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It Takes a Village: Conversations with Liza Flores

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To create art is to make one's voice heard. But for children’s book illustrator Liza Flores, it also means shaping a child’s first encounter with art.

Real People Made Books

Growing up reading foreign stories, such as those of Richard Scarry, the young Liza saw children’s books illustration as a seemingly far-fetched career for a Filipino. But that changed when she attended the annual exhibit of Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK) back in ’94 while studying visual communications at the University of the Philippines. There, she saw that Filipino illustrators do exist and realized that “real people made books.”

“Noong nakita ko 'yong [exhibit ng] Ang INK, na-realize ko na puwede pala—na ginagawa pala 'yon sa Pilipinas. At that time, bago sa akin 'yong realization na real people made books, na puwede rin akong gumawa ng mga ito."

"I can also be involved in making these things."

After college, Liza illustrated her first book, Nagsasabi na si Patpat written by Rene O. Villanueva, but what she considered as one of her breakthroughs was her second book, Chenelyn! Chenelyn! written by Rhandee Garlitos, which became a popular read among kids at that time.

“Iyong work na 'yon—although feeling ko ang dami pang puwedeng i-improve when looking at it now—naging bestseller siya and I think, through that work, doon din ako na-establish.”

The Art of Paper

Liza's art is a gradual and organic process; it’s an accumulation of her choices, projects, and evolving taste over time. Her famous hand-cut paper technique, which she has been doing for over a decade, bloomed from her innate love of paper. As a child, it has been a routine for Liza’s family to go to a local bookstore, where the young artist would always hang out at the paper section. So when she landed a project that involved creating a large artwork, working with paper became an unconscious decision. 

“Naisip ko ang tagal kulayan [ng work]; mas madali kung colored na 'yong paper. That’s when I tried experimenting with cutting and gluing. Over the years, nakita ko na ang ganda ng effect ng texture at shadows ng paper at kung papaano ko palalabasin na three-dimensional 'yong work. Habang nagagamay ko ’yong medium, mas nai-explore ko how to play with it.” 


The making of CANVAS' My Big Sister Can See Dragons written by Rocky Tirona and illustrated by Liza Flores (₱1000) (photo courtesy of Liza Flores)

Her decade-long mastery of paper can be seen in pieces that have a special place in her heart. One of which is her piece for Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, where she used recycled and handmade paper—even a Thai newspaper—to illustrate a storybook about 1978 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service Prateep Ungsongtham titled The Gift written by Gidget Jimenez.

Another memorable work for Liza is her installation/stage set-up for TEDxDiliman 2017 in partnership with the Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development (CANVAS). It was an all-white paper installation of suspended flora that, when mixed with light, magically transformed into a captivating showcase of floristry and shadows. 

“Unexpected 'yong bagsak ng shadows. First time ko siyang nakita nang buo, and surprise sa akin na lumabas siya as I imagined it,” Liza shares.

Stage installation by Liza Flores in TEDxDiliman 2017

Working with CANVAS

For Liza, every CANVAS project is a discovery. Her involvement in the organization started with “Star Thrower” for Earth Tales, which coincidentally was her first solo exhibit and her first time to create larger artworks.

Sea of Stars by Liza Flores, "The Star Thrower" for CANVAS storybook Earth Tales

L-R: Sea of Stars, acrylic on paper; Liza's artworks for Earth Tale's "The Star Thrower" published in 2009 (photo courtesy of CANVAS and Liza Flores)

“First time kong gumawa ng gano'ng kalalaking works. Usually maliliit lang kasi for books, pero dahil for exhibition, na-challenge ako to go outside of my comfort zone and na-discover kong kaya ko naman pala.”

The Star Thrower: Liza Flores first solo exhibit

The Star Thrower: Liza's first solo exhibit held at 1/of Gallery, Shops in Serendra, Global City, October 27 to November 3, 2008 (photo courtesy of Liza Flores)

Making Karapat Dapat: Bata, Alamin ang Iyong mga Karapatan! by May Tobias-Papa and Ang INK was also a memorable experience for the artist. With only a simple brief to make an activity book on children’s rights, Liza and the artists of Ang INK were deeply enmeshed in the book’s development—from the illustrations to even the content. They were given freedom to do whatever they wanted and the result was a true creative collaboration.

L-R: Cover of Karapat Dapat: Bata Alamin ang Iyong mga Karapatan (₱300); Rights of the Child Creative Journal showcasing the whimsical artworks of Ang INK

L-R: Cover of Karapat Dapat (300); Rights of the Child Creative Journal showcasing the whimsical artworks of Ang INK (500)

“We started with seven artworks, and then after reviewing the text, we added fourteen more. So habang dini-develop 'yong content, nakikita rin namin kung ano pang artworks ang dapat gawin hanggang sa mabuo 'yong libro.”

Karapat Dapat’s book cover also tells a story of teamwork. It was taken from a mural sketched by Frances Alvarez. Jamie Bauza chose the colors while the actual painting was a sum of the works by various artists of Ang INK.

Members of Ang INK finish the Karapat Dapat mural

From Artwork to Book: Members of Ang INK finish the Karapat Dapat mural that will also be the inspiration of Liza for the book's cover art (photo courtesy of Liza Flores)

Creating Safe Space and #YouThink

In Liza's newest activity books under CANVAS, Safe Space: A Kid’s Guide to Data Privacy and #YouThink: Fight Fake News, she and fellow artists from Studio Dialogo carried the same collaborative and creative spirit.

Safe Space: A Kid’s Guide to Data Privacy is a 60-page activity book that introduces the concept of personal data to children ages 6 to12 and teaches them how to protect themselves. It breaks down in child-friendly language how social media and online gaming platforms work when they sign up to them, how their information can be used, and how and why they should strengthen their privacy settings.

Safe Space: A Kid's Guide to Data Privacy, cover art by Liza Flores and maze by Jamie Bauza

Safe Space: A Kid's Guide to Data Privacy (₱300): cover art by Liza Flores (left), maze by Jamie Bauza (right)

#YouThink: Fight Fake News, on the other hand, is geared for teens ages 12 to 18. Presented in zine-style, it unpacks false information and the many forms that it may take such as misleading information, fake photos, and deep fakes. The 42-pager also discusses how context matters and even how our emotional reaction to posts can be a sign that it is fake.

#YouThink: Fight Fake News: cover design by Studio Dialogo (left), illustration spread illustration by Abi Goy and Fran Alvarez

#YouThink: Fight Fake News (₱300): cover design by Studio Dialogo (left), spread illustration by Abi Goy and Frances Alvarez (right)

Both books feature words by Gigo Alampay, book design by Studio Dialogo, and illustrations by Liza Flores, Abi Goy, Frances Alvarez, and Jamie Bauza. Though packed with information, the books do not read heavy and are not too technical either. Creating them means striking a balance between using playful illustrations that entertain and blend with the text and putting premium on clarity and engagement.

“Important ang clarity. Important na interesting siya para sa bata tingnan. Gusto naming maging playful ’yong art and it must also go well with the copy. It’s like entertaining using illustrations.”

For Liza, a book is a child’s first encounter with art, so creating an enjoyable experience for them is a vital role for any book illustrator.

“Kung hindi man nila maalala 'yong kuwento o art, pinakaimportante ay naalala nila 'yong experience na na-enjoy nila ang pagbabasa ng libro so they can explore art. Parang introduction ito sa mga bata sa literacy and art.”

A Generation of Young Illustrators

Working with and leading Ang INK for years, Liza has witnessed a growing interest in art among younger people. Social media and easy access to information contributed to the expansion of Ang INK’s audience base. What once was comprised of mostly parents and teachers is now mixed with young aspiring artists who are interested in contributing to the growing industry.

Members of Ang INK with Chito Gascon, Chair of Commission on Human Rights, and Gigo Alampay, Executive Director of CANVAS; Karapat Dapat book launch at the Commission on Human Rights in UP Diliman

L-R: Members of Ang INK with Chito Gascon, Chair of Commission on Human Rights, and Gigo Alampay, Executive Director of CANVAS; Karapat Dapat book launch at the Commission on Human Rights in UP Diliman (photo courtesy of Liza Flores)

With unhinged imagination and mountains of creativity, Liza invites young artists to welcome the challenges arising from forging their own artistic territories without being bogged down in finding their style.

"In whatever work you do, do the best that you can for your project."

“Just do the work. [Your style] will come naturally. It is the sum of things you do and the decisions you make along the way.”

There is no one true formula in being a successful children’s book illustrator. As Liza says, “the reward of good work is more work,” and it’s true: there’s beauty in practice—whether big or small, individual or with a team—and the reward is not just finding an artistic voice but making art closer to every child.

This Way, Please by Liza Flores for I Am the Change in Climate Change, a new book collaboration between CANVAS, Liza Flores and Ang INK (photo courtesy of Tumba-Tumba)

This Way, Please by Liza Flores: A sneak peek of I Am the Change in Climate Change, a new book collaboration between CANVAS, Liza Flores and Ang INK, set for launch in April 2021 (photo courtesy of Tumba-Tumba)

It Takes a Village is Looking for Juan’s response in bringing a deeper appreciation for art and literature to the public by getting to know the artists and writers behind our books, uncovering their stories and experiences in creating each work. It is our hope that as parents and children get to know the faces and stories behind each title, they’ll find a renewed love for books, empowering a generation that reads.

Want a copy of the books by the artist? Use the code LIZAFLORES and get 10% OFF when you shop titles by Liza Flores, Ang INK, and Studio Dialogo at www.lookingforjuan.com (valid until June 27, 2021, one-time use only).

Every book purchase is matched with two book donations to children from underprivileged communities in support for CANVAS' One Million Books for One Million Filipino Children Campaign. Get these must-reads and help improve children's literacy one book at a time! 

Words/interview by Monica Antonio. Cover art by Kyla dela Torre. 

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