Finding my people: Gelo Zarsuelo, Philippines
By YVC Secretariat – Thursday, January 5, 2023
Growing up in Aklan, Philippines, Gelo Zarsuelo continues to make waves in the Art Community with his emotion-driven and distinct art style that mainly plays on pastel colors in contrast with his zoomed-in take on queer romance that speaks for itself. This 21-year-old emerging artist from the Philippines continuously shakes the traditional norms of art by creating pieces that focus on queer relationships. His intriguing pieces emanate an atmosphere of anonymity to make the viewers think that the muses in the piece are not specific people but can be anyone—even themselves.
At an early age, this self-taught artist always had an interest in the arts as he would draw endlessly every day but it wasn’t until the 9th Grade that he realized that this can be more than just a hobby. Gelo recalled saying to his younger self that no matter how indefinite the future is, one thing is for sure, his career path would be related to the arts. Thus, he pursued the strand Arts and Design in his Senior High School years.
He majored in Fashion Designing at the Iloilo Science and Technology University – Lapaz as he had always seen himself in the fashion industry. He recalls creating the most intricate designs in elementary and was well-known on his campus because of it. It even reached the school administration where he was even asked to design the Senior High School uniform and it is still being used now by the students of his alma mater. Gelo knew that he made the correct decision with fashion designing because he will be able to earn a living while doing something he loves. However, the pandemic took a toll on the Zarsuelo household and this made Gelo put his education on pause until things got more stable. He states that this was a collective decision between him and his parents who were supportive of his choice. Upon being asked if he would have continued his studies if the pandemic never happened, Gelo talked about always seeing himself as a fashion designer and experimenting with the fields of the garment industry and
traditional arts. It would have been as if he was painting but this time not on a flat plane such as a canvas but on fabric.
With one look at a certain piece, anyone could be able to identify Gelo’s work. His distinct choice of colors, the themes he specifically chose, and the attention his pieces command from the audience make his work stand out even in a group exhibit full of other talented artists. With over a hundred million aspiring artists and thousands of emerging artists in the entire world, Gelo stands out by creating emotion-driven spontaneous pieces that play on pastel colors to balance out the most intimately sensual concepts. He adds that while he is happy with his art style now, he acknowledges that this is not permanent and will continuously evolve. His hunger for self-improvement pushes him to challenge his existing notions of what art is and pushes boundaries of what the world thinks art is supposed to look like. Quoting Gelo when asked about the difficulties of being a queer artist, “my art will find its people”.
He brought up his works “Getaway” and “Your Warmth” as examples of his current art style. These two works are parts of a series he submitted during the 2022 ArtxPride: Kinaiya exhibit during the 7th Iloilo Pride March wherein they were immediately sold before the program started. Gelo explains that these pieces showcase the intense emotions of two lovers yet can be interpreted as anyone’s body due to the way it was cropped. He emphasized that the anonymity of the subjects made his pieces relatable to everyone who saw them and induced the feeling he wanted his audience to feel after looking at the pieces. Additionally, due to his spontaneous manner of creating art, he makes sure to end his sessions with satisfaction as his piece may be the “ugliest” to other people but if the artist sees it as their most beautiful creation, then no one can tell them otherwise. “The best work is the one that you believe in the most” — Gelo.
In the Philippines, people see a career in the arts as a lost cause as they have this mindset that it is not a real and stable job, thus, emerged the Starving Artist mindset. However, Gelo states that this was always something he had wanted and would do anything to make ends meet. Aside from his skills and the hard work he put in to hone this, he owes a lot of his success and growth as an artist to his supportive parents not only to his creativity but also to his sexuality. “If I’m not confident and fully accepted of my sexuality, I wouldn’t be able to paint same-sex couples in an intimate setting”, Gelo said. Unfortunately, his mother passed away during the pandemic and he shares that when she was still alive she always told him that she always knew he would become an artist. She always knew he was going to make it.
When asked about how he would describe his art and what makes it distinct, Gelo answered “I represent a community. My art represents something. The visibility of queer outside of the usual stereotypical boxes we were put in, outside of entertainment, and pageants. My artwork represents the visibility of the queer community in the art industry”. He adds that he creates spontaneously and allows his brush to do all the talking as if on instinct. His play on raw human emotions and the remarkability of sexuality are translated into colors and this level of intensity in of his themes he mellows out through the use of pastels. This contrast gives his pieces that “Gelo Zarsuelo” signature that everyone seems to adore so much.
Last October 28, 2022, he attended and was one of the featured artists for the Philippine Financial and Inter-Industry Pride’s (PFIP) 9th-anniversary gala and first Bahaghari Awards at Quezon City, Manila. According to their Facebook profile, PFIP defines themselves as a “collaborative, voluntary and non-profit community of Pride/LGBT+ advocates and allies from private organizations in the Philippines”. Gelo recalls passing his artworks without expecting anything as he was “used to rejection” yet knew it wouldn’t hurt to try. On the morning before the ArtxPride 2022: Kinaiya exhibit launching, he receives an email congratulating him for not only being accepted as one of the nine artists, but as one of the only three participants to present four painting works during the gala. He expressed the overwhelming happiness he felt but was overshadowed by the financial struggle that awaits him. He was already struggling to pay for his studio and the cost of buying new materials, now he had to think about where to get the financial aid to pay for his flight and accommodations for this trip to Quezon City which was miles away from the city of Iloilo. He knew this was an opportunity he could never pass up so he called for help on his social media accounts and due to the benevolent donors, he managed to rack up a sufficient amount to make his travel to the Bahaghari Awards comfortable. He thanks Youth Voices Count (YVC) for being the main proponent and the first to heed his call to sponsor his trip to Quezon and be able to attend one of the momentous moments of his life.
This is only the start of Gelo’s emergence as one of the most notable artists in the country and an honorary representation of the queer community in the art world who will continue to break the barriers that hinder other queer artists. Gelo has the talent to create a realistic painting but he chose to be true to himself even if the risks are big in this society that values paintings that are close to life renditions of still life objects or people plus the fact that his queer-inclined themes aren’t what can be considered as normalized concepts in the art world. He can always opt to turn to publicly accepted art but it’s not gonna be rewarding for him. It will burn him out and tire him. He chose art as his career path because he knows he won’t get tired of it but choosing subjects or concepts that he does not want will be exhausting. You lose a lot of potential customers or you lose yourself.
There will be people who are willing to buy your work regardless of your sexuality. You will find your people. You can thrive in the arts and be unapologetically queer. The artist does not conform to the standards of society; the artist creates their own standards when it comes to their art. Representation motivates other queer folks to be more visible and eradicate the fear of judgment towards their sexuality because they will see that someone like them made it big and have hope they will, too. Gelo even cites that people in the entertainment industry like Vice Ganda make other queer members dream of being on national television because the boundaries have already been broken and they’ve seen the warm welcome being shown to people in the same community. He hopes that this would be the case in the art community with queer artists and that they would not be placed in the spotlight for the sake of clout. No one would put “23-year-old straight artist” on the artist profile so why do we still single out queer artists as if they are a spectacle?
Gelo gives words of encouragement to aspiring queer artists that regardless of having little to no supporters who believe in them, if they believe in themselves and believe that there is something waiting for them in this career path, they should continue and make it happen. “No one’s going to build something for you but yourself because if you like your work then that’s more than enough reason to continue.”
Upon asking what Gelo has in store for 2023, he answered that he plans to produce a solo show and hopefully enter an art residency that will not only catapult his ambitions but allow him to produce bigger and better pieces. 2023 will be the year he experiments with his craft and evolves into the artist he once just dreamt to be. It will not be an easy path but this year, he will continue on his journey of finding his people.
Check out more of his works on Instagram: @gelozarsuelo