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Rose Cameron: A Culture Lost, and Found in Art

Tue, 06/06/2023 - 09:33
Rose Cameron with a detail of "Summers in Bulacan," a diptych inspired by the Philippine province where her family had a summer home.
Mark Segal

Rose Cameron was 12 when her life in the Philippines was unexpectedly interrupted. "We had a beautiful, magical life," she said during a conversation in Brooklyn at a show of her paintings. "It was 'pack your bags, let's go.' I thought I would be coming back."

Her family settled first in Jersey City, N.J., then moved 25 miles away to New Brunswick. "I could speak English, but for two years I didn't speak it at all. I just shut down. It was such an advanced modern life and culture and the girls were so different from the girls I knew back home." 

There was bullying and discrimination, and she came to hate anything that reminded her of her previous life. Her mother encouraged her to forget the past, learn English, and change. Of life in the Philippines, Ms. Cameron said, "I wanted to cover it, cover it, cover it."

And she more or less did, until embarking 18 months ago on "Interwoven States," a series of paintings that were up for three days at Designers Collab Space in Brooklyn, in a show facilitated by Sag Harbor's Sara Nightingale Gallery.

The works are deeply connected to her childhood, but it was only during the process of creating them that long-buried memories began to surface.

Each painting begins with the artist doodling with a finger on an iPad. The finished doodle is then transferred, via inkjet, as the underlayer to a large canvas. She next adds the outline of the five petals of a sampaguita, the Philippine national flower, and continues to "slap paint" until the layers are topped with a swirling pattern that resembles basket-weaving.

In a way, the process is a dialectic between revealing and concealing, as the act of painting brings forth the memories while at the same time partially covering the layers inspired by those memories.

"One of the things I had forgotten is that I learned basket-weaving from my mother. When I was painting the lines, I thought, wait a second, I'm weaving! This is what I used to do!" Painting the weaving lines is challenging, she said, because the brushstrokes must go under and over each other, visibly, even if they are the same color.

Because she wasn't a good weaver -- she had lots of cuts on her fingers, she remembered -- the texture of the interlacing brushstrokes is rough, applied thickly enough to resemble the uneven surfaces of straw.

At church in those early years, her job was to collect flowers and wreaths for the saints; she'd forgotten that. There were weddings and funerals, and "I was the flower girl. The sampaguita is one of my favorites. It has a very distinct smell, close to jasmine. To me, it symbolizes the sense of loyalty, fidelity -- and I hope I might go back there."

The subjects of Ms. Cameron's paintings, conveyed more by their titles than by the abstract surfaces, range from her grandmother, her parents, her three sisters, and her brother, to "Halo Halo," a mix of sweetened fruit with crushed ice and evaporated milk, and "Carinosa," a Philippine dance during which a young man and a young woman flirt.

"The Problem Child" is dedicated to her brother, who, she said, was a troublemaker. Her father had been a powerful figure in the Philippines, controlling everything from racetracks to schools to police stations. Whenever her brother misbehaved, her father put him in jail.

"The jailhouse with wooden floors, the bamboo -- I remembered that, and I wanted to show it in the painting," which has the color of dark bamboo, the gridded lines of the cells, even the tally marks scrawled on the cell walls to mark the passage of days. 

A group of smaller paintings have much thicker weaving strokes than the larger works. "I want them to keep growing, and to be more abstract." A new element entered those smaller works, images from 1970s Philippine comic books that the artist found on eBay, partly hidden by the weaving. "The comics were our entertainment."

Ms. Cameron earned degrees in art history and studio art from Rutgers University and took classes at F.I.T. and the Parsons School of Design. During those years she was making figurative drawings in pencil, charcoal, and pastel, and sold a few things, but not enough to make a living.

In 1993 she was hired as an assistant at Doyle Dane Bernbach, the advertising giant. She worked her way up, learning marketing, marketing research, and account planning. Her team worked with big clients such as Michelin tires and Nestle, creating distinct ads that would draw the attention of consumers.

She launched what has to be her most remarkable business enterprise in 2008: WAT-AAH! "It's a water brand my kids and I came up with, to encourage children to drink more water and less soda. I was a mom, they were growing up, and I wanted them to be healthy." Her children named it.

At first her son would take the bottles to bodegas in New York and markets in Sag Harbor. The product took off, going from 36 little stores to Whole Foods and Kroger's, and to schools. "The reason was Michelle Obama's Let's Move program, whose mission, to make health cool for kids, was my mission."

In 2011, WAT-TAH! joined the National Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, which teamed up with Beyonce as she launched "Move Your Body" for the Let's Move flash workout. Performed simultaneously by 250,000 middle schoolers across the country, the event gained global recognition when Beyonce surprised students at Harlem's P.S. 161.

"I was told I had to be in Harlem because Beyonce was going to show up at the school there. We weren't allowed to tell anybody." Instead, Ms. Cameron told the kids that if "somebody you think is somebody" joins in, "just keep dancing." The video, available on YouTube, shows that when the star appeared five minutes in, the kids kept their cool.

The First Lady's next mission was the Drink Up campaign, which enlisted beverage companies to put the campaign's logo, a water drop, on their bottles. Ms. Cameron partnered with artists, among them Kenny Scharf, Eric Haze, and Shepard Fairey, to create graffiti-inspired compositions that featured the phrase "Drink Up" and WAT-AAH!’s logo.

"My crazy mind said let's do a show, so we proposed to the White House that we do an exhibition where the artists would develop their designs on canvas." She rented the New Museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and Ms. Obama was the first person to arrive. Ms. Cameron gave her a tour of the exhibition. After the first lady tweeted about the event, which was opening to the public that night, the Bowery was so jammed that Ms. Cameron couldn't get into her own show. 

WAT-TAH! finally ran its course after 10 years, and Ms. Cameron joined Saint Laurent, overseeing all its East Coast shops before leaving in June 2021 and picking up her iPad and brushes.

Ms. Cameron and her husband, Ewen Cameron, whom she met when both were working at Doyle Dane Bernbach, visited Montauk first before buying a house in East Hampton's Oyster Shores community in 2000. Eventually they bought land on a bluff on North Haven, and built the house where they live today, a modern structure of dark wood, mahogany, glass, steel, and concrete that she helped design.

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