National Arts Month has already passed but we continue to celebrate and appreciate the arts. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts announced that this year’s theme for the celebrations is “Sining ng Pag-Asa” as a salute to the arts as a beacon of hope during these challenging times.
In keeping with this theme, let me share with you the story of Robert Alejandro, an artist whose works serve as an inspiration to many.
Alejandro’s parents started the brand Papemelroti 53 years ago, as a store was called Corben Gifts, which was named after his parents Corit and Benny. His mother “would sell furniture, things she makes, stuffed toys.”
The name Papemelroti started as a joke among the family. “We would joke over dinner and say that we should have our own store with Patsy, Peggy, Meldy, Robert and Tina—Papemelroti—and my father said that it’s absurd and that no one would be able to say the name.”But it turned out that everyone can say the name. After 53 years, Alejandro notes, “It’s still being used, we have 20-plus stores in and around Manila. It is amazing, that a business can survive 50-plus years in the Philippine retail industry. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
Even though Alejandro was very young when the family business started, he began learning the ropes quickly. He unleashed his creativity pretty early, too. “I was already making things for sale even when I was still in school . . . I enjoy creating things.”
He was always interested in art. “My earliest memory is drawing on the walls, on the furniture and my notebooks in school. Papemelroti came very naturally; it came hand in hand with my love for drawing and the arts . . . It was an avenue for expression talaga.”
We asked Alejandro why most of his work feature a Filipino theme. “Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve always liked drawing Filipino things. I remember it [was] started by a book called ‘Filipino Readers’ by Camilo Osias and the line drawings by Fernando Amorsolo . . . I really loved seeing those sights. That’s who I am, I am Filipino, that’s a large part that makes me unique and special. Again, it comes naturally, it doesn’t come from my mind that I have to make it Filipino. It’s what I enjoy and what I celebrate which is a large part of me and us . . .
“The exhibition I am working on right now is Philippine botanical and plants . . . Most of what I do are Filipino. I love the Philippines, and my artworks portray that. The Philippines is a huge inspiration as it is naturally beautiful and is simple.”
Alejandro also finds inspiration in the act of creation. “I do a lot of things, if you look at my website roberalejandro.com, I have published work, I design spaces, I draw, I do all sorts of things . . . My excitement comes from knowing that my work is something that others can see. It can be a large space or just a small notepad in Papemelroti, but it excites me greatly. I really enjoy the process since I get inspired by the project itself. I don’t need much to get me excited to do a project especially if it’s something I haven’t done before.”
Cool new products
He added, “Most people go through a Papemelroti phase, but a lot of people outgrow Papemelroti. But what I’d like to tell them is you should check it out now, we have cool products that are new. Our products are for all ages. People think of us as just paper products, but we always come up with something new.”
He has been creating most of his life—how does he choose his subjects now? “I am already 58 years old. If I do the same thing for 50-plus years, that can be boring and old, which I don’t want. I don’t think the Philippines is like that either, our country is so exciting and cool and always amazing. So my art, I feel, should reflect that. So, I’m always looking for new ways, new Illustration style, always new, and my niece helps from time to time. I want to make something new, and I am thankful that my sisters support me in that.”
Art has played an important role in Alejandro’s life. “Art has a very big impact on my life. Ever since I was a young boy, I have struggled with depression, even suicidal thoughts and art has always been my refuge. I remember when I was in school, I felt insecure, but since I had this art skill, that was like my superpower, it’s what made me different . . . We didn’t grow up with money but all throughout my life, art has always been my friend and ally.”
He added, “Around seven years ago I was diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s not easy having cancer, it’s a day-to-day struggle. I would tell my family and partner that’s why I draw and that’s why I paint—[when I do], I feel normal and well. It helps me forget that I am sick when I am creating art. The moment I won’t be able to create art, I don’t know what will happen to me.”
Sharing his art is also very important to him. “Me and my friends would do art workshops for children who live in poverty, During the pandemic I would do art classes online. So, part of my art is sharing it with others. I get very happy by it as people get enriched by the art that I share.”
‘Art is Kool’
Alejandro did a TV show called “Art is Kool” for a year, only stopping when he moved to Canada. “It was an art show for Filipino children who had no access to art education.”
Even before the show, Alejandro and his friends would give impoverished kids free art lessons. “Whenever I do workshops in communities, there are so many children who are absolutely talented, and brilliant and hardworking . . . pero walang opportunities. Can you imagine if they were given the opportunities?”
He has a message for aspiring artists. “The very fact that you want to pursue art, that’s all you need. My message is go, go, go for it and make no excuses not to try it out. Create and enjoy the fact that you can do it. I want to tell each and every one of them that they can create art, you don’t have to create art that looks like Robert Alejandro’s or whoever because you are special . . .
“Explore art and whatever art form there is. It doesn’t have to be visual arts. If you look at online platforms you can see it. I would encourage others to explore their art and see what their special powers are in art. Why? Because it will enrich their life in so many ways.” —CONTRIBUTED INQ