Text by Sara Grace Fojas
Page Design by Pinggot Zulueta
When Joel Rodriguez Bartolome was young, the teacher gave his class an assignment to draw heroes and important personalities of history. He decided to draw a portrait of Elvis Presley. The portrait was not displayed.
Joe, or “Welbart Slowhands” as he calls himself, has always had his own interpretation of things. He loves telling stories through the use of a brush and paint slathered on a canvas inside his 4×7-meter studio in San Fernando, Pampanga.
“I love to tell stories through my paintings. I’ve been doing semiautobiographical pieces since I was young,” he says. “I remember how, at an early age, I would draw images of helicopters and fish everywhere in the house. In high school, I learned how to draw portraits. I call myself Welbart Slowhands to symbolize my journey as a self-taught art practitioner.”
His early exposure to art started inside the parish church of his father’s hometown in Paombong, Bulacan, which contains the masterpieces of the late local master Celing Marasigan. “I always saw them while attending mass,” Welbart recounts. “It was my early exposure to figurative painting. Maybe that is the reason why I love the works of Caravaggio, Diego Velazquez, and Michaelangelo. I am also very fascinated with how Fernando Amorsolo plays light in his paintings.”
But Welbart’s passion and calling to art didn’t become his profession, at first. Due to financial constraints, he decided to become a nurse and accepted a 12-hour shift for a bedridden patient .“After I bathed my patient, Lola Choleng, cleaned her room, and prepared her medicine and food for the day, I didn’t have anything else to do,” he says. “I almost read all the books and magazine in my employer’s library. But my interest in art never left me so I thought of doing cross-stitches during my free time. Then I shifted to drawing and water color.”
Art slowly made a comeback in Welbart’s life. He couldn’t help exploring different mediums and learning about new processes. Adventurous, he always tries various techniques when it comes to making his pieces. His first work, he admits, was made with the wrong process because he used mediums like acrylic, opaque, and impasto. There was also a time his first oil-on-canvas piece took almost a month to dry because he used a lot of linseed oil.
“It was trial and error but I achieved it. I frequented National Book Store Shangri-la Mall for private reading in order to learn,” he says. “I could not afford to buy expensive art books and this branch allows private reading. “
He was exploring the world of art but he hid it from his employer. Little did he know that his first client would be the daughter of his patient’s doctor.
“When they discovered it, I was surprised that they really liked it,” he says. “My first portrait commission was for the daughter of my patient’s doctor. I also did portraits for my employer, even after I resigned. I got lots of inspirations, tips, and advice from the senior artists I met in my business. I am so thankful to all my friends in the art industry, both the masters and the newbies.”
Welbart was eventually able to do two solo shows about anger and despair after his father died: “You Will Be Loved and Other Lies” at the BenCab Museum and “#iamhypocrite” at Altro Mondo in Ayala Center.
“The Show in BenCab Museum was before I suffered depression,” says Welbart, “After four years in hibernation, I came out with the #iamhypocrite,” my fifth solo show. I am very grateful now. I learned to do away with all the dramas and just be happy, thanks to my fiancée, my aging mother, and my sister who is undergoing dialysis. My favorite item in my studio is a photo of me and my fiancée during my second solo show. They are my ‘whys’ to live again.”
Inside his studio, he finds solace— with its old and new unfinished pieces, framing materials, fishing tools, art materials, and some clothes. Here, he doesn’t only make art but takes a break from the world. It’s where he does his meditation at midnight or early in the morning. And these hours of self-reflection grew into his recently concluded exhibit “The Only Way Out Is In” at the Village Art Gallery in Alabang.
“It was about how meditation and prayers helped me understand the things that burdened me before and my reflection on my recent visit to Bhutan,” Welbart says. “Creating art brought me a lot of positive changes. My patience was also challenged by unwanted situations that stressed me out. But I am glad that, with the help of my newfound philosophy, I now handle things lightly and calmly. Art has given me a special place in the sun.”