With art, you can escape. Each brush and stroke can transport you away from your painting supports and into the world of another. Maria Stabio lived in a world within a world, herself — growing up in a diverse San Francisco community with her Filipina mother and American father.
Today, Maria creates art informed by her visits to the Philippines, as well as the journey to understand the culture better and her mother’s perspective in life. After completing a year-long artist residency in Doha, Qatar, Maria was thrust back into the New York City art scene and has since found her footing in her Pennsylvania studio creating paintings every single day.
“I have tons of artist block. I would say that every week, I’m constantly saying to myself, ‘What is it that I’m really doing? What is the next subject for my paintings?’ But I think the only thing that helps is the fact that I keep constantly trying, and I constantly keep making anything.”
Maria has always been creative — from fashion to baking — but it wasn’t until her last two years of high school when she was accepted into an advanced placement visual arts class, that she began her foray into the art world. Her love of this newfound expression took her across the country to Boston University, where she received her undergraduate degree. Though it was a “conservative program,” as she puts it — focusing on precision, measurements, and painting to the correct value scale — it was an integral foundation to her conceptual art graduate program at Columbia University.
“I feel like it would be a good counter balance to what I had learned previously but I just didn’t know at that time […] When you’re put in that position where you have to defend what it is that you’re doing, it’s hard to get to a place of growth because you’re always in the defensive mindset […] I think I learned significantly more by being there than I would have at any other program and for better or for worse, I kind of went into a fog with my artwork.”
During this time, Maria went to the Middle East to teach painting and drawing with the Virginia Commonwealth University. While she was part of the VCU community and got into her groove there, she was eager to get back to the artist community in New York City. “That was a difficult transition too. When I came back, I found out a lot of my friends had been networking and having shows and growing their artist practice. That was hard to be gone from that for a whole year.”
Feeling like a fish out of water is a familiar feeling that immigrants can empathize with. During Maria’s first two trips to the Philippines, she was indifferent to her experience there. It wasn’t until her third trip in 2017 where she began to envision a different life if her mother had never moved. Back home, her mother grew up in complete poverty, struggling to eat, no house, and unable to attend school. But her ambition is what brought her to the United States in the 1970s. “I looked at [my trip to the Philippines] as a parallel life, ‘what would have happened if I had grown up here? These would’ve been all my relatives and I would’ve been best friends with them.’ I don’t have any brothers or sisters so these are all the people that would’ve been sort of my siblings, so to speak.”
As with many other countries, the Filipino culture has a collaborative way of living, sharing everything and living with your entire family, without question. Being in her mother’s homeland helped her gain a frame of reference for her behavior and upbringing.
“I used to think ‘Oh, she just doesn’t get it.’ Or, ‘I can’t connect with her because we’re just different people.’ I realized that her understanding and behavior were very tied to her culture […] I think making these paintings is about trying to understand her but then also trying to understand the most I can about the culture of the Philippines without being biased in one direction or another. It really is more like a research project, in that sense.”
This lifelong research project that Maria is embarking on is one that is fueled by Lois Dodd, her inspiration. At 92 years old, she continues painting, not for any acclaim or money, but simply to paint. “It took decades for people to understand what it was that she was doing, but she just kept doing that. She just wants to paint in her barn.”
The lure of solitude paints Maria’s life, from being an independent child to the escape she gets from her studio. While she lives in uncertainty, as do many artists — especially during COVID, she lives knowing her dedication to her craft will open doors for her. To herself and immigrants in this country, she advises to “prepare to work really hard, possibly in obscurity, for a while. But also be prepared to really think about how to communicate your experience effectively because I think a lot of people are paying attention more than ever to people of colors’ stories and immigrant stories.”
Be bold. Be open. It just might take you around the world.
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