Last Saturday, visual artist Bree Jonson was found unconscious in a hostel in La Union. She was pronounced dead on arrival after being brought to the hospital.
Her death came as a shock to everyone who knew her. At 30, she was way too young to have her life be snatched away from her. She was a prolific artist; one of her last shows, “ZZYZX,” was held at Artinformal Gallery just this January. Some of the works there, her paintings and blue handcrafted crow statues, have been staying at functional art shop Aphro since last June.
Her works were heavily concerned with nature. Philippine art gallery Vintana Art said of her paintings last year: “The paintings of Bree Jonson have been called fables and enigmas. They show creatures in various states and activities, some bizarre and otherworldly. But her paintings are hardly exercises in faithful naturalistic resemblance. On the contrary, they show her studying then reimagining flora and fauna as her reflections on human relationships and experience… At the same time, however, Jonson’s paintings invite us to see the wild as untouched by man.”
On her website, she says that she “paints animals and plants to critique the relationship that humans have with their environment, and the divide that has grown between them, a divide that displaces them as Other, different from humans, and lower in importance and hierarchy.”
In her paintings and in her interviews, she would reference philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx.
“It is the art that keeps me going, and nothing else. The ultimate ideal is to find a higher order that is above the chaos of modern life. Art is refinement even in its brutishness and destitution. And for me, a relevant, timeless message that I want to deliver with my work is the connection we have with nature, and the need to revive that. The world is bigger than just us humans, and there are others that are equally as important. My mission is to find new ways to reconnect,” she said in a 2020 interview with Southeast Asian art platform ArtandMarket.
After her death, many members of the art scene paid tribute to her. Dex Fernandez, creator of the many-legged character Garapata, posted what he called a “Garapatized portrait” of her.
“Bree deserves so much more props for her work. Not every Davao artist breaks out onto a wider stage, but she did. Like, sure, staying in one’s hometown is great if you want it, but she chose the intensity of Manila’s art scene and thrived here,” wrote F. Maria Regalado, musician behind punk acts Beast Jesus and Tall Ice Lung, in a Facebook post.
Jonson was more than just an artist. Before she moved to Manila, she had been in punk and indie bands in her hometown in Davao. “Everybody already knows how beautiful, smart, cultured, and artistic Bree is. But she has this different kind of vibe and substance in her once you get to really know her. She’s also a goofball,” wrote her Alto Indio bandmate Baian Valdez on Instagram.
Because of the circumstances surrounding her death, there could be a temptation to flatten her life into a true crime story. That’s probably the impulse behind some publications writing profiles about Julian Ongpin, the last person seen with Jonson. The son of billionaire Roberto Ongpin, following Jonson’s death, hee was arrested (and later released) on drug charges. Her mother, meanwhile, has cast doubt on his statements that Jonson had died by suicide.
In the end, more than her death, she deserves to be remembered as the person that she was and by the work that she created. “May your work endure,” wrote Regalado.