Well-known designer highlights the importance of art and creativity in these trying times
Renowned artist and designer Robert Alejandro empathizes with the mixed emotions Filipino kids feel these days, caught up in the uncertainty of a strange and virulent disease, as well as their parents’ uncertainty about the future. However, with the online art classes he hosts from home, he proves to be a gentle and calming force that assures both youngsters and adults that all will be fine in the end.
Since the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) became our “new normal,” the 56-year-old Alejandro has remained productive. Besides holding virtual art classes, he is also working on a book about urban sketching and on a possible project that involves branding and public art for a developer, as well as busy with his graphic design business and, of course, the famous family business, Papemelroti.
Say “Papemelroti” and it will immediately conjure a range of appealing products, such as the stationery, home décor and folksy knick-knacks produced by his parents Corit and Benny many years ago under the brand name Korben (coined from their names). Papemelroti came later when the business was expanding, and this time, emerged from combining the names of Alejandro and his four sisters: Patsy (Pa), Peggy (Pe), Meldy (Mel), Robert (Ro) and Tina (Ti).
It all started out as a hobby of their mom, who was fascinated by the odd things that people would discard. She would ingeniously fashion these scraps into toys and novelties and sell them.
Now in the hands of Corit and Benny’s offspring, Papemelroti is having a welcome transformation. “Primarily, I serve as the artist and designer, overseeing product design, some store design and the murals in stores,” Alejandro says, explaining his new roles. “But recently, my sisters voted me president, which I didn’t take seriously at first. But then I thought, I might as well do things that I felt were important for the company.” These included succession planning, streamlining roles and tidying the organization chart.
Alejandro recalls growing up in a household overflowing with artistic talent. They lived in an apartment on Tomas Morato Street in Quezon City, just above the store. He says: “Our rooms were work places where products were made. We were surrounded by acrylic paint and plaster, and all sorts of materials to make stuff. It was a glorious mess!”
He remembers the variety of games he and his sisters played, one of which had them memorizing artists’ names and the title of the artworks based on the books and pictures his mother sold at the store. Fueled by imagination and play, Alejandro drew nonstop. His hands were always preoccupied, experimenting with different art materials. “My mom would purchase terra-cotta clay for us to create original figurines — and we still have them!” he says.
“I remember all of us sitting together and creating clay figures. We also played a lot of card games as a family,” he adds.
His parents were equally free-spirited and allowed their children to fully express their talents and explore them on their own. “My mom taught me to work my best. She would always ask: ‘Is that your best?’ And my dad taught me how to ‘have fun and not work too hard!’”
Papemelroti is over 50 years old today, and Alejandro and his siblings are happily taking it to the next level. The pandemic has also left them with an unforgettable lesson. He says: “We’ve come to realize how much more we need to evolve if we want to survive. If there’s indeed [a] silver lining [in] the current situation, it’s [that it’s] an exciting time to discover new things!” He’s proud to have recently taken to the convenience of virtual meetings.
“My life before the lockdown was completely the opposite with so many meetings!” he says. “I would have to leave the house at 5 a.m. to take the MRT (Metro Rail Transit 3) to my 11 a.m. meeting. I would [then] get home around 9 p.m. from an afternoon meeting. I was usually so tired and worn out!”
But Alejandro has experienced more in his life than just urban traffic and meeting fatigue. In 2016, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. This forced him to face his own mortality and the inevitability of death. But instead of succumbing to depression, the life-changing event allowed him to finally see the light. “I had to get cancer to get me to realize that life can be so great,” he admits.
For treatment, he opted not to take the typical route of chemotherapy. Instead, he focused on getting well by way of “living food” — eating a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables to provide his body with the clean fuel it needed. And he’s never felt better or happier.
After going through this profound transformation that has cemented his now-unshakeable faith, Robert is confident that he is strong enough to weather any storm. His advice to others on how to deal with situations that may seem dire and frightening is to “remember, all of this will pass.”
There is indeed so much to be grateful for, Alejandro says, because ultimately, we are alive. “You don’t have much time really so might as well give the best of yourself. Love yourself with a passion, because you deserve it… But also, don’t take things too seriously,” he adds.
In times like these, Alejandro insists that a grateful heart and a positive disposition are key to thriving. Art, in particular, also serves as a great survival tool. For him, it has served as an emotional anchor and has helped him build an amazing life and career.
In many families and schools, Alejandro agrees that it feels like art is often downplayed, and greater importance is placed on math, the sciences and business courses, because they lead to more “lucrative careers.” As someone who has made a successful living in the creative industry, he shares an important nugget of wisdom: “No matter what you will become in the future, creativity and imagination will always play a vital role. Creativity will always be in great demand.”
Apart from being an art teacher and a driving force in Papemelroti, Alejandro has worked as a children’s book illustrator, established the organization Ink (Ang Illustrator ng Kabataan), participated in advertising and hosted a TV show called “Art Is-Kool” in the early 2000s.
As he sits at home and opens his life and world to an audience that he can never see, what does this practical dreamer look forward to in the future?
“Goodness, I just do what I need to do now, and for me that is enough,” Alejandro declares. “Apparently, whatever I do now, brings me to what I will do next. There’s always a miracle waiting for me in the next corner.”