Filipino-American artist Saul Jerome E. San Juan’s striking images are on display this month at a Montrose art gallery. Figurish, a collection of thematic pieces from several artists that includes San Juan’s collection of blue-eyed men, is open to the public through March 12 at Bill Arning Exhibitions.
Art has been an integral part of San Juan’s life and how he’s expressed himself since early childhood. “I’ve been drawing since as far back as I can remember,” he says. “From my earliest drawings of volcanoes and airplanes, making art has given me the satisfaction of being in control of what goes on within the confines of my composition, limited only by my knowledge, imagination, sense of propriety, and time.”
After moving from the Philippines to the United States at the age of 14, art became even more important to the artist as he began teaching high-school art classes. “Since I switched careers [after] many satisfying years in architecture, I have been delightfully surprised at how much inspiration I also find in empowering young artists to express their humanity eloquently in visual art.”
San Juan’s artworks may appear conventional at first glance, but his pieces are far more complex once you peel back the layers. If you ask San Juan to describe his portraits and landscape art, he will point to John Singer Sargent, a celebrated Anglo-American painter.
“On the surface, my art, like Sargent’s, appears more conservative than much modern art in being representational in translating three-dimensional reality into two-dimensional interpretation through careful observation of proportions and visual phenomena like value and color,” he says. “Expressionism and novelty get in the way of my subversion of what I perceive to be others’ proud feelings of moral and aesthetic superiority—feelings of superiority that I admit indulging in myself as I choose how to make art.”
The Lone Star State has been an inspiration for San Juan lately, which is evident in his landscape pieces. “I am inspired by the summertime, the rivers of the Texas Hill Country, country music, contemporary art, art history and more,” he notes.
“My landscape paintings are done on-site and in one sitting, so they are definitely responses to the momentary scene. I can enjoy the wonder of the place, made more precious by the limited time. The spontaneity and physical immersion of my landscape work are foils to the extremely time-consuming artifice of my studio work.”
San Juan also enjoys experimenting with other media and finding additional ways to tell stories that spark audience conversations and emotional reactions.
“My studio work, which is represented in the Houston show, involves hoarding visual material through the internet and photo shoots,” he explains. “I then sift through it all and experiment to create pieces that I can take delight in working on for days. It allows me to speak to my audience politely and elegantly, justifying my indulgence in the raw material.”
San Juan believes that art is more important now than ever before, because people are looking for a means of escape. He appreciates how art allows people to experience a shared connection with one another.
“Paradoxically, in a world that is hyper-connected with instant communication, empathy between human beings is easily lost,” he says. “I feel that great art has the ability to slow us down and get us to empathize with other people—to find out what keeps them going and, more broadly, remind us what it means to be human, to appreciate our shared feelings of being alive through suffering and pleasure, even as our technology has largely desensitized us and caused us to cower from the awfully beautiful mess that is the wondrous complexity of existence.”
San Juan hopes his pieces will spark dialogue and many thoughtful conversations among those who see his works.
“My art, to me, comes alive in dialogue with an audience and the feelings, experiences, and preconceptions they bring,” he says. “Part of my pleasure in making art is the expectation that others will see it and be somehow affected by it, even minutely.”