TO FINISH my bachelor’s degree back in the days, I needed to complete all the required Military Science (MS-11-22) drills and subjects under the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), which I did during the four semesters of 1978 and 1979. Antonio Ko Jr., our classmate whom we called Chiquito was a smart aleck who knows how to find easy way out of academic and non-academic requirements. In the case of our small group from the UST-College of Architecture and Fine Arts, we signified and bargained to do the printing of certificate names at the ROTC office that assured us to be indoors while the rest of the UST brigade had lectures and formations under the scorching heat. It was there where we got to practice and put to good use our acquired skills in speedball lettering using Gothic and Old English fonts as we already had 2 units in Lettering which we earlier thought was a waste of time and effort.
For three decades, I refrained from writing a journal about my early encounters and artistic exposures in Manila particularly with the Mabini artists so as not to put them in bad light and disappoint buyers and art collectors who might have already bought reproductions or forged works. Using their innate skills and brushwork expertise just to make both ends meet and put food on their tables, I developed a kind of respect and sympathy towards these struggling artists. I also convinced myself not to be critical on their works especially on the aspect of creativity and originality because the later to me is no longer a thing to contend with or debate upon in as far as art is concerned. I have also copied works of Michelangelo Bounarroti from a book about the Sistine Chapel’s Creation for some studies on human anatomy and if someone wants to buy it at a good deal, I will not hesitate to let it go. I would say that in most human undertaking, survival or the rule of the stomach comes first before any others like artistry or creative undertakings.
Just being with Antonio Ko or Chiquito on weekends and holidays in Ermita back in the early 80s, I had the chance to meet established masters and some of Manila’s promising artists. The place where I stayed in Padre Faura St. is also within walking distance to Luneta Park, the Manila Metropolitan Museum and Manila Hilton where the Art Association of the Philippines held its office.
Art galleries and souvenir shops that hang paintings used to abound in the streets of Ermita and I observed that most of the Mabini artists simply want their works sold even at a bargain so that they can replenish the paintings once these are bought or sent to buyers. I also heard stories that some of the artists used to eat at Kua-Ya’s place and pay their meals with paintings. The word “gutom” which means hunger is byword in art peddling where both seller and artist only get to partake on the sale proceeds once a painting is sold.
In contrast, there were notable galleries with glass windows that showcased finer works of art at the stretch of Mabini Street close to the United Nations Avenue. Between 1981 until I graduated in 1982, I often pass by these art galleries that include that of Peck Piñon, Ben Alano and Jose Hernandez. Chiquito once noticed me ogling and obviously amazed at the fine details of some of the portraits at one of these galleries and my friend later revealed that the gallery’s in-house painters actually use slide films taken from the posed images of the clients and projected on the canvass for easier tracing and more accurate coloring. These type or error-free image making technique precedes the machine-based photo-canvass printing by commercial print shops.
There was a place likened to flea markets abroad where unframed paintings were laid flat on the ground for sale. Most of the buyers at that time were tourists including US servicemen from the docked naval vessels. At the inner chamber or backstreet corners of these mini galleries, one would normally see the artists working shirtless and puffing cigarettes at intervals. Except for few who really display their art-in-the-making skills, most of the Mabini artists do not want their prospective buyers see them work with cheap house paints and improvised brushes. Becoming famous also seemed to be very remote to them since most of their works only depicted seascapes, flowers and landscape of rural scenes. They often mass produce and do repetitive subjects that they cannot explain to onlookers when asked.
I also came to learn several brushwork styles and paint application techniques while visiting some Mabini artists in their work places.
While many paint out of sheer memory of typical Philippine settings, I observed some style imitation, artwork antiquation and even duplication by the seasoned artists in the area. Latex and tinting colors of popular industrial brands blended with a shipping anti leak paste were used in lieu of the expensive German and Japan manufactured oil paints.
I may be revealing some trade secrets used in forgery such as dousing dark coffee into the backside of an imitation and leaving it for weeks in rooftops but my recollection of the life of my dear friend Antonio will not be complete if it lacks details. (to be concluded)