Throughout history, art has been used to showcase human creativity, ignite people’s imagination, and stir emotion in the hearts of many. It also plays a role in helping its creators and audiences cope when circumstances seem too large to comprehend and endure. Human suffering has long been a source of inspiration for artists—from Edvard Munch illustrating his experience with the Spanish flu to Keith Haring’s artwork on the 1980’s AIDS crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted the world and its overall effect on society are no different. Thousands of people who find themselves in self-isolation have resorted to art to help them cope. Mental health studies reveal that art can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety caused by the current uncertainty. But more than a source of leisure and entertainment, art is a powerful tool that can spark hope.

With this in mind, Pilipinas Shell, in collaboration with multi-genre arts festival Fringe Manila, launched Virtual Art Interact, a platform for renowned artists to share their insights on the sector and how to develop their skills, on October 3. The virtual forum-cum-workshop is a part of Shell’s long-running National Students Art Competition (NSAC), an ongoing contest that is committed to supporting young artists and is accepting entries until October 11. Following NSAC’s 53rd anniversary launch last August, Virtual Art Interact featured workshop demos and artist discussions, designed to support young Filipino creative talents from the grassroots level.

Just like the NSAC, Virtual Art Interact’s main theme was about “HOPE IN OUR ART,” challenging the youth to create works of art that encourage positivity at this time. Spread across three days and three regions to cover the entire Philippines’ rich creative scene, the first leg of Virtual Art Interact began in Luzon. As the biggest island in the archipelago, Luzon has no shortage of culture, both in the urban setting and beyond. The National Capital Region, in particular, is known for its energetic contemporary art scene, with the most prominent galleries and museums spread across the city.

For years, Shell has been an advocate for the arts, recognizing that it is a key to unlocking the potential of the youth and our nation’s future. “We want the NSAC to become a platform to support and empower the community, so that they may in turn uplift more Filipinos through art,” stated Sankie Simbulan, Country Social Performance and Investment Manager of Pilipinas Shell. “Because despite this crisis, art and artists are resilient. Through programs such as Virtual Art Interact, Shell is able to amplify artists’ voices and give young artists a better chance to thrive, despite the difficult circumstances they are facing.”

“It’s been very difficult because we can’t go out,” admitted Manila-based street artist, painter, and illustrator Jappy Agoncillo. He is renowned for his distinct comic-book style using pop culture themes. A lot of his most popular works can be found sprawled against buildings and urban structures around the National Capital Region. But while the city may be his canvas, the lockdown has challenged him to seek other platforms and sources of inspiration for his art.

Agoncillo, who performed a live demonstration of acrylic art in Virtual Art Interact, continued, “I’m a street artist, but doing street art is off the table right now. I overcame this by shifting towards trying to help others. Many people have lost their livelihoods and want to turn to art to create, express themselves, and even earn a little more. I’ve been giving advice to younger, aspiring artists who are figuring out how to begin their careers.”

With so many creative spaces shuttering, artists also need new platforms to showcase their work—and that’s where NSAC and Virtual Art Interact come in. “We have this well of information and platforms through the internet. We can easily connect,” added curator and art director Con Cabrera who moderated the discussion. “It’s a very special time for artists.”

Renowned sculptor and former NSAC winner Leeroy New pointed out that technology has been shattering the glass ceiling for artists, especially during the lockdown where the art-starved public turn to the internet for solace, expression, and inspiration. He said, “Now, everyone can share their art online and have access to a global audience.”

New, who participated in the program more than fifteen years ago, has gone on to achieve awards and world-class recognition from the Asian Cultural Council, Singapore Biennale, and other prestigious organizations. He also mentioned the important role that art plays beyond demonstrating individual creativity: He said, “But with this crisis, art as a practice has to expand. It’s not just about creating artworks, but also figuring out how to use that self-expression to be involved in the community—whether that’s converting your studio to design protective equipment for healthcare workers, or creating art that informs. So it’s also a matter of expanding our concepts of creativity with the times.”

Fringe Manila Festival Director Andrei Pamintuan also emphasized, “The artist’s role in society is to be of service in the community. The NSAC is a good reminder for our young artists to not just hone their craft, but also think about how their art can change lives.”

New concurred, saying, “Artists are the storytellers of the world, and our stories have the capacity to transform communities and society for the better by instilling progressive ideas into our work.”

Shell Virtual Art Interact will continue to support artists in order that they may thrive despite the effects of the pandemic to cultivate the ideas of tomorrow.

The next leg of Shell Virtual Art Interact is set to happen on October 17 and will focus on the Mindanao region. For more information, keep posted on Shell Philippines’ social media accounts.

Meanwhile, participants who are interested in joining the NSAC may submit their entries until October 11. Winning contestants will be awarded with cash prizes, medals, and plaques, with the 3rd placer getting Php30,000, 2nd placer getting Php40,000, and 1st placer getting Php60,000.

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