IT WAS with great sadness that I received the news a little over a week ago that my friend Nik Ricio had passed away. We knew that he had been ill for some time, but as these things go, you hope for the best, and never really think people could leave so soon.
He was, to me, indisputably the best Filipino book designer of his time, and one of the finest Filipino artists to have wielded a brush or a technical pen. More than that, he was a friend to me and to many other artists and writers, the kind of friend whose company you didn’t only enjoy but whose talent you felt enriched by and actually learned from.
I got the message about Nik’s death from another old friend, Tere Custodio, with whom Nik and I had worked on the massive, 10-volume Kasaysayan project back in 1997-98. The three of us would collaborate on other book projects after that, but nothing before or since matched Kasaysayan in its scope and intensity. We had been commissioned by Reader’s Digest Asia and by A-Z Direct Marketing to come up with this anthology in time for the celebration of the Philippine Centennial in June 1998; we had our first meeting in January 1997, and in exactly 18 months, on schedule, the anthology was launched—a compendium of 3,000 pages, a million words, thousands of photographs, and the labor of around 200 writers (not just historians, but economists, poets, scientists, priests, and artists, among others) whom we tapped for various essays. Tere oversaw the logistics and execution of the gargantuan project; I edited the text, advised and assisted by the late Doreen Fernandez; but it was Nik who almost literally shaped these ten books and gave them their final look, working with what even then was already an aging pair of Macs and PageMaker.
I recall that effort because of what I learned from Nik, with whom I sat side-by-side, going over those many thousands of pages on his computer screen. I was a rookie editor, something like an infantry captain suddenly ordered to command the Battle of the Bulge; Nik already had many coffeetable books to his credit, chiefly with Gilda Cordero Fernando’s GCF Books, sumptuous productions which Beng and I coveted but could then scarcely afford. I decided early on—sagely, as it turned out—to let the design lead the text.
Happily Nik and I shared a traditionalist aesthetic—a sense of pleasing balance, squared corners, fine detail, and subtle suggestion (this was before book design got all postmodern funky, splashy, and edgy). I could see that Nik was going for a certain look; he’d tell me, “It would be nice if all the last lines on the page ended here…. Let’s get rid of all widows and orphans (lines that hung out all by their lonesome)…. I need a subhead here, to balance the subhead there…. Could you make sure that all the subheads are at least X number of characters and Y at the most?… You see this white line running down the page? That’s a ‘river’ and it doesn’t look good. Help me remove these rivers by adding a few words here and deleting some there….”
As meticulous and painstaking as he was, I never once heard Nik raise his voice, even as the rest of us were at our wits’ end doing our darnedest to make sure we hit our deadlines. Our tie-up with Reader’s Digest afforded us a substantial budget, and as art director Nik could have had his pick of hotshot photographers to help him illustrate our books (Nik insisted that there be a picture in every spread, over ten volumes). But when he had to, no-nonsense Nik—a talented photographer himself—went out with his camera to shoot, say, a rash of rust on a GI sheet or a patch of moss on a rock to use as pictorial motifs.
There’s an ongoing retrospective until the 27th of Nik’s work as a designer, illustrator, photographer, and painter at the Liongoren Gallery on 111 New York Avenue, Cubao, and aside from his book designs and paintings, there’s a wall of his photographs, taken on Manila’s streets in the 1960s and ‘70s: an armless man playing a guitar with his toes, a dog standing his ground in front of a Mercedes-Benz, an old woman staring out a concrete window. He had the eye of Lino Brocka, but unlike Brocka, he went past the real to the romantic, insistently seeking beauty in a decidedly un-beautiful world. He never gave up; even toward the end, no longer able to hold a brush, he used sponges to create large tree paintings.
Flashback to another New York, the real one. In October 1999, Nik had one of his finest and happiest spells when an exhibition of his paintings opened at the Philippine Center in New York. I was happy to write the text of the brochure that introduced Nik and his works to viewers, and this is what I said then:
“After more than three decades of working as one of Manila’s leading graphic designers, photographers, and illustrators, Nik Ricio returns to an old love—painting.
“This exhibition—surprisingly enough, only the first one-man show of his long career—shows Nik returning to his artistic and spiritual roots. Those roots lie deep in romantic myth in a sense of beauty and order to the natural world, in faith and hope in the regenerative power of Art. Ricio’s works are a veritable garden of the Muses. The lushly detailed foliage that has become a virtual trademark of Ricio’s graphic design is more than pretty in these paintings; every leaf and flower is an affirmation of life, which all Art aspires to achieve and to sustain.
“Ricio made his mark early by winning first prize for two successive years, 1966 and 1967, in the prestigious Shell National Student Art Competition, before graduating in 1968 from the University of the Philippines with a BFA, majoring in commercial and editorial design.
“In Manila and around Asia, he is best known and much sought after as a book and graphic designer. His book projects include the celebrated Turn of the Century, The Streets of Manila, Being Filipino, Dances of the Emerald Isles, Rizal the Saga, Tide of Time, and, most recently, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People. He counts among his clients some of the Philippines’ largest corporations, as well as Readers’ Digest Asia, the World Bank, the Ambassador Hotel in Hong Kong, and the Manila Hotel.
“As an art director, he has been described by a critic as ‘a submarine commander, a visionary of the deep who gives out consummate orders with the minimum of tantrums.’
“Both the mastery and the modesty should come through in these paintings. They are as close as we can get to what Nik Ricio—so much of whose work has been to realize the dreams of others—really dreams of, all by himself.”
It was no great secret to those who knew him that for many of his last years, Nik was estranged from his family; there was great pain on both sides, and ironically it took his terminal illness to reunite him with his wife Tes and their children, also accomplished artists.
Beng and I went to Loyola Guadalupe for Nik’s very brief wake, to condole with Tes and the family, and with Nik’s many other friends. He lay in an open casket, like Beng’s brother had many years before, preparatory to cremation. I remarked to someone how I would probably end up the same way in the same place, having bought a funeral policy for Beng and myself there. Many tears were shed and regretful words spoken. Walking back to the car, it felt as if you had closed a well-written book full of engaging events and lavish illustrations, leaving you wishing only that it had gone on for a bit longer and had a happier ending.
Godspeed, Nik, and may you meet with all the beauty you tried to give us an early glimpse of.