This Dalagang Pilipina Rocks: "Maria Clara" artist Cynthia Bauzon-Arre opens up about building confidence, working with rock stars, and the healing power of art
TEXT PIERRA CALASANZ-LABRADOR
SHOT ON FILM BY ARYANN AVENIDO
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“Next to my name in my college yearbook, the description reads 'Maria Clara personified,'” shares Cynthia Bauzon-Arre, the quietly cool artist who speaks so softly, you have to lean in to hear her. “In school, I would only speak when it was required in class, or when I was with the few people I was comfortable with. Maybe it also referred to my fashion style which was kinda conservative, considering people in Fine Arts dressed pretty loud.”
And yet this low-key creative is no wallflower: she's the artist the Eraserheads would trust to design their album covers, leads a thriving freelance career and stationery business, and is currently busy as an eco warrior collaborating with the Forest Foundation to protect our local blooms.
When The World Went Quiet
“I was always a shy kid, but I think the root of my shyness is that I lost one brother at a young age and didn’t know how to talk to people without him around,” Cyhthia shares, a revelation that only came days after the initial interview. She was nine, and her brother Christopher, was six, when he succumbed to a two-year battle with leukemia. Since then, she unconsciously built a silent fortress around herself. “There was also the fear of being judged, saying something wrong.”
How shy was she? “In grade school, sometimes to the point of not raising my hand even when I knew the answer. I didn’t have a lot of friends in my early years in school and would just quietly watch classmates playing outside while I ate baon in the room, wondering how it was so effortless for them to talk to others so easily.” It wasn't a source of sadness, just curiosity, and maybe a touch of loneliness. “I had a good home life though, which I think made up for not having friends at the time.”
But it's amazing what small gestures of kindness can do. “Eventually, friendly classmates approached me and invited me to eat with them and they became my first friends. Having peers my age to talk to coaxed me out of my shell, and I guess taught me to be more comfortable expressing myself around others.”
An Unlikely Best Friend
As a kid, Cynthia was her mom's shadow, tagging along so often to her mom's clinic that she thought she would grow up to be a doctor like her mom, too. “At her office, she would leave me with pen and paper, and I would draw whatever I saw—kids who were patients, trees, cats... Since then, art became my best friend.”
Unlike many parents of that generation who pushed their kids to pursue traditional courses, Cynthia's folks encouraged her blossoming talent. “They would buy me art materials and enroll me in art classes; they were very supportive.”
Art became everything: confidante, stress relief, a form of expression. “In high school, I would take up drawing electives, and eventually my tito recommended pursuing Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, which could be applied in a career in advertising. That became my direction.”
Take A Bite, It's Alright...
“In college I grew a little more self-assured, especially in my work.” She credits mentors like Maggie Simpliciano, Robert Alejandro, and Melvin Mangada for helping her find her artistic voice.
After graduating, shyness was not really an option; life was not recitation where she could just pretend she didn't know the answer. It helped that she scored an exciting job as a visual artist at a leading advertising firm. “My confidence grew once I started working in advertising where I had to defend or get my work approved by clients in the real world. And when I took classes in the US at Parsons, I was out of my comfort zone so I had no choice but to interact with people to survive,” Cynthia shares.
While in advertising, she would design on the side, mostly album covers for rock bands like the Eraserheads and Sandwich, to the quirky cover for Marie Jamora's indie film Ang Nawawala. “It started with the Ehead's first album, Fruitcake—to this day, everyone recognizes me through that.” How was it like working with these local legends? “Some of them are friends from college, so sobrang chill lang. They were four different people with totally diverse interests and minsan ang gulo ng direction, but the good thing was, they were like, bahala na si Cynthia!”
Knowing they shared the same nostalgic aesthetic, they pretty much gave her creative freedom, but she was also influenced by the band's progressive vibe. “Super creative sila. Their ideas were very ahead of its time, so it was very inspiring to be around them. I learned how to be spontaneous, how to think out of the box, kahit hindi uso. To pull inspiration from within; from the past and from your growing up years.”
Full Time to Freelance
After nine years in advertising, she decided to take the plunge and go freelance. “Kasi I enjoyed my sideline more than the actual advertising work. And I wanted to spend more time with family,” she reveals. Because she already had a steady stream of clients, she knew it would be sustainable. “At that time, ok pa ang music album packaging work. But after a few years, mp3 na! Thankfully, Wedding Essentials magazine needed an art director, and so I did that for five years, working mostly from home.”
After she left Wedding Essentials, her husband (idol graphic novelist/illustrator/writer Arnold Arre) encouraged her to continue drawing. “Kasi nawawala [the skill] kung puro graphic design,” she explains. “So I started drawing again.”
With the rise of social media, Cynthia discovered it was a great tool for getting her work out there, even if she was initially shy about self-promotion. “At first, puro personal posts ang IG ko (@arncyn), but I have a lot of young friends and they were posting their artwork. Sa una, nahihiya ako, but when I started to share slowly, kind naman ang feedback, so naganahan ako.”
She joined the BGC Art Mart and met a lot of fellow artists, and that grew into a supportive network. “We would encourage each other. I think that's how it all started.”
These days, she's no longer shy posting her work; and to keep her personal life separate, she created a private account just for family and friends. “Mas comfortable ako to post on IG (as opposed to Facebook): the people we follow are the ones who really like your work. And it's nice that I notice a lot of my Fine Arts batchmates going back to drawing too.”
Local craft stores carry her work, which includes pretty notebooks, street food-inspired stickers, planners, wrapping paper, and postcards. What are her inspirations? “Anything that evokes nostalgia or my childhood—I pull from there. Nature, Philippine pop culture, old things I grew up with or grew up watching, That's Entertainment love teams... I like to draw couple-inspired postcards,” she smiles. (Our favorite is her “Ang Huling El Bimbo”-inspired postcard from the Kilig Series.)
A career highlight was holding a one-woman exhibit entitled “Girl Jam,” where she painted beautiful portraits of female rockers, dear friends from all the gigs she would attend. “That was my thank you to the music scene, and I wanted to pay tribute to the girls in rock, kasi hindi parati sila yung focus.”
Bloom Where You Are Planted
Throughout her childhood, her family would often visit her dad in Japan (where he was a university professor), so she also developed a fascination for Japanese culture early on. “At first I wanted to incorporate Japanese influences in my work, but it's not my aesthetic. So I tried to apply nalang what I learned from their culture. The Japanese are very proud of their heritage, so I thought I could apply that and show pride in my own heritage and promote what we have, in my own unique way.”
Recently, she's been especially proud of the work she's doing for Forest Foundation Philippines, where her art contributes to their information campaign and local conservation efforts. You know how people say when you want something, put it out into the universe? Cynthia really wasn't sure where she wanted to go next on her creative journey, but little did she know that she was already planting the seed by designing a stationery collection celebrating indigenous blooms.
“I noticed on social media it was always all about foreign flowers, so I thought, kawawa naman ang mga bulaklak natin. Through my research, I realized not a lot of kids know about native species. So I drew them and ginawa ko na siyang notebooks and wrapping paper. And then I drew fruits that my dad would bring home from the market and I grew up eating—duhat, santol... I also started drawing endangered species of local birds, and posted it all on IG.” Her work caught the attention of Forest Foundation Phiippines, an NGO that works to protect the country's forests and promote its conservation and biodiversity. “They reached out, and I liked their vibe right away, and they gave me freedom to suggest projects. How cool is it to promote native species?” That's the artists' dream—and pretty much everyone's dream—to be funded to do what you love. “Sobrang great, nag-align ang passions,” she marvels.
Working with the Forest Foundation has not only taught her to be more observant of plant details for her art, but also more mindful of the environment in general. “Akala ko I could do my own artistic rendering of plants. But when they invited me to a taxonomy workshop, I learned it's important to record the plants as they are para ma-preserve in history. So now, I'm more mindful of the shapes and details, down to the placement of the leaves and veins.” When creating the planners, calendars, postcards, and other materials, she first draws everything by hand before applying color digitally, and she also gets to choose the paper the projects are printed on. “Especially now that we're living with climate change, we want to be conscious about what we use, so I try to choose sustainable materials—recycled paper, or at least Forest Stewardship council approved.”
She can't help raving about various Forest Foundation projects, such as the Best Friends of the Forest Movement. “We're planning workshops in some provinces, where I'll be teaching painting. Daming mangyayari next year,” she enthuses. “They've also attended forest bathing seminars abroad, and intend to do that here.” (Yes, please!)
Sustainable efforts have also crossed over into her personal life. “I bring my own thermos and tupperware for take out whenever possible. And I'm trying to minimize the use of plastic in my products in physical stores to lessen the impact on the environment.”
During downtime, she enjoys watching J-dramas and K-dramas and documentaries, reading books, taking cat naps with their kitty, and going on coffee or nature dates with Arnold. How is it like having two artists in the house? “We have very different styles, but we help each other out. I show him my work and he tells me what to improve on; he shows me his work, although wala nang iimprove, maganda na siya,” she laughs. “When I see how sipag he is with working, pati ako, inspired rin ako na huwag tamad-tamad. We motivate each other.”
From a painfully shy child who would scribble away to pass the time, she's deeply grateful drawing has become a friend for keeps. “Art allows me to express thoughts I'm passionate about without having to speak loudly or write lengthily. I also like how being an artist allows me to work with different clients from all over the world without having to physically be there in front of them—very helpful for an INFP such as myself.”
Cynthia's advice for budding artists:
✿ Don't be shy. If you want to share your artwork with the world, go ahead and do it at your own pace.
✿ Sometimes things can tend to look the same, especially on social media. Try to do something different from what everyone else is doing, make it stand apart.
✿ Don't get discouraged when feeling mo ang gagaling ng lahat; remember everyone started as a beginner.
On a personal note, she credits her advertising background in honing the maturity and accountability she needed to grow as an artist. “Especially when it comes to dealing with feedback and knowing that it's not a personal attack on my talent or craft; it's just work.”
She's come a long way from that Maria Clara who wouldn't say a word, but she has no regrets. “I thought I found myself when I was in my 20s but now, looking back, I think I'm happier where I am now, so yes, I could say that I'm a late bloomer. Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell my old self to be more assertive and confident, but I guess all the disappointments, mistakes, and failures along the way somehow led to making me stronger now.”
How to break the ice with Cynthia:
✿ Local blooms (Cynthia's faves: the Hoya plant with its red flower and the pretty and rare Jade vine, which can be spotted in Masungi and La Mesa Dam)
✿ J-pop and J-dramas (ask her who her Arashi ichiban is...)
✿ Pinoy pop culture and nostalgia!