Filipino painters

Bree Jonson, remembered

Steph Arnaldo
Bree Jonson, remembered

BREE. The 30-year-old contemporary visual artist is known for her paintings of nature.

Mark Nicdao's Instagram page

Friends and colleagues pay tribute to her genius as much as her awareness of 'how much happiness she gave to the people around her'

Artist Bree Jonson, a contemporary visual artist, had made a name for herself both here and abroad, rooted in the belief that “the personal is political.” To friends and collaborators, hers was a “mind-blowing genius.” She was also one who “knew how much happiness she gave to the people around her.”

At just 30, Bree’s life as cut short. On September 18, her lifeless body was found in a La Union resort.

Jonson, who called her personal Instagram account her “petting zoo,” was most known for her painting flora and fauna, depicting the delicate relationship between humanity and nature, and providing her own critical commentary on it.

According to Bree’s website, the Filipino painter paints animals and plants to critique the “divide that has grown between them [and mankind]” – “a divide that displaces them as Other, different from humans, and lower in importance and hierarchy.”

Bree’s colorful, vivid, and intricate artwork, which are purposely limited to the “visual language of non-human beings,” aim to “bridge this gap.” Her purpose is to “bring out the innate wilderness in human nature, to culminate a sense of interconnectedness, and to move away from an anthropocentric worldview to one more inclusive of multiple species.”

According to a Vintana article, animal lover Bree’s artistic work is heavily inspired by Aesop’s fables, her mother who is a veterinarian, and the “wild life from her childhood.”

Bree is also no stranger to solo exhibitions, both local and abroad. Her last solo exhibits include 2021’s ZZYZYK, which was held in Manila, 2019’s Notes on Stillness at the Yavuz Gallery in Singapore, and 2017’s Writhing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Her first solo exhibit was in 2014 called Therion Mythos in Kuala Lumpur, followed by 2015’s I Stared at the Abyss and the Abyss Stared Back in West Gallery, Manila and 2016’s Argh! Screamed they who were sucked into the orifice at the Underground Gallery.

Her latest group exhibits were held in 2020, titled Mga Misteryo sa Tuwa, held at the Art Informal in Manila, and Searching Sanctuary in Silverlens. In 2017, she worked with photographer Michal Baratz-Koren for Cumulus Blimp, a 2017 exhibit in Mabini, Manila.

Bree’s last international group exhibit, 2,774 KM, happened in 2017 at the YOD Gallery in Tokyo, Japan. Her first group exhibit, Worlds Apart, was in 2015 at Altro Mondo, Manila.

Bree’s works have also been showcased at prominent museums, such as the UP Vargas Museum in 2020, Baguio’s BenCab Museum in 2015, and at the Vestfossen Kunst Laboratorium in Oslo, Norway in 2018. Bree also participated in Art Fair Philippines 2020 and in the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in 2018.

Bree also recently collaborated with celebrity photographer Mark Nicdao for a Preview cover starring Ellen Adarna in early 2021.

Bree, remembered

Nicdao, a close friend of Bree, paid tribute to her on Instagram, sharing over 20 posts dedicated to her. In one post, he shared a personal video tour of Bree’s “usual mind-blowing genius.”

“I hope you take time to listen to my Master,” he wrote.

Before moving to Manila to be a full-time artist in 2012, Bree, who was an industrial engineering graduate from Ateneo de Davao University, dabbled in engineering and music.

Bree was part of the indie band Alto Indio; they played gigs in her hometown of Davao and fronted for acts like Pedicab, Taken By Cars, Gaijin, and The Diegos.

Bree’s love for music started as early as high school in 2004 to 2005, where she was a bassist for a friend’s punk rock band.

When she arrived in Manila, Bree enrolled in UP College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines. She dropped out after a semester but still continued painting.

In a September 2020 interview with Art and Market, Bree said her first passion is writing and literature.

“At various points in my life, I had written, played music, and drew, and my first passion is writing and literature. In fact, most of my sketches are rough lines and words, rather than fully fleshed-out figures,” she said.

Bree’s bandmate and high school friend, Baian, paid tribute to a “great friend,” sharing that their times performing and bonding together was one of the “most euphoric times in [his] whole life.” According to Baian, the two were making plans to re-record their songs from years ago and were just about to “put things in motion.”

“Everybody already knows how beautiful, smart, cultured and artistic Bree is. But she has this different kind of vibe and substance in her once you get to really know her,” Baian wrote. He added that she was also a goofball, and hoped that she “knew how much happiness she gave to the people around her, especially us her bandmates,” changing their lives for the better forever.

Local art gallery Vintana also honored the young artist, writing that she had “gone way too soon.”

León Gallery in Makati City also shared a tribute post for Bree on Instagram, who is “undoubtedly a major loss to Philippine Art.”

“León Gallery offers its sincerest condolences to both the family, friends, and those individuals who were deeply moved by Jonson and her art,” they wrote.

Emerging Islands, a local art community in San Juan, La Union, shared one of Bree’s paintings on Instagram, grieving the “loss of a friend and a truly brilliant artist.”

“But we also grieve the loss of what could have been: she had come to our shores to teach us how she tells stories, about ourselves, about our natural world. We were so excited to learn from her,” they wrote. According to them, Bree’s “modernized fables” tell [us] what we might be uncomfortable acknowledging about humanity: that we are, in fact, nature.

“Remember her and remember her well. Remember how her paintings made you feel. She would have wanted you to find yourself in them,” they added.

Another local art space, Pandemic Pop-up, shared a visual tribute done by fellow artist Dex Fernandez, in honor of his “dearest friend.”

Fernandez, who is also the artist behind visual character Garapata, posted a version of Garapata made in his friend’s likeness.

Based on the initial police report, Jonson’s body was found at the Flotsam Jetsam Resort in San Juan town. Julian Ongpin, her boyfriend and companion in the room, claimed that his girlfriend’s death was a case of suicide. Her cause of death has yet to be determined, pending the results of an autopsy.

After Ongpin tested positive for illegal drugs, drug-related cases were filed against him. The police also reportedly seized 12.6 grams of cocaine inside their room. Police said the La Union Prosecutor’s Office temporarily released Ongpin while the probe is ongoing.

Ongping has been placed on the immigration lookout list – but that doesn’t mean that he’s barred from leaving the country. The Justice department is also reportedly considering requesting a precautionary Hold Department Order. –

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.