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Artist Gregory Halili Creates Miniature Art Using Ivory and Mother of Pearl

Artist Gregory Raymond Halili makes a living carving images onto mother of pearl shells. He is making waves now in the local art scene, and is best known for carving eyes on shells and vintage ivory.


Born in the Philippines in 1975, Halili grew up surrounded by the tropical beauty of the country. No wonder his preferred medium for his work are corals, driftwood, shells, and other materials found in nature. At age 13, the artist moved to the USA, where he received his BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.


Minuscule Art

Halili began his career in the States, where he became known for his miniature paintings. He would paint tiny versions of saints, fruits, butterflies, even cityscapes.


His fascination with minuscule art carried over to his work depicting eyes. The artist would paint miniature eyes on tiny slabs of ivory, some of them just over an inch in diameter. The small nature of the artwork would often compel the beholder to squint, and look hard into the ivory eye; peering into the soul of the subject, as it were.

Halili family portrait. Oil on mother of pearl


“It’s interesting how throughout the ages, people believe that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I always had a fascination about it. Maybe that’s why I keep on painting them. I’m also interested in how it evokes emotion. No matter the race or creed, the beauty of the eye is universal,” explains Halili.

A portrait of the artist’s wife, Monique Basa-Halili. Watercolor on vintage ivory


Oeuvre of Skulls

The artist is now based in the Philippines. Halili’s other recent notable work is his oeuvre of skulls, carved and painted inside shells. When we visited his gallery, the painted skulls that lined the living room of the house lent a somewhat macabre but beautiful atmosphere to the place. It was also interesting to realize how most of the mother of pearl shells found in nature are shaped remarkably like an actual human skull.


The artist’s studio looks more like the office of a watchmaker. It is filled with magnifying glasses, some attached to stands, the better for Halili to paint his miniature art. The work is meticulous, and the artist is exacting with how he arranges and cleans his workshop. Never did we see a cleaner, more organized studio; brushes were organized by the fineness of their tip, and paints were stored neatly in acrylic containers.


“The skulls series is a natural progression from my work with eyes,” Halili explains. “I noticed in my travels that the pearl shells sold throughout the islands echo the shape of a human skull. I then got the idea of painting and transforming them into art.”


The process of transforming these mother of pearl shells into art is very painstaking. Halili would carve the insides of the shells with a special drill, sand them, and then paint on them. The finished product is both morbid and strikingly beautiful. The iridescence of the mother of pearl shell gives the work an otherworldly, eerie allure, making it a truly unique and engaging work of art by a talented Filipino artist.

A miniature painting of the Santo Niño Dormido or sleeping child, discarded and vintage ivory


Photographs by Daniel Soriano