“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” A quote made famous by educator and activist, Cesar A Cruz. Indeed many of us find comfort — and more — in whatever artistic piece that is presented right in front of us. More so, Art gives us a realization as to who we are as individuals. It allows us to find our own unique voice and identity in a world saturated with the continuous creation and assimilation of trends that come and go.
This noble way of looking at art is true for Illi Ferandez, a Chicago-based, Fil-Am Digital Illustrator, as she creates art that is relatable to her identity, reflecting her true authentic self.
Nostalgic Approach and Process
Finding her niche started around 2016. Despite being an Art Director for an advertising agency, Illi felt that she still needed a creative outlet apart from her job. That very year, she had an opportunity to go on a trip back to her motherland, the Philippines. This paved the way for Illi to reconnect with her culture. A first since her family immigrated to the United States when she was just five years old.
Reminiscing of the past, she recalls having to re-learn her mother language before flying back to the Philippines. “I knew how to speak Tagalog before but to form sentences and have the proper grammar, I didn’t know how to do that. I came here [in the United States] when I was about five or six, so I was just starting to learn, putting words together grammatically correct,” she quips.
Vivified with all the things she had witnessed, she felt she knew what she wanted to create. “After the trip, I feel like I have something to say, and I think now is the time where Filipino representation is severely needed and I felt like I could do that with my art. It was a way for me to reclaim my culture and represent it in a very fun and new and interesting way,” she shares.
Visiting the Philippines not only brought her back to her heritage but also reminded her of what she loved when she was a child and that is Illustrating. Not wanting to lose her natural talent at drawing, Illi immediately dove deep into it as soon as she got back, recalling that drawing was her first love and that it was always something that came naturally to her. “I thought that since I have this talent for drawing and illustrating, I have to keep doing it and practicing it or else, I’m going to lose it,” she shares. True enough, she did. An artist’s process to creating their work could oftentimes be complicated, but Illi simply shares that her method stems from delving deep into her core. As someone who is very introspective, she shares that she likes to observe and look at things from a bigger perspective. “When I see something I like I ask myself why I like that. What is it about this piece that is drawing me in.” Naturally like any artist, looking into themselves and asking certain questions about what influences them helps them make a proper iteration of the inspiration. “I think something about it captures a certain moment in time and I think that it’s really cool. And then, I also try to dissect the colors that they use, the layout, and I take all of that information in. Then I proceed to make my style,” she shares.
Apart from Philippine culture, Illi’s artworks are greatly inspired by Japanese Art and Pop Culture - most specifically the Ukiyo-e movement (which means “pictures of the floating world”) and Anime. She adds, “I just really love the simplicity of Japanese Art, the colors that they use, etc. Their landscape art is what inspired me to create a Filipino version of it ‘cause I just love it. The colors are beautiful, very serene looking and that’s something I would like to capture in my art. I’ve seen my art kind of transforming into that kind of style but in a more tropical way.” To Illi, being a good artist means taking one thing and being able to give one’s own spin to it.
Controversially, she heartily shares, “That’s art to me. Art is—Good artists steal. We steal things from other people and make it our own. [Hahaha!] Maybe ’steal’ isn’t the right word, more like, we borrow stuff from people. To me - that’s my Philosophy, there really isn’t an original thought in art. There isn’t an original art, it’s always inspired by somebody prior to you who has done something, remix it and do it your style. That is what art is, we steal from each other.”
The Urge to Assimilate
Migrating from the Philippines, Illi identifies with what the majority of immigrants felt when they first moved to the US; an unspoken pressure to be the very best. “As a first born, I have a lot of pressure. I grew up with a lot of pressure and expectations, so for me failure wasn’t really an option. Growing up, immigrating here, my mom and dad gave up a lot. They gave up their lives in the Philippines to take a gamble and come here to give us a better life because they knew that bringing us here would just be better overall, and with that kind of gamble comes a lot of pressure on me,” she imparts.
Naturally, as newcomers to the land, Illi shares that her family did their very best to blend in with American society. A common trait with most immigrants is the norm to assimilate in order to avoid being different and be treated differently, and to be perceived as someone who is odd. Illi recalls this noting that her parents shaped her the best they could in order to blend in but in doing so, had almost completely wiped out the Filipino identity in her. Illi shares “I came here around 5 or 6. I think that’s why in search of my identity, I gravitated so much to Filipino art because I feel like I did not allow myself to be fully Filipino growing up because assimilating was very important to my parents in order to not be perceived as ‘other’ or not be perceived as like an ‘immigrant’ or ‘foreigner’”. For this very reason, the traditional route to success has often been the one her parents would advise her to take, but this kind of notion did not sit right with her. “It’s kind of like your parents not really letting you be yourself. Your true authentic self; because they’re afraid you’re going to fail and they took a gamble to come here [in the United States]. My mom always said, ‘I didn’t come here and give up my life in the Philippines just so you could be a starving artist.’ and that’s always what she said”.
Despite the urge to go with a safer route, Illi continued to pursue what she wanted. In the end, that paved the way for her career today, making her friends and family proud; proving that if one really wants something, they would work their hardest to achieve it.
Being an immigrant Filipino-American artist gave Illi a different point of view in regards to reclaiming her identity as a Filipino. Rekindling with her past through that visit to the Philippines helped her see what being a Filipino is truly like, both the good and the bad. With this unique perspective, Illi was able to make art that would embody what she feels would empower fellow Filipinos within the Asian American community, and inspire them to take more interest in getting to know the rich culture, features, and traits of the Philippines. Illi shares that her work greatly centers on “Morena Beauty,” highlighting the dark skin beauty of a typical Filipina in order to raise awareness and appreciation for the natural skin of every Filipino - a jab at colorism that is still very much present in the Philippines whose beauty standards greatly favor individuals with whiter skin. Illi’s art also depicts strong Filipina warriors, a stark contrast to the soft spoken, demure, and lady-like conservative looks of a Filipina. Illi proudly shares that her Filipina Warrior piece with a snake coming out of her arms is the one that she is most proud of sharing that she wanted to draw more women in powerful poses in order to project their strength. Stating that she wants “to capture the essence of what it means to be Filipino, a Filipino Woman, someone who is resilient, someone who is strong, someone who can carry herself, and has a lot of opinions and isn’t afraid. I guess I was trying to project the ideal Filipina who isn’t afraid to be her most authentic self.”
Even with a strong artistic vision, putting one’s work out there is no easy feat. Illi recalls battling with perfectionism and the scary feeling of rejection when she was just starting to share her work. Without knowing how it would be received, she took the plunge and believed that by being really authentic with her experiences–what she went through and what she has seen as a Filipino-American–this kind of authenticity with her vision of empowering Filipinos, would shine through her art. Indeed it did as her works were met positively by those who come across it. The usual response of people seeing her work most especially by fellow Filipino Americans is that they got the feeling of recognition, especially with the portrayal of strong Filipinas in their natural dark skin. “I think that was the catalyst to where I started representing Filipino women in more actionable poses, and I think after that everyone loved it ‘cause I think it showed a Filipino Woman who wasn’t staying pretty. She was doing something. She was fighting,”' Illi shares. Truthfully speaking, her vision did not go unnoticed as far more people who come across her work found it to be relatable. Illi shares that one of the best pieces of feedback that she has ever gotten was that her target audience felt seen. “People would say ‘I feel like you see me. I’ve never seen this art before, your art is so beautiful. You represent Filipinos in a really strong way,’” she recalls.
Look Ahead and Inspire Authenticity
With a unique take on Filipino Art, there’s so much more to look forward to when it comes to Illi’s work. Despite not opening herself up for commissions like any other illustrators, Illi looks forward to multitudes of collaboration after she recently did one with a Filipino Streetwear brand called Abakada and with the Smithsonian. She recounts “other than more collaborations, hopefully getting a mural somewhere in Chicago. That is the BIG goal. It could be a street mural or another mural for a retail space. Another is doing illustrations for publications or books. I’ve illustrated a book for the Smithsonian entitled, '30 of the Most Influential Asian American Pacific Islanders in American History,' that is coming out this October.”
Now that she continuously thrives in the art scene, Illi advises that in order to succeed in the industry, one must be true to who they are at their very core. “My message would be to just be your authentic self, I think your voice is unique, use it as your weapon. As an artist, each and everyone of our voices is unique. There is something about your voice that truly makes you different and I think whatever that is, you should lean into it and use that to send a message. Whatever message that may be, it should be authentic. A tip: It’s okay to make mistakes, it’s part of the process. Learn from me, don’t get bogged down by perfectionism because perfectionism is limiting. Perfectionism makes you scared to not explore certain things. I think someone who isn’t afraid to fail is more successful or more powerful than someone who is. Failure is a good teacher and I think when it comes to failure we should change the way we perceive it. Don’t perceive it as you’re doing something wrong and you should quit. Failure oftentimes is a catalyst for change and something that can improve your art and make you better,” she says.
Take it from Illi, the best palette any artist could have are authenticity, identity, and failure. Nothing is more pure, beautiful, and artistic than being inspired by these as you fill your blank canvas.
Photos from: Illi Ferandez Art