Pepe Delfin Explores Empathy and Imagination Through Color in Art
International Women's Day

Pepe Delfin and the Empathy of Abstraction

Artist Pepe Delfin explores the intersections of imagination and abstraction in her abstract art. Photo by Adrian Kyle Labuguen, courtesy of MONO8.

Pepe Delfin’s journey from using exclusively monochrome hues in her work to once again using color in distinctive abstract, geometric pieces is a manifestation of the delicate balancing act that artists put in their practice: staying true to their vision and creative expression, while recognizing the social realities of being an artist in this world. In time for Art in the Park this weekend, the visual artist lets writer Nicole Soriano into her studio.

Visit vogue.ph everyday this month for daily features on inspiring women, as nominated by the people whose lives they’ve changed.

Lately, artist Pepe Delfin cannot see what some people see in her work. “People have started asking why my newer works are becoming dark,” she says. She thought it was strange, because after creating largely black and white paintings for her solo shows in 2021 and 2022 — the throes of the pandemic — she recently started to use color again.

I visited Delfin in her studio as she was in the midst of finishing her works for this year’s Art in the Park, where she is one of the fair’s featured artists. Her studio is small and cozy, a corner room in her condominium at the heart of Pasig. Plenty of natural light filters through translucent white curtains, making the space feel light as a cloud. Delfin sports loose pants and a loose white blouse, her sleeves rolled up. She is warm and relaxed. She blends right in. 

Artist Pepe Delfin specializes in abstract art in her signature maze-like geometric style. Photo by Adrian Kyle Labuguen, courtesy of MONO8.

Two unfinished works are set on an easel and laid on the floor. They are rendered in Delfin’s maze-like, geometric abstract style, where simple shapes are arranged in ways that feel simultaneously familiar and ambiguous. A circle atop a triangle could at first evoke a human figure. But look again, and you start to think it’s the sun above a mountain.

Looking at her unfinished works, I noticed that the base color of these paintings is light pink. 

The color, I tell her, reminds me of a piece of trivia I heard from years ago: how some psychiatric hospitals painted their walls pink, as the color allegedly had a calming effect on patients. “I kind of understand,” Delfin says. “[Pink] is not really something you associate with anything, I don’t know, terrifying.” We started saying aloud the things we associated with the color pink. Babies. Softness. And of course, Barbie.

Delfin shares that her works for Art in the Park are inspired by dollhouses and children’s toys. She was curious about the concept of empathy, and how someone develops it. “So I started Googling it, empathy in children . . . I had a feeling that imagination and empathy were connected.”

Pepe Delfin has only recently returned to using color in her artwork. Photo by Adrian Kyle Labuguen, courtesy of MONO8.

She found an academic article where the author asserts that empathy is an act of imagination. “Because how else are you gonna feel the feelings of other people,” Delfin says, “unless you imagine it?” Her new works thus capture the spirit of a child allowing their imagination to run free, placing objects together until they reach a vision or a scene that delights them. Perhaps it’s a ball on a block, or a small, solitary puppet on an elaborate stage. 

As a child, Delfin loved to make things. She made food out of clay dough for her Barbies. She played with Polly Pockets, and when she ran out of little houses, she made houses out of cigarette boxes and yards out of pencil shavings. She loved to play pretend. She loved to imagine. “There was a whole week where I wanted to be a tightrope walker. I’d ask my dad to draw a tightrope walker for me, so I could just stare at it and dream,” she says, laughing.

In high school, she enjoyed illustrating posters and making props for school plays—something that, to her, felt like problem-solving and playing with puzzles. It made sense that for college, she studied information design, which similarly involved making posters and layouts. Graphic designers have typical career trajectories. Delfin interned at an ad agency as a student. She then worked as an in-house graphic designer for a local brand. But the hours, she says, killed her. “I realized I’m not built for that life—the nine to five.” 

Pepe Delfin says she wants people not to feel intimidated by her as an artist. Photo by Adrian Kyle Labuguen, courtesy of MONO8.

When the pandemic hit, Delfin thought that if she was going to die soon, she wanted to spend the rest of her days doing what made her happy. She began “microdosing” being a visual artist. She befriended artists from the University of the Philippines, joining their group shows and trips to museums. She met Gwen Bautista of MONO8 Gallery, who then invited her to submit paintings to the gallery. “That was it . . .  [after that], it was just show after show after show.”

Delfin’s artistic process begins with intuition. “Sometimes I don’t exactly have an idea of what I want to do, so I just start playing around with shapes on my computer. And then when I find something, I use that as an anchor. I build everything else from there.” When it’s time to paint, however, she becomes very methodical and strict. Atop a desk in her studio lies a ruler, a syringe, and a weighing scale. Every aspect of her paintings—from the sizes of the shapes, to the amount of paint per color—is measured.

“How I came to that process has a lot to do with capitalism,” she laughs. “Because you have to be efficient. You have deadlines. And I wanted to figure out exactly how much time I would need for a work. So I measured everything.” Her entire process feels like a delicate balancing act between the freedom and imagination of her childhood, and the reality of being an artist in the world.

Abstract artists have long been shrouded in stereotype and myth. They are, in popular culture, almost always male. They are volatile and reclusive, immortalized in the image of Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. They demand a specific, transcendental response from audiences. Color Field painter Mark Rothko, for instance, famously favored viewers who wept before his paintings.

Pepe Delfin in her studio. Photo by Adrian Kyle Labuguen, courtesy of MONO8.

But Delfin values how the world perceives her art. She cares less about her own intentions, and more about people’s rich, diverse interpretations. She believes that when she puts a work out into the world, it’s owned by everyone else, not her. “As the author, I prefer to be dead,” she says with a laugh.  She mentions the artist, designer, and pupper maker Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who challenged barriers between art and craft, and created bright, playful abstract paintings. “I aspire to become an artist like that—to create art that isn’t intimidating to people. I want people to feel welcome when they see abstract art.”

Delfin’s largest work for Art in the Park is a black and white mural of an empty urban landscape. While she sees her smaller, geometric abstract paintings as expressions of one’s interior world, of childlike imagination, the mural reflects the world outside. “I want to collaborate with people in building it,” says Delfin. During the fair, visitors are invited to stick colored circles on the mural. In her paintings, Delfin typically represents people as dots — and she hopes that by the end of the fair, the once colorless landscape is filled with these colorful, people-dots. She wants visitors to be part of the work—to experience what it’s like to make a mark.

I try to imagine what it’s like to be the first person to stick a dot on the mural. It must be daunting, I think, to disrupt this perfectly clean, monochrome landscape. To expose yourself through a single color. But without that first dot, the landscape will never change. It will never go beyond the artist’s imagination. It will never know what the next dot will lead to, and the next one, and the next one. 

I realize this is probably what Delfin felt when she began to let color back into her work.

More From Vogue

Share now on:
FacebookXEmailCopy Link