journey with an artist

by in arts

Consider J. Orosa Paraiso’s art. The first impression one has of his circular-designed metal artwork is “Wow, that sucker looks heavy! How much does it weigh?” If you’re smart, you will stick with that comment, and not run the risk of putting the proverbial foot in mouth by pretending to possess the requisite savoir-faire reserved for art critics.

Being a non-art critic, and only possessing a deep appreciation for artistic talents, I reserved comment until I dug beneath the surface; my inquisitive nature needed to delve into the whys and wherefores of the artist and the man. The thought and work process that goes into creating art didn’t come to mind until after countless interviews, chasing down Paraiso with questions and acquiring an understanding of his work. Several rewrites later, I turn in a layperson’s humble opinion of an artistic expression that springs from the nether regions of the heart and soul.

Back up several years ago, to when I was visiting my mother in San Pablo City, Laguna. A cousin introduced Paraiso during the town’s fiesta. He reminded me of a throwback from the hippie days with his hair tied back in a ponytail and scruffy attire. He said patients often mistook him for a janitor at the hospital where he worked. After gleaning more information, we learned that Paraiso was a returning Fil-Am who had lived and practiced as a neurologist in the U.S.

Paraiso’s first calling was the healing arts. Educated in Manila, he left his native land for the great metropolis of New York City. So why come back?

“A promise I made to myself. To return home someday, to give something back,” he said, simply. “But first, I needed to acquire more skills, be a more self-contained neurologist. Further learning would enable me to better serve neurological patients in the province.”

Paraiso completed his final residency and fellowship training at New York University Hospital, and is a published neurologist with a subspecialty in epilepsy.

Fast-forward to a couple of years later, I ran into the good doctor when I returned to San Pablo. My sister, her autistic daughter Samantha and I met him at a local restaurant. He was dressier, had on jeans and T-shirt and wore his hair shoulder-length.

I was interested in finding out why Paraiso left a lucrative practice in the U.S. Not only did he practice medicine, he was a returning FilAm and an artist to boot. I asked to see his artwork and he obliged. We drove to his house and were enthusiastically greeted at the gate by a pretty cool golden retriever named Sammy.

“Sammy, meet Sammy,” my sister said, introducing girl and dog. My niece normally does not do well around dogs, but she gave Sammy the dog a quick pat. That was the first good sign.

Paraiso led us to his living quarters in the basement. Our attention was drawn to an art piece on the wall. It was heavy, made of metal and granular stone and weighed 180 pounds, but it gave off a feeling of lightness, of liveliness.

“I call it ‘Allegro,’ ” Paraiso said. “A music teacher viewed it as notes on a sheet music traveling through space as they are being played.”

Allegro is defined as lively tempo in music or progressive metal, as in the genre of heavy-metal music that includes the use of complex compositional structures and intricate instrumental playing.

I call it as I see it. The shape of a half-circle or a crescent moon dominates a large corner of the piece; the earthy backdrop is a hilly landscape with miles and miles of fields. Musical notes trapped in square bottoms in an upper half and bottom full rows, dangling from lines. The word “whimsical” jumped around in my mind as I lingered in front of Allegro.

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All the while, I observed my niece. Sammy, the girl, jumped on the bed and began waving her hands in the air, as if weaving magic. Sammy, the dog, was by the bedside wagging her tail, taking it all in.

My niece and Paraiso’s dog sealed the deal. The interview had begun in earnest.

J. Orosa Paraiso’s beginnings or calling as an artist dates back to a summer class in his youth. The class was instructed to draw self-portraits. Paraiso finished ahead of everyone and submitted his work to the teacher. The next thing he knew, his first attempt at art was on the floor, discarded like trash. He asked why, and was brusquely informed that it couldn’t be believed to be his drawing.

“It was mine, I knew I drew it,” Paraiso said. “But maybe it was my first lesson on how to deal with rejection, or the realization that what matters is my truth, not someone else’s.”

Somewhere along the path of academic learning in New York, the artistic passion resurfaced. He ventured into the world of arts. Self-taught, and without any formal training, Paraiso began creating art with a scrape and stroke of a painter’s knife on canvas.

“When I started doing art in earnest, I felt driven,” he continued. “I had so much energy held in check or buried deep inside. All of that came pouring out. I started painting before, in between and after my practice, to a point where I felt that my practice interfered with my art.”

A list of accomplishments, a successful solo practice, gallery openings and good reviews, Paraiso had the best of both worlds. So, why leave all that?

“I became weary of the frantic pace of private practice in New York,” he said. “And there was the vow I made to return home to provide an efficient neurological service to San Pablo, Laguna.”

He did not return with a gung-ho attitude. Plans to open a practice or create art were put on hold. The first year, he traveled and discovered the Philippines and Asia. He dabbled with painting, but the creative juices were barely flowing. The thing artists agonize about — the dreaded block — stymied Paraiso.

To relieve the stress of restlessness and insecurity, he repacked his bags and traveled to the U.S. and Europe. He sought solace and understanding from friends who did not berate him for leaving a lucrative practice, to pursue his artistic endeavors. Receiving the needed reassurances that the block was temporary, Paraiso flew back home.

As the plane descended into Manila, Paraiso looked out the window and glimpsed acres of squatter houses that ringed the city. The realization of the next phase of his work revealed itself. He wanted to work with metal.

“It was like an epiphany,” Paraiso said, wryly. “I knew where the next turn of my art would take me. I bought sheets of recycled metal, tin and iron destined for a junkyard. I settled in San Pablo, opened my practice and began working with metal.”

Following Paraiso around proved to be interesting. Sometimes it can be placid, like a lake, and sometimes it can be like trains headed for a collision course, or like a wriggling catfish out of its aquatic element. Is this a typical trait of the creative mind — peaceful and frantic at any given time? Is there such a thing as being on an even keel?

“It’s that or be on Prozac,” Paraiso joked.

Where does the energy, the “it” come from? Asked about his conceptualization process, one reply was intriguing.

“My professional and artistic sides are somehow intertwined when I do art,” Paraiso said. “The flow of energy is generated by the emotions or empathy, call it what you will, that I have toward my patients.”

Paraiso follows a rigid daily schedule. He usually retires early and rises at first light. Armed with a tall coffee mug, he drives a short distance to a friend’s compound, where he swims in the Olympic-size pool before doing art in the huge warehouse.

I met up with Paraiso after his swim. He is either squatting on the floor looking over his latest project, pacing with coffee mug in hand, or discussing finished or unfinished design pieces with his assistant. He remembers there’s an interview in progress. He sits down, feet tapping nervously on the floor and talks a mile a minute. Hard keeping up with this guy.

Indeed, keeping up with Paraiso’s level of energy flow early in the morning can be challenging for a still bleary-eyed reporter. But it proved to be the best time to capture the artist at work and touch upon the intricate and complex thought processes of a creative mind.

A project begins with metal sheets that have been fired and cleaned to remove clinging elements. Paraiso then makes a sketch of what he has in mind for the design, and passes it on to his assistant. The metal is pounded out, flattened, cut, hammered and chiseled carefully into the desired form.

Paraiso takes over and pounds hard to form the shape the way he wants it, and draws chalk lines on the metal for the other shapes of molding. The metal is polished and sanded down to reveal its core. A protective solution is applied to the whole surface before setting it out to dry.

“Oftentimes, while working on the metal, I feel like the metal dictates the shapes, contour, form and texture it wants me to do,” Paraiso said, pounding away.

“I use acrylic paint, patina, various acids and chemicals to give it, the metal, a new life form,” Paraiso said. “Sometimes I add copper over the sheets to add another dimension to the character of the iron sheet.”

Paraiso’s concept of what the piece will be creates an energy that is transferred onto the metal. The final form comes to him as he works on the piece. The process can take anywhere from six to eight weeks, depending on the size and weight of the work.

One shudders at the thought of the logistical nightmare of transporting Paraiso’s heavy-duty art pieces from San Pablo to a gallery in Manila. The metal pieces weigh 18 to 22 pounds, while the combined metal and granular stone weigh 160 to 220 pounds. It can’t be easy navigating the horrendous traffic and potholes of Metro Manila.

Talk turned to the difference between painting on canvas and Paraiso’s switch to metal artwork.

“When I was painting, the mood I wanted to capture greatly affected the colors and strokes, and eventually the concept,” Paraiso said. “But moods are fleeting, and I had this impulse to finish the work as fast as I could.

“This time, the concept is greatly influenced by visualizing it first. My current sustained emotion, mental state or thought process dominates. The mood may be the added layer that influences my state of mind or thought transferred onto the art piece, and finally expressed.”

In between pounding and pacing, the artist describes the finishing process as a feeling of exhilaration. “I feel relieved that so much has been released from within, but at the same time I don’t want it to end,” Paraiso said. “I’m reluctant to put on the last shade of color, the final coating that will protect it from the elements because I know the connection to my work will be severed.”

When the work that took awhile to create nears completion, an artist needs to prepare to detach from his or her creation. The gamut of emotions, energy and time spent has run its course. The work is done.

Paraiso’s mostly circular-designed pieces are indicative of the artist’s thought processes, state of mind or being.

“The circles, they perhaps represent infinity or cycles or a continuous collection of points that infinitely connects one to the other. No one knows where the beginning is; no one knows where the end is. Maybe there isn’t supposed to be any beginning or end,” Paraiso said. “Call it what you will, but I view my circular pieces as an infinite cycle, like my personal mandala.”

Mandalas are said to exist in several planes of reality: intrinsically, meditational, speech or mind — take your pick. But this isn’t about the mystical artistry of monks, dedicating their lives to the founder of Buddhism.

The Banyan Tree is a panel of pure metal that contains three distinct circular pieces. Each piece is a different meditation and gives an insight to the thought process of the artist.

“The imagery expressed in this particular work must have been the final processed form of the fragments of images seen and retained through my days in the forest,” Paraiso said. “Each piece reminds me of a time spent meditating on a specific tree, observing the changes in its form, seeing different images and representations, as the illumination shifts through the changing lights of the rising moon.”

As a whole piece, it gives the viewer a forest twilight feel. It can be seen as the evolution of a banyan tree, with new limbs forming and intertwining, struggling for domination, reaching for the stars.

The Banyan Tree is reminiscent of Impressionist portrayals of the great cathedrals in Europe, where the artist will encompass different views of the vault, transept or nave of the cathedral at different times of day in different light and from different view points. Paraiso achieves a similar effect with his varying perspectives, or meditations, on the Banyan Tree. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

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Art critics analyze, evaluate and express judgment of an artist’s work. They judge art in the context of aesthetics or the theory of beauty. Art critics, whether they’re good or bad in their critique, have the power to make or break an aspiring artist, much like book reviewers who find fault and destroy the hopes of an author.

Maybe so, but if artists were to place so much value on one critique, there would be no reason to keep on creating. We would wallow in self-pity and withdraw, but Paraiso should have no fears. His artwork reveals the prerequisite talent.

Just when I thought I had all the material I needed to write the article, Paraiso pulled out a few surprises. The article was put on hold until I saw for myself if, once again, it was worth the wait.

I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries . . .
~ Simon and Garfunkel

Stark in its simplicity, the Rock stands amid a lush background of plants and blooming flowers in Paraiso’s garden, exposed to the natural elements. It beckons enticingly with its come hither stance. Pandora’s box slightly opens upon approach.

The Rock represents a person’s soul, in this case Paraiso’s. The holes on the sculpture are windows. The artist allows a glimpse of his soul, but watch out for the thorns. The jutting metal with grooves surrounding the windows are intricate puzzles or traps laid out for whoever dares to get up close and personal.

“One is allowed to see through,” Paraiso agreed. “But only from a distance.”

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My life has been a tapestry
Of rich and royal hue;
An everlasting vision
Of the ever-changing view;
A wondrous woven magic
In bits of blue and gold;
A tapestry to feel and see;
Impossible to hold . . .
~ Carole King

Tapestry is a complex patch of designs, all from Paraiso’s mind framework. Indeed, the intricate designs are items collected by the artist through the years, stashed away until the right time came to create an outlet for his inner workings, his artistic expression, his life.

The centerpiece of Tapestry is a spiral staircase encased in grilled windows, illuminated by the pulsating light from within the gaping hole beneath it. Picture this: you’re a traveler walking down a darkened alley, looking for a place to rest your aching, tired body. A single light flashes ahead, beckoning the unsuspecting traveler.

You get up close, but is there someone to greet you? There’s only the lit spiral staircase that leads to anywhere and nowhere. Do you keep going because you don’t want to risk it or do you succumb to the hypnotic slow dance of the pulsating light and climb those stairs?

“The light gives me the impression that the work is alive,” Paraiso said. “The details of the piece appear to be encrypted, just like I have them stored in my mind. I’m not sure whether they can be decoded or interpreted. They were once stored in my mind, but not anymore.”

“The designs may represent my recent past,” Paraiso said. “They fascinate me. You can look through them. See what’s inside or what’s beyond. For example, I see an empty apartment with a spiral staircase. That was significant in my past.

“Each piece is a composition of its own. They’re made out of small pieces of metal sheet plates. A few are incorporated with objects that I’ve had for years. Each one welded together to form this unified piece.

“Understanding this work will take me time,” Paraiso said. “I must travel back in time. How far back? I don’t know. It won’t be as funny, as painful, sad or as joyful. I’m looking at it now from a distance, as an observer.”

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Paradise Interrupted (working title) is the latest Paraiso concept: a pair of stand-alone pieces, yet together, one female, the other male — a study of the male and female out of their element.

“In the original design, the two were connected,” Paraiso said. “However, as the work progressed, and as the concept became clearer, they (the pieces) were eventually separated.

“After understanding the shorter piece (female) and what it represented, it occurred to me that this is going to be my concept of the beginning, that is, creation,” Paraiso said. “There was so much enlightenment in the beginning and harmony all around. It’s about how the male longed for a female, gave it his all, then the separation and the journey.”

Ironically, Paraiso’s name translates from Spanish as paradise or Garden of Eden.

“That’s how I look at it now. It is unfinished and upon completion, only then will I fully understand my work, therefore, the working title,” Paraiso said.

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Perhaps Paraiso had to make the move to metal and sculpture to achieve a less abstract and more concrete vision of his artistic themes. The metal and sculpture works have gravity and weight, a physical presence that is less flimsy than paint on canvas.

This doesn’t mean that Paraiso has turned away from painting entirely. After all, the painted image still resonates strongly in our visual age.

Whimsical, sad, profound and thought provoking are words that describe Paraiso’s art. It’s all about his circle of life.

Paraiso’s ultimate goal in life is to reach a point where he can be of use professionally, to trade his medical services for whatever the simple, country folk can afford to give, to focus on his artwork, and yes, to be happy.

Any man who has felt compelled to practice medicine in New York, to find success as a painter, and then give it up to return to the land of his birth, where he brings medical advances to the poor — and at the same time switch to a completely new art medium — cannot confidently predict what calling he may answer next: “Who knows?” Paraiso said. “Someday I may go back to painting.”

But in whatever way he chooses to express himself, J. Orosa Paraiso will do it with a passion all his own.

In closing, here’s something to think about. What is the difference between gawking at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi gallery in Florence with glistening eyes because it overwhelms the senses, and meditating and focusing on Paraiso’s Banyan Tree with nature’s hues captured in recycled metal, reaching out?

It’s a far cry from Florence to San Pablo, between Renaissance master artists and modern contemporary artists. The mind-boggling list of art through the ages goes on. But in this layperson’s opinion, there is little difference.

It’s not about judging or offering whatever little most of us know of an artist’s creative endeavors and how and where he or she finds inspiration. You marvel at the thought process of artists and how they realized it.

Finally, the word inspiration is defined as being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. It has nothing to do with realization. There’s a big difference.

Look up realization. While you’re at it, look up passion.

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