The painter, actress, designer, mother, and entrepreneur reveals the story behind her artistic inspirations and creative process.
This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Asia’s April 2023 cover story.
Gazing upon Solenn Heussaff’s bold paintings, its subjects looking back with rapt, lucid attention, it’s hard not to be entranced. The 37-year-old artist is known for her large, evocative artwork often depicting everyday people–children at play, vendors selling their wares, or folks and families casually hanging out on the streets.
Having had three solo shows, and about to work on her fourth, Heussaff talks to Lifestyle Asia about her artistic journey so far. “My last exhibits were all inspired by the people I see every day, from different walks of life, where I just try to imagine what a day in their life would be,” she shares, eager to concoct in oil and acrylic, her subjects’ inner machinations.
“When I see something that connects with the way I feel, it’s like a strike of inspiration. From there, I usually take a photo of it because I am very visual and need an image to start working,” she elaborates. “Just like how a writer needs characters in mind before writing a story, it is about observing the world around you,” declares Heussaff of the beginnings of her compositions.
It is perhaps by drawing energy from the real world that the characters in the artist’s narratives take on a life of their own, their pensive expressions loaded with feeling, flowing just beneath the surface of the canvas.
Birth of an Artist
With her expressive brushstrokes and confident use of color, it is clear Heussaff has always had a flair for the arts. “My mother enrolled me in an art class when I was just three years old. I remember it being a lot of fun,” Heussaff says, recalling her crafty beginnings, painting on glass, canvas, silk, and even making her own clothes. Seeing how she had enjoyed it immensely, her parents made sure it was a part of her, and her sibling’s routines, even including tapestry classes into the mix. The Filipino-French creator took lessons until the age of 18, when she began painting at home by herself.
A stunning, natural beauty, Heussaff had first entered the public eye as a model and an actress, starring in television shows, movies, and ad campaigns. But in 2016, people got introduced to another side of her, with the painter’s first solo exhibition.
“That year, I was obsessed with painting with huge canvases. I was drawn to photos my father took from his trips around the world and started practicing with faces,” she shares. “I never liked drawing people back then, I thought it was the most difficult thing to paint. But I guess I found ease in painting them on a bigger scale, and from there I was unstoppable.”
Despite never thinking she would ever showcase her art publicly, Heussaff’s first exhibit, held in partnership with Pineapple Lab, was a huge success. “I was overwhelmed with joy with the feedback of people that went to see the show,” she shares. “I named it Our People, because it was inspired by people from different backgrounds and different countries around the world,” Heussaff discloses.
The success of her first exposition was quickly followed by a second in 2017, named Kalsada. Inadvertently, work for the exhibit began when the actress had been busy traveling across the country for shows and tapings in various locations. “I started taking photos with my phone for fun and compiling albums for memories,” she notes, of documenting the scenes she saw while on the road.
During the same time, her nephew Kaeden had been on vacation in Manila. “I had big canvases left and asked if he wanted to paint,” the artist recalls. “It became a game and we were able to cover the entire canvas just using his hands, feet, and [the like]. When we were done, I thought the abstract he had created was nicer than any abstract I have made and I decided to paint over it with a subject I had on my phone.”
The serendipitous collaboration resulted in paintings with vibrant bursts of painterly color, contrasted with Heussaff’s striking depictions of quotidian life. “I wanted to show Filipino people the way I see it every day. From the kids running on the streets, to people commuting, and real-life stories. I wanted to tell it all,” she declares.
“I had my nephew paint with me on 18 canvases before he left for Singapore, and decided my next exhibit would show the reality of the Philippines seen through the innocent eyes of a child,” she says. “No matter how happy or sad the story was, it was always colorful, showing hope.”
Heussaff’s most recent presentation was also an homage to her Filipino roots. Entitled Kundiman, the 2021 show had been three years in the making, and the painter claims, had even more depth than her previous ones. “I guess because I am older and have more opinions. I poured my heart and soul into this last one and I think you would have felt it if you would have seen it,” she discloses. “Each painting had a song paired to it, which gave the painting more life. More pain where there is pain, and more peace where there is calmness.”
She references Jose Rizal’s Kundiman, his poignant yet tender words partly reflected in the artist’s subdued yet rich palette of tones. In lieu of the gestural washes of color of her past work, Heussaff created a series with lush, almost jungle-like foliage, complemented with intricate, and moving depictions of humanity living in the day to day. “This last exhibit was my love song to the Philippines, sharing all my hopes and dreams to the current situation some Filipinos have to live in,” she declares.
Strokes of Inspiration
With her show scheduled for the end of the year, Heussaff is eager to work, but admits that like a lot of artists, she needs to be in the mood. “I need to be inspired to paint, and you cannot plan when that happens. When it does, then ideas flow from all over the place,” she says.
The busy mom and entrepreneur does admit that she hasn’t really finished a painting since 2021. “I am trying to find a new voice and it isn’t always easy,” she shares, aware of her constant evolution. “When I look at my works for my last three shows, I do see improvement, or at least a change in style. I pay more attention to detail [now], like composition and color.”
When the muse does come, Heussaff paints tirelessly from sunrise to sunset. “It is like I am stuck in my own world,” she says. “When I am inspired, I can finish a painting in two weeks, painting at least eight to 10 hours a day. My finished artworks can go from 20 hours to 200 hours of work per piece, depending on the mood, size, and details.”
Read the full cover story by purchasing a copy of the Lifestyle Asia April 2023 magazine via SariSari.shopping or select newsstands in National Bookstore and Fully Booked. Subscribe to the E-Magazine via Readly, Magzter, and Press Reader.
Text MARIANE PEREZ
Photos BORGY ANGELES
Photography assisted by PAO MENDOZA
Art Direction PAOLO TORIO
Stylist ROKO ARCEO
Makeup ROBBIE PINERA
Hair RAYMOND SANTIAGO
Sittings Editor CANDY DIZON
Shoot Coordination MJ ALMERO and MAE TALAID
Shot on location ART UNDERGROUND