Missoula artist explores mixed racial identity in new paintings

In one of April Werle’s paintings, a disembodied and expressive hand touches a mirror with its index finger. In the reflection, its skin tone is lighter. The title is, “I started looking in the mirror and only seeing a white person.” One side of the mirror has pine trees, the other palm trees.

The piece is part of the Helena native’s new show, “Halo-Halo: The Mixed Children,” at the Zootown Arts Community Center.

Werle’s mother is from the Philippines, her father is a white Montanan whose family goes back generations here. She came to the University of Montana to study art, graduating in 2016. Around 2020, feeling self-conscious about trying to find a Filipino community here, she began to realize “the way that I see myself in the mirror is completely my own bias, and that other people may see me differently or may see me similar.”

Some of the hands are painted with black-and-white split tones, half lighter and half darker that leaves them ambiguous. She hopes “people realize it’s up to them, and how they see those hands — they see it as one or the other, or they see it as a whole.”

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Werle returned to her home city in fall of 2022 for a solo museum exhibition, “Mga Hunghong Sa Diwata (Whisper of Spirits),” that included a temporary mural in addition to prints and paintings. In late 2022 through early 2023, she was part of a group exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum called “Imaging the Sacred,” that included three other female artists. This ZACC show is an extension to her, focusing less on Filipino folklore and stories.

“There’s references to my Filipino heritage, but it’s more focusing on the perspective of how we see mixed people,” she said.

Werle drew the title, “Halo-Halo,” from a term that has multiple uses. It means “mix-mix,” in reference to a layered ice-cream sundae-type dish with its own menu and conglomeration of potential ingredients. As Werle says in her show description, it’s also a “cute way” to refer to Filipinos with mixed ancestry.

About four or five years ago, Werle began drawing hands as characters for the narratives. They gesture, interact and arrive in varied locations and scenarios.

“I wanted to find a way to use the figure, but not have so much context that you get from a face or a full body and clothes,” she said. “I felt you could reduce that figure to just the hand to tell stories effectively,” she said.

In her gallery text, she explains how they’re a way to explore her identity without literally depicting herself.

In “Where are you from-from?”, a hand casually holds a cigarette aloft while “seated” in a Peacock chair, a sunset aligned behind its back and palm trees at the chair’s feet. The title refers to the chair’s origins. While the furniture is associated with the Black Power movement and Old Hollywood portraits, they’ve been traced back to the Philippines. She based her image on the oldest known photograph of the chair, of a woman in a prison where the chairs were manufactured.

The wood paneling plays a subtle role in her themes as well — a nod to Montana and also the traditional Filipino wood carvings that her aunt decorated her house with.

In another, two hands gesture toward each other, one from the top of the mountain to another who’s still in ascent. The hillside is clustered with greens. It’s titled, “Oh s—, there are pine trees here too!”

Werle took a trip to Cebu, the island where her mother grew up, and they took a hike up its tallest mountain. During the ascent, she noticed, to her surprise, pine trees. They’d long been a symbol of her Montana roots in her work.

“Food tastes better this way” displays the proper technique for eating rice with your hands, which they did in Werle’s family growing up.

Werle has been more focused on studio work lately. After college, she pursued mural painting: As a way of traveling abroad, through an artist residency, and more back here in Missoula. Her work is on Drum Coffee’s South Avenue location and in the “mural alley” behind the Zootown Arts Community Center, part of a four-part sequence by BIPOC artists called “Feeling Welcome.”

She was a part of the Arts Missoula’s BIPOC Arts Advisory Council, which has since become its own program called the Cohesion Arts Collective. They’re planning a three-part speaker series, a spring mixer at the Confluence Center nonprofit space, and in the fall, an exhibition at the Brunswick Gallery.

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