Piece by Piece - Memories and Empowerment through Art Journaling
A Conversation with Andrea Balba
“Memory (the deliberate act of remembering) is a form of willed creation. It is not an effort to find out the way it really was--that is research. The point is to dwell on the way it appeared and why it appeared in that particular way.”
- Toni Morrison
Photographs, bus tickets, crumpled receipts of last year's takeout, random voice recordings of yourself belting out to Paramore in a public bathroom. Every trinket in your messy room or digital file in your computer is made up of stories -- stories of your usual routines and old habits, of estranged friends and new beginnings, and of places you miss and forget.
To others, it may just be a mundane dog-eared plane ticket from 2015. But to you, it was your key to a new life. Maybe a random bus ticket seems weird to keep, but for others, it carries memories of places left behind and places yet to be discovered.
We keep things because of the stories and memories they hold. They continue to serve meaning in our lives, bringing us back to certain moments or eliciting the same feelings we had at that time. And although objects physically disintegrate, their story echoes when given a second home.
And maybe that home can be a tiny shoebox you have under your bed, or for art journal artist Andrea Balba, it can be the blank pages of an art journal.
Art Journal Artist Andrea Balba | Image provided by Andrea Balba
Andrea Balba is a Filipina art journal artist from the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, colonially known as Vancouver, British Columbia. Beyond her corporate life at the operations department of a cosmetics company, she lives a life filled with drive, meaning, and creative purpose.
A creative by heart and an advocate for community empowerment, Andrea’s art journal pages are a patchwork of coalescing art forms -- writing, collaging, painting, and more. To call this a creative pursuit is an understatement, because her art journal is an empowering narrative of her truth and identity. After graduating from university in 2013, she accepted an internship offer to travel and live in the province of Leyte as an environmental planner intern. What started as an internship of learning became a monumental experience of her growth, strength, and creativity as a Filipina.
It was during that same time that the Philippines was affected by one of its most devastating typhoons, Yolanda (also internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan). Being at one of the epicentres of the calamity, Andrea was stuck in Leyte for five more days after the typhoon struck with no contact to the outside world that she and the homestay couple she was living with were safe.
She was able to get herself out to a different island and contact her family to let them know that she and the people who took care of her were safe. In spite of the traumatic event, she shares how the pages of her art journal speaks of this experience, reminding us that art or writing or any creative endeavour can help us overcome our struggles and heal us from our past.
With oil pastels and paper, Andrea created her own safe sanctuary in the midst of a raging storm. She tells us: “Throughout my journey, I kept that notebook . I never felt lonely when I had my journal.”
Ephemeral collection of the day *Henri showed Andrea and her siblings around Culion, Palawan | Image provided by Andrea Balba
Despite her experience of the typhoon in 2013, Andrea shares beautiful stories of the Philippines, many of which are also engraved in the art of her journal. The spark in her eyes says it all, as she recounts fond memories of her trip to the motherland in 2019 where she met a person named *Henri in Palawan, whose stories she still remembers today. And all of this was made possible because of a tattered and crumpled boat ticket to an island called Culion, that she keeps up to this day.
Just like Andrea, some of us probably have the same connection with tangible things. Andrea shares her sentiments about her growing collection of things, challenging the idea of objects as mere ephemera that fulfilled their function for a given time:
“Your memories are unreliable but you have tangible things, going through them and what that made you feel. Memories are a compass to what feels right. By having something tangible, you are able to think and feel that memory.”
Plein air sketch of the open sea en route Balicasag island, Bohol by Andrea Balba | Image provided by Andrea Balba
Image provided by Andrea Balba
Piece by piece, one can build a new story or re-live a narrative once told. For Filipino/a/xs, piecing things together can be an empowering form of reconnection to the Philippines or pride of one’s identity. For Andrea, piecing these objects in her art journal is an honest reflection of her identity in relation to the motherland, counting the good stories and the pressing issues:
“This whole diaspora journey has been interesting. Before moving to Canada, I’ll never forget the day when my parents told us we’d leave. I know a lot of second generation immigrants are in this tension of feeling not ‘Filipino enough’. I think I'm past that and have accepted my identity. I also have to accept my journey and the complexities of it. When I’m in the Philippines, I have memories of what it is but I know it’ll never be the same. I’m really grateful, and despite the tragedy in 2013, I am appreciative of experiencing it as an adult. I understand why people move. The Philippines is a trifecta of natural resources, rich culture, and the empowered tension for a country to be better. We’re just at a place where the country’s system is corrupt and [riddled with] socio-political issues. And the Filipinos are worth so much [more than these problems]. The people in the diaspora see that worth in the motherland and in the residents.”
Andrea's collection of art journals | Image provided by Andrea Balba
The items we keep hold memories of places and spaces we cherish, long, and hope for. Andrea’s story challenges our ideas of discarding items: rather than throwing them away, we can always give them a second life. In the same way, by giving them another purpose, we add more meaning to their function. They are the puzzle pieces we put together. By preserving their imperfections and raw form, we also recognize the imperfect, sad, troubling, and traumatic stories as part of our own life story.
In fact, she shares with us the ways that she remembers her memories and her process of transforming the mundane into a new art piece:
Image provided by Andrea Balba
I decided to watercolour on the pages, and write all the vegetables I gardened during the summer. I’m proud of them. There’s something special about the process: as I’m painting the leaf, I’m setting the tone of how I want to remember the memory. In art, we think that it has to be avant garde or nice, but for me, what I learned throughout adulthood is that the little mundane things are the ones that make a difference. I see beauty in mundane things, and I hope people see the world the same way. If we change our perspective and set our energy in things that give us joy, then somehow, we can overcome helplessness.
In creating meaning from the ordinary, we both delve into a hearty conversation of all things paper. One might think that we were connoisseurs of paper, a term more applicable to Andrea, whose overflowing knowledge reflects it all. But beyond being a connoisseur of paper, Andrea is a connoisseur of transformation, of meaningful production, as she adds the extraordinary in the simplicity of objects.
While she enjoys the traditional method of writing on paper, she shares her optimism about digital media in art and memory preservation. When asked the ways that digital media archives memories, both tangible and felt, she unpacks its temporal relevance in our lives:
I see any digital media as an online photo album. When I see my own work, I see how I improved in my calligraphy. Art shouldn’t define your past or your future. With digital media, viewing one’s art is a form of looking back and using it is a good way of seeing your journey. Don’t get hung up on how your art looks and just create. If we fixate on the technicality, we give up on art. For some, it works. But, knowing why you do art is important. Why are you doing this?
A sample of one of Andrea's pages | Image provided by Andrea Balba
Media scholar and thinker Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is concretized in Andrea’s creative work -- the space in which we produce art holds as much meaning as the message of the medium itself.
Andrea's current journal project. She made this journal herself and her goal is to complete every single page with art journal pages | Image provided by Andrea Balba
For Andrea, the medium of art journaling celebrates the message of connection, of optimism, of self-healing, and of hope for a brighter future:
In the act of storytelling - you want something tangible, but for you, that story you’re about to share is your story. It invokes emotions, hopes for a future, and it’s your unique story. No one is ever going to take that away from you. What’s beautiful about art journaling is that there is no rule. You create for the sake of creating. It becomes a bonus when you pull people’s heart and say that it’s relatable. In the beginning, at its true essence, you create to tell your story. Journaling is a medium to tell that story. It has no rules. The intent of telling your story is more than the surface of your notebook. You need to have a community to appreciate streams of inspiration that come in having that page.
Pieces of our identity can be found in our memories: our memories of trauma, of reconnection, of the motherland, of conversations, and of ourselves. Andrea’s creative story is a reflection of Toni Morrison’s words on memories. Her narrative reminds us that every memory we have, both good and bad, can be transformed, piece by piece.
And if you use an art journal, you might just unknowingly transform those memories into meaningful art.
Follow along Andrea’s creative journey and passion for art journaling here: @andreajournals.
We thank Andrea Balba for sharing her wonderful insights and for sharing energy with us during this insightful conversation via Zoom.
*Quotations were edited for clarity and coherence; names with an asterisk (*) were changed for privacy
Isabela Quito Villanoy is a graduate from the University of Toronto, a UX/UI student, and a Filipino creative storyteller based in Canada. She is also the founder of two online communities on Instagram called Ihayag and Sa Pagitan, communities that aim to reveal and proclaim the stories of Filipino/a/x immigrants and Filipino/a/xs in the diaspora living in Canada. Her work has been published in The Mike, MNERVA Literary Journal, Her Campus U Toronto, The Foolscap Journal, Cambio & Co., and Pinay Collection. Isabela dabbles in various creative passions related to reading, design, drawing, music and photography. You can also find her on her blog: isabelavillanoy.com