Abe: A portrait of the artist as mentor (Philippine Star)

MANILA, Philippines – If I knew then what I know now, I would have paid closer attention to my father’s friends who crossed the threshold of our home in Philam, Quezon City. They were the cream of the crop of the second half of 20th century Philippine art, culture and politics. I took for granted the environment that my father provided me with, the people living and dead he chose to expose me to. I see now that the intellectual and artistic nurturing that was laid out for me from day one without my knowing has given me a direction, as much as I avoided it.

At five years old, my father took me to the FEU auditorium to watch and listen to a children’s story only it was the Hansel and Gretel opera by Engelbert Humperdinck sung in German. Bored, I slipped out of my chair and started walking up and down the theater aisles trying to spot his friends in the audience, and then I gleefully went back to my seat reporting to him the faces I recognized.

As an older child, I’d open the door when someone came knocking, let the visitor in and call my father. Fifty years later, I still remember many of them, but several stand out. I will mention a few, some of whom were not able to write their reminiscences in this collection, but who have left an indelible mark in a now-aging progeny’s memory.

Ninoy Aquino was a regular caller, usually at breakfast or on Sunday afternoons. He lived with his family on Times Street which is adjacent to the Philam compound. He was not yet a senator he knew my dad because he was a Korean War correspondent and my dad was the Daily Mirror editor. Although Ninoy was from Tarlac, the language he spoke was Pampango so I would announce his arrival by yelling, “Daddy, Tatang Ninoy is here!”

Sundays, my nieces and nephews would be around and we would be playing on the street in front of our house. One time, while Ninoy was inside the house chatting with my dad in his library, one of my young nephews stood on tiptoe to peer into Ninoy’s car. “Armalite!” he whispered loudly with wide eyes, smiling. Sure enough, there was one in the front seat.

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When Ninoy left, I told my dad that “Tatang Ninoy left his high-powered rifle exposed in his car for all to see.” I thought that was something one left under- cover and that my dad should be concerned about it. On the contrary, he was unfazed. “Oh, it’s just so like him to do that.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Shock value,” he dismissed.

On the other side of the political spectrum was his close association with Imelda Marcos whom he spoke to politely, with “po” punctuating his sentences although he addressed her as “comadre” since they both stood as godparents to one of Daily Mirror columnist Vic Tanedo’s children. I remember the Tanedo baptism which was during the year of the 1966 presidential campaign. I came along with my dad, and Imee Marcos came along with her mom.

At the baptismal party, my dad and Imelda compared notes about what the daughters got for Three Kings’ Day. I got a mini version of an authentic microscope, half-stuffed into my shoe that I stuck in the Venetian blinds on the eve of Three Kings’. I remember my grave disappointment at such a no-fun gift. I was wishing time would fast-forward to the following year so I could have another chance at receiving a more enjoyable toy. That was my thought until I heard what Imee received from her father: a complete set of encyclopedias.

Growing up, I picked up the newspaper on the front terrace of our home in the morning and in the afternoon. I read the papers from front to back: front page, society page, foreign news, entertainment page, obituaries, shipping notices and police reports. However, I skipped the editorial page because, as a child, everything on it just went over my head. Not knowing any better, I thought the opinions came out of thin air and I marveled at how columnists could churn out paragraphs of analysis. At that age, I didn’t care that my father was the chief editorial writer of the Manila Times publications. What I went around the school telling people was that my father wrote the Bindoy comic strip and the editorial cartoons. I knew because I saw him do the rough sketches in pencil in batches at home for the newspaper artists to execute when he would be traveling abroad.

I read the comic strips top to bottom, be it American or local, and my favorite was Tisoy because it was life young people life. It had its own lingo each character had, well, his or her own character. One day my dad said, “So you like Tisoy Nonoy Marcelo is on my staff.” I said, “Who?!” He said, “Nonoy Marcelo is the creator of Tisoy he’s on my staff.” Now he got my attention. “Really?!” I asked, “If I bought a sweatshirt at the PX market, can you get him to draw Tisoy on it for me?” “Sure,” he said. So I got my sweatshirt. And then Nonoy Marcelo left for New York and worked there for several years.

Eventually, Nonoy would come back to Manila. My dad had been in New York and suggested to Nonoy that he come home, even for a visit. If I’m not mistaken, first, it was a month-long stay. Part of the time, he bunked in my dad’s library. By this time I was a teenager and I just thought it was the coolest thing to be having breakfast with the Tisoy creator, not just the comic strip in the morning daily. I think I said that to Nonoy at the breakfast table gushing, even in front of my father. Nonoy’s second visit was longer. In fact, he bunked in the library for a month, leaving with my dad in the morning and coming home late in the afternoon, the two of them still together. Then one day, my dad came home alone. I was disappointed. “Where’s Nonoy?, I asked.” My dad said he had gone to Navotas to see his mom. I asked, “Why?!” My dad said, “Maawa ka, he’s been here for a month and his mom hasn’t seen him at all.” Anyway, in a few days, he was back coming and going with my dad, having breakfast and dinner with us.

Of all my dad’s friends, the one he spent the most time with was probably Sofronio Y. Mendoza, otherwise known as Sym. Sym started showing up at my dad’s office when he was just starting to paint in Manila and my dad was doing art critiques for his paper’s weekend magazine supplement. I don’t know exactly how they met, but soon they became constant companions. During the day, they ate out and rummaged bookstores PECO, Erehwon, Popular Bookstore, La Solidaridad. Both would buy large art books of master painters with color plates. Then my dad would bring Sym home to join us for dinner. When they got home, my dad would erase the penciled-in price on the flyleaf. Sym, on the other hand, would retrace the price on his book with indelible ink.

It was not unusual for me and my dad to sit at the dinner table at 7 o’clock in the evening and not get up until close to midnight. He would ask me about class discussions and political goings-on in the UP campus, then supplement the lessons of the day with his own analyses. However, when Sym or after Sym migrated to Canada Romulo Galicano came for dinner, I usually excused myself shortly after. Their post-prandial conversation focused on academic art technical aspects and philosophical underpinnings. They would look at a color plate from an art book, identify the light source and analyze if the cast shadow was falling on the right spot. Or, is the figure in the painting anatomically correct how does the size of the head relate in proportion to the body is it adhering to the classic 8-head rule, or the 6.5-head rule that Sym, a Cebuano, described as the “Samar-type”? Then they attempted to get into the artists’ head, so to speak, based on the letters and memoirs that were left behind. These discussions lasted till past midnight, so that Sym or Mulong would sleep in the library and just hitch a ride home with my dad on his way to work the following morning.

Finally, there was Ambeth Ocampo. By the time Ambeth came into the scene, my dad and I were living at Gomez Mansions on Menlo street in Pasay we had separate apartments so I didn’t see Ambeth much. Then I shared a townhouse with my dad in Ecoville in Makati toward the mid-’80s, before I left for Washington, DC. Ambeth was still a regular visitor at Ecoville, but I always left him alone with my dad.

What I find remarkable in the mentor-protege relationship between my dad and Ambeth was its deliberate nature. My dad probably always longed for a good listener who would pursue his interests. My brother and I, while we relished every moment spent with our dad, wanted to do something different we may not have known what it was, but it was going to be different. And then Ambeth came along.

Ambeth didn’t just arrive to hang out with my dad. Rather, there was kind of an expressed beseechment by Ambeth’s parents, Bert and Belen Ocampo my dad’s dear friends and cabalen for my dad to take the young Ocampo under his wing. The Ocampos wanted to give Ambeth their full support, and wanted my dad to give direction to Ambeth’s chosen path. That, my dad was more than delighted to do. In time, though, they also became fast friends.

Once retired, I started looking for another path. I had always thought I couldn’t draw that I couldn’t even doodle. But now I got the idea that drawing and painting skills could be acquired through training. I scrutinized the styles of Matisse, Picasso and de Kooning. I studied painting in the manner of Alice Neel, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Unhappy with the lack of artistic voice, I shifted to the academic method, paying close attention to where the light was coming from and where the cast shadow was falling, consulting the value scale, sight-measuring the model with a stick, and composing still life set-ups.

All of a sudden I harkened back to the time when my dad had dragged me to Angono to see Botong Francisco paint the mural that went to the Manila City Hall Sundays when we went to visit Vicente Manansala, H.R. Ocampo and Guillermo Tolentino weekends when we went around town with Malang and Ang Kiukok lazy days just hanging out with Leo Benesa, the art critic, who delighted at the unusual treats that my dad always kept in his small refrigerator, like rabbit pate en croute from a hotel delicatessen. Now I regretted the time I turned down my dad’s invite no, it was a nagging to go up with him to Baguio along with Sym, Mulong Galicano and my brother’s architect and close friend, Agustin Goy, the noted artist, to paint from my brother’s house that sat on a hill. He nagged me, but all I had wanted to do was hang out with my young friends. Even if then I had been looking for an artistic voice, though, I probably would have wanted it served on a plate by my father, or like instant cup-a-noodle by his fellow Dimasalang Group members.

Three years ago I did finally call up Sym, who now lives in Canada only about 40 minutes from our home across the border. I asked him if he was still teaching, but he said he had stopped when his heart problem started. He mentioned he was leaving for Manila to escape winter and wouldn’t be back for six months. I thought, should I return to Manila and rent a place close to Mulong’s in Quezon City to haunt his studio every day? Would the meticulous Mr. Goy be willing to coach me without scowling if my brush strokes were less than perfect? I only pondered these ideas as for the past, I just wish I had I wish it were once again.

Still, I am fortunate. Now when I look at an object, I have a sense of seeing and understanding that would not have been possible if not for the myriad exposures that my father provided me. The artistic voice I had started seeking was already within acquired from the smorgasbord of people, ideas and experiences I encountered in the second half of the last century under my father’s guiding hand.

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At the National Museum of Fine Arts, a gallery is being prepared to exhibit more than 48 Emilio Aguilar Cruz artworks and two of his portraits by National Artists, which his family donated to the nation. It will be open to the public on Sept. 23.