Avela Semaña: Portrait of a Diplomat as an Artist


As the Covid-19 pandemic rampages across the globe and wreaks havoc on many countries particularly the United States, a young Filipina diplomat finds the silver lining through her art.

Avela Semaña, the @dcsketcher

When Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia (DMV) first declared a state of emergency in their respective areas in March 2020 due to the surge of COVID-19 cases, little did Avela Semaña know that the work from home setup originally slated for two weeks would continue for months on end.

“I am currently part of the Economic Section under First Secretary and Consul Katrina Borja-Martin,” begins Avela, a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs currently posted at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. led by Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez. Aside from helping the Ambassador in bringing COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, the section is also working on bringing investors to the Philippines.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Philippine Embassy and Posts across the United States have had to implement online appointments with no walk-in applications entertained for consular services to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. Admittedly, the pandemic as well as pandemic-related restrictions have made the situation and the necessary work very challenging, because the young diplomat – who also served as the Visa Officer and Assistance-to-Nationals Officer at the Consular Section – had “a hard time transitioning from having 15 colleagues at the Consular Section who I spoke to every day, to a team of two at the Economic Section.”

Despite being an introvert, Avela says she also missed connecting with people and friends. “It’s a case of not appreciating something until it’s gone. That ‘something’ is an opportunity to be social, if and when I want to. To be honest, I think I’ve gained more friends now than before the pandemic,” she reflects.

It’s surprising to know actually that Avela was all set to join the food industry right after graduation (she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños and a Master in Public Management from Ateneo de Manila University). Right after getting her college diploma, she went on to study culinary arts at the Global Academy of Culinary and Hospitality in Pasig City, after which she went to Thailand hoping to join the restaurant industry there. But she ended up becoming more interested in learning about the country’s street food tradition, her interest kindled during conversations with shop owners and wait staff. As fate would have it, a dear friend from the culinary school asked Avela for her resume – but instead of giving it to restaurants or hotels, he submitted it to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“Each place I have been to is unique, and I have learned to appreciate the culture and beauty of each one,” shares the young Foreign Service Staff, who was actually cross-posted to Washington, D.C. from the Philippine Embassy in Praetoria, South Africa.

During the 2015 Diplomatic Reception in honor of Philippine Independence Day in South Africa with Cris Bika, a locally hired staff.

According to Avela, one of the most interesting aspects of her work is learning the stories behind reports received by the Embassy. “What I learned from Consular is that no matter how routine our task can be, our impact on kababayans is so personal, and that’s what’s so rewarding,” she discloses. For instance, facilitating the visa of an American national who will visit his Filipina girlfriend and child in the Philippines, working on a special power of attorney to allow a son to purchase a home for his parents, or facilitating an application for a passport renewal so a child could visit an ailing mother.

“Every transaction is personal, so providing consular services is all about touching lives,” she says. Yet these transactions – which elicit heartfelt “thank yous” from gratified clients – can also take an emotional toll from the foreign service staff because many of the issues they have to deal with can be deeply personal.

“Every transaction is personal, so providing consular services is all about touching lives.”

One story that stands out is about this lady who was at the time a green card holder, but incessantly sends emails and calls even in the wee hours of the morning, asking for help so she could travel back to the Philippines. According to the lady, her husband (who had left her) was given full custody of their children. Not surprisingly, the lady was already getting psychologically affected by the turn of events. “Absorbing and not trying to be affected by these heartbreaking stories, I guess, are the most challenging,” admits Avela.

“No matter how hard you try to preserve your objectivity and remain detached from clients’ personal problems, it will stick to you for days, weeks, or even months. They share with you stories that seem to be too personal, such as a man incarcerated for drug trafficking who told me that he missed his family, that his children did not know about his current situation… undocumented Filipinas abandoned by their husbands…” Avela shares, the empathy apparent as she adds that some even asked her to pray for their family.

Obviously, the disruptions caused by the pandemic made the situation even tougher given the restrictions and the limitations on the work and services the Embassy can provide. Avela says kindness at this time can go a long way in helping one not only to navigate the disruptions, but to keep one’s sanity as well.

“Kindness is key to be able to swiftly navigate the disruptions caused by this pandemic. At my level, that kindness is to people around you, the doorman, the apartment’s cleaner, the wait staff, colleagues that are within my area, anyone you meet in the street. Make them feel they matter, that you care for them. I think that’s what keeps me sane,” she says, adding that the simple act of bringing coffee, tea or pastries or sending them caricatures or portraits, or whatever one can offer, can make a difference.

“Kindness is key to be able to swiftly navigate the disruptions caused by this pandemic. At my level, that kindness is to people around you, the doorman, the apartment’s cleaner, the wait staff, anyone you meet in the street. Make them feel they matter, that you care for them. I think that’s what keeps me sane.”

She is careful to emphasize, however, that she never waits for anything in return because “that spells misery. Kindness is more for the giver’s mental health, and thank yous and smiles are more than enough payment.”

While the pandemic has brought untold misery and suffering, causing many to feel physically, psychologically and emotionally exhausted, there are also silver linings coming in so many ways. For Avela, it’s discovering her own artistic style and the subject matter that she is passionate about.

“I consider it a blessing in disguise, at least in my creative pursuits. All artists would always have this fervent desire to find their own artistic style. And to be honest, I have been looking for it for years. And I found it during one of the most hopeless situations,” she reveals.

Her plan for 2020 after all was to travel to Europe with the hope that she could find inspiration and her style in the process.  “But COVID-19 happened, and I was forced to put those travel plans on hold. Then I got to see Washington, DC with fresh eyes and I used that to drive my art,” she says.

The pandemic became a silver lining for Avela who saw Washington, DC with fresh eyes, allowing her to discover her own unique style as an artist.

“I was into portrait and figure painting before, but I became interested in DC’s architecture during the lockdown,” she continues. DC’s old and iconic buildings and houses became a source of fascination since they seem to have developed personalities, and the capability to exude vitality and spirit. “I am particularly drawn to structures with a small tower or what they call a turret, which reminds me of medieval castles featured in our high school textbooks,” she avers.

DC’s old and iconic buildings and houses seem to have developed personalities, and the capability to exude vitality and spirit.

Last June, she set up an Instagram account called @dcsketcher and started posting her ink and watercolor paintings of the DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) area, showcasing the iconic buildings and scenes depicting the streets lined with unique architecture, utilizing a technique known as “plein air” painting that goes back for centuries and popularized by French Impressionists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 

It certainly helps that she has a supportive and patient spouse who – whenever Avela needed some fresh air especially during the early months of the strict lockdown imposed in DC – already knows the drill: grabbing Avela’s art bag and laptop so that in minutes, they would be on their way to a park where she could paint plein air.

One remarkable consequence of Avela’s artistic pursuit is her participation last December 5 in the annual Dupont Circle Holiday Pop-up that co-locates artists in shops around the historic Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington, D.C. As it happened, the owner of a teahouse (which has a turret) saw her painting uploaded on IG and started following her account. When she visited the teahouse and headed to the patio to paint, the owner – who delivered her order – asked if she was the @dcsketcher.

Avela’s featured artworks during the annual Dupont Circle Holiday Pop-up connected with visitors who found the ink and watercolor renderings evocative.

“When I confirmed it, he was so happy and asked me to send him a message to discuss possible collaboration. I was hesitant to reach out due to lack of confidence. A few months after this encounter, someone approached me online and asked if I wanted to join the annual Dupont Circle Holiday Pop-up. I did not immediately commit and said I would think about it. Then Yunhan, the teashop owner, sent me a private message offering his space as a possible exhibit venue,” Avela narrates, finally taking up the offer.

For someone who says she did not have any formal training – having only subscribed to art classes online – Avela’s distinctive plein air paintings soon caught the attention of many. One of them is the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle who reposted Avela’s rendition of the church in its official IG account, describing it as “an evocative watercolor rendering” of the cathedral, thanking @dcsketcher for memorializing the church “so beautifully – much appreciated especially during these times of physical estrangement for many.”

Behind Avela’s petite frame hides an artistic talent whose work resonates with people.

Indeed, behind the petite frame hides an artistic talent whose work resonates and connects with people. “It was good to see people feel connected with the artwork. I saw one giggle when she saw a particular work and told me it’s the view from her apartment, while another one hastily picked up an artwork and said that it was actually his house. So I realized that with this type of subject, people do appreciate it but will only give particular importance to it if they can relate or feel connected to a piece of work,” she elaborates.

“While I think I finally found my unique style, I know there’s a lot to learn and more room for improvement. Having a personal style is just the first step, and honing it can be as frustrating as looking for it. And it is true that in every piece of art I create, even if I know that I failed at it miserably, is a chance to forge and grow my style,” she continues.

There have since been offers for Avela to mount another exhibit before leaving DC in April. This early, she has already been in contact with artists in Asia who she plans to visit, and who have generously offered to bring her to a teahouse where they can paint on location together. 

“Friends tell me that I need to change the IG account to @Pasaysketcher, @Malibaysketcher or @Libertadsketcher. Well, that’s the challenge, turning our eskinitas into interesting pieces of art,” she laughs, anticipating the time when she would go back to Manila.

For now however, it’s the streets of DC that she will be transforming into evocative works of art.

About the Writer
Bing Parel

Bing Parel is a Senior Vice President for the Editorial Department of WSP Incorporated, a Filipino-owned communications firm. In her past life, she was a travel magazine writer and associate editor for a glossy, and was also involved in the national campaign of a presidential candidate. She describes herself as a domestic diva on weekends and confesses that one of her frustrations is the inability to solve a Rubik’s Cube despite her teenage son’s patient encouragement and tutorial attempts.

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