Where All The Stories Began: Mark Lewis Lim Higgins And The Art Of Storytelling

In Tales From a Drawing Table, Mark Lewis Lim Higgins’ new book, the tastemaker talks spaces and shares a colorful peek.

It was never in my nature to question where my ideas came from, or why they even entered my mind in the first place. 

To create my book after so many years involved the task of thinking back over three decades. I tried to remember my state of mind at different times in my life, where I was living and what I was experiencing. When using the word “painter” to describe myself, the most common image that comes to mind would likely be someone in a large, messy studio with drop-cloths over the floor, paint splatters and lead tubes everywhere, and piles of canvasses lying around or perched on easels. However, this is not me. I have always worked on paper, with water-based paints, and on a flat drawing table. Imagine, if you will, that I might be more closely compared to a Medieval scribe quietly creating an illuminated manuscript rather than a manic painter assaulting a large canvas with a dripping paintbrush. My work area does not occupy a lot of space, and because of this mobility I have been able to move around and create these paintings in many different habitations.

To begin my story, I was born a hybrid of two contrasting cultures. My father was Anglo-Irish and my mother was the product of a Spanish-Filipino mother and a Chinese father. Both sets of my paternal and maternal great grandparents were born around the mid 1800s on opposite sides of the globe, and lived through the turn of the 20th century. This final century of the 2nd millennium began with horses and simple automobiles, and underwent massive transformations throughout the world. I, on the other hand, bore witness to the turn of the 21st century—the first century of the third millenium—the time of air and space travel, as well as the birth of cyberspace. As remotely connected to me as these forebears might seem, I feel that they are an intrinsic part of who I am. I have always believed that far beyond the limits and borders of what become countries or nations, we are all maps of our ancestors—they continue to exist in our DNA.

As a child sitting on my mother’s lap, she always told me that I was an old soul. Salvacion Lim Higgins was one of those artists who truly had a passion for what she did, and her work was always permeated with pure joy. I certainly absorbed this from her, as my paintings have never come from any dark places in my mind. She was someone who influenced and inspired me all of my life, a truly rare combination of parent, best friend and mentor. By the time my sister Sandra Louise and I were born, my mother was in her early 40s, had reached the peak of her career as a fashion designer, and had decided to try the role of being a mother and a wife. Salvacion Lim Higgins opened her fashion house under the name of Slim (an abbreviation for S. Lim) in 1947, just after the Philippines had seen the end to World War II. While pregnant with my sister in 1960, she and her sister, Purificacion, opened Slim’s Fashion & Arts School. Now the oldest fashion institution in the country, its graduates account for a great deal more than half of the successful designers in Philippine fashion history up to present day.

For most of my early childhood I was an introvert, spending hours after school reading in the library of the International School Manila until it closed at 4:15 every day. I was quite shy and withdrawn and had no real friends until about seventh grade, when I started becoming more sociable and spending less time in that library. Perhaps this was already the self that I would carry throughout my life and continue to do so today. I don’t really feel any different from then, just older. I have always surrounded myself with books and my home contains a small library that has always been growing, constantly being replenished with subjects that catch my interest at the time. 

Although I constantly painted throughout my ’20s, it was not until 1997 at the age of 34 that I began to create entire series of “themed” paintings. This would be in preparation for my first solo exhibition in New York. The idea behind this was to present my work to an audience in a country where the surname Lim Higgins bore no baggage of a fashion industry background, but instead would serve as an accurate gauge of an audience reacting to paintings by an unknown artist. The Invisible Cities show opened in New York in 2000. My second series, Tribes, premiered in Hong Kong in 2003, and then New York in 2004. My third series, Diaspora, premiered in 2007 at the Ayala Museum in Manila under the title Hybridity. This was the first time I had ever exhibited my work in the Philippines.

In 2008, my sister and I began to work on a large and lavishly illustrated book about our mother, which was launched in tandem with a 2009 retrospective exhibition in the National Museum of the Filipino people entitled Slim: Salvacion Lim Higgins-Philippine Haute Couture 1947-1990. I stopped painting around this time, when my sister and I took over the running of Slim’s School as co-directors. 

It was not until 2015 that I started painting again. My new series, Terra Incognita, would be inspired by the ancient histories of Southeast Asia and its environs. While creating these paintings in, I co-authored a book in 2016 with my friend, Gino Gonzales, entitled Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs 1860-1960. In 2019, the Ayala Museum exhibited my last series of works as an installation. Entitled Gold in Our Veins, this was only the second time I had mounted a solo exhibition in the Philippines.

At the time of writing my book, two major events happened in my life. The COVID-19 pandemic struck the country in early 2020, and it still lingers today. I also cared for and lost my only sister Sandy after a two-year illness. The year 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of my mother’s school and it was also her centenary (Salvacion Lim Higgins b. 1920, d. 1990). Just as the book was going into print, my mother was proclaimed a National Artist in the category of Design. The Order of the National Artists Award (Orden ng Gawad Pambansang Alagad ng Sining) is the highest national recognition given to Filipino individuals who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts and letters.

Today I am the sole surviving member of my immediate family—the last Lim Higgins—and I realized it was time to document my work and explain it in my own voice. I realize now that almost everything I have done—from the paintings, to the books, and even the theatrical productions—were all about telling stories. Here on these pages are the tales that began from my drawing table.

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