.”

“Beauty’s Where You Find It”

Review of “Wayne Forte: Paintings on Paper” Exhibition,
Ro Snell Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
by Joan Crowder in Santa Barbara News Press
April 1993