WHEN the city of Manila was made clean by Metro Aides clad in red and yellow uniforms and blue colored air conditioned buses called Love Bus provided a cool ride at the main thoroughfares of the metropolis, student life then was not as complicated as today when all a “probinsyano” like me needed to finish my schooling were simple items like technical pens, kneaded erasers, canvasses, tubes of oil paints and lots of creativity. Thanks to my hard working parents who managed to send me to college, my four years as a fine arts student at the University of Santo Tomas was well spent especially with down-to-earth classmates and new found friends who shared common dreams, interests and aspirations typical of a struggling artist.
Except for several bombings allegedly perpetrated by the communists linked to Sen. Ninoy Aquino, my college days were as memorable as the names of streets of the places where I stayed such as G. Barlin, P. Malvar, Leon Guinto, Dapitan, Laong Laan and Padre Faura. It was the later, Padre Faura and nearby Mabini Street of Ermita where I truly learned many of life’s realities in the big city from slum dwelling, street food, pub house music, prostitution and artwork forgery.
While in the big city, I learned many ins and outs of Manila from Recto Ave career development corners to Binondo flesh markets but what truly made my college years memorable was the mastery of Mabini artists in copying, imitating and duplicating works of art.
I was introduced to the inner Manila area by my classmate Antonio Ko, who lived just within a spitting distance from the famous La Solidaridad bookshop of writer Sionil Jose along Padre Faura Street. Antonio was more known to us as Chiquito which is perhaps more fitting for a name than the silver screen comedian of the 70s and 80s because he is half Chinese being the eldest son of an eatery owner named Kua Ya. Born sometime in 1958 in Manila and older than me for three years, Chiquito signs his paintings Antonio Ko in his desire to be identified more as a Pinoy and not Chinoy. For over a year, I rented a small room at the apartment of Chiquito’s mother Aling Pining Del Monte who was then living with her second husband, a guy from the Ilocos whom I learned was connected with the Marcos administration. Chiquito stayed with Kua Ya at a dilapidated shanty beside said apartment along Padre Faura and it is in that small place where many award winning artworks were created by my classmate. Despite having only one window, that small place was their living room, their kitchen, their business center and my friend’s unique atelier. It was there where I also encountered other Mabini artists like Papo De Asis who created the iconic man-on-bike silhouette sketch used in the Tour of Luzon print ads and others like Lex Cachapero, Arturo Cruz and Rey Sipagan among many.
Within the Mabini and Luneta area, there used to be a flea market where artists peddle their unframed works to tourists and visiting US sailors whose vessels were docked at the Manila Bay. Kua Ya was also engaged in art trade as a middle man between artists and collectors or buyers. I often hear him discuss with his son Chiquito how he had several art works appraised by Odette Alcantara of the Heritage Art Center. I’ve been to that place with Chiquito before and it was where I saw works of Filipino masters like Botong Francisco, Fernando Amorsolo, Ang Kiukuk and other contemporary masters of the late 20th century including works of our UST professors Antonio Austria, Mario Parial and I guess even Domingo Alconaba or Leonardo Hidalgo.
During our student days, our small group of fine arts students under Prof. Austria and Danilo Santiago visited artist Diosdado Lorenzo in his studio located not too far from UST and Jose Blanco in his hometown Angono, Bulacan. The two were among the foremost and notable Filipino masters who finished their Bachelor of Fine Arts studies from two of the country’s leading art institutions, University of the Philippine, College of Fine Arts and UST-College of Architecture and Fine Arts (CAFA). Having met the two master at the peak of their prominence was indeed an honor for us neophytes who haven’t really figured out what form or style in art to pursue. It was observed then that while UP graduates tend to delve into modern expressionism like abstracts or use of symbolism with varied or mixed mediums, most of us UST graduates lean towards the conservative styles likened to the masters of the renaissance period. My only qualm then was while we were sketching life forms with models ranging from an elderly woman, a child and a mean looking man, they, the UP students had the luxury and privilege to sketching male and female nude models without any garb or whatsoever.
(To be continued)