Penman No. 304: Revisiting the Print

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Penman for Monday, May 28, 2018

 

I usually reserve my weekends for truly enjoyable things, like rummaging through Japanese surplus shops or just driving down south for a hearty lunch of steaming bulalo cooled off by fresh buko juice, but there was one event a couple of Saturdays ago that I wasn’t going to miss for the world.

This was “Tirada,” the 50thanniversary retrospective show of the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (A/P, formerly known as the Philippine Association of Printmakers, or PAP) at the CCP. I recently wrote about this group when I brought up my obscure and distant past as a printmaker in the early 1970s, when I’d just stepped out of martial-law prison and was looking for something to do while I didn’t have a real job.

I turned to printmaking for a couple of years to help support myself, and those times at the PAP studio-headquarters on Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita turned out to be one of the most instructive and wonderful periods of my life, as I immersed myself in the intricacies—and the backbreaking labors—of printmaking.

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(With Pinoy printmakers Benjie Cabrera, Jess Flores, Bencab, and Egay Fernandez at the AP retrospective.)

Despite its long and glorious history, printmaking remains misunderstood and underappreciated by many. The fact that printmakers will often make multiple copies of the same work seems to debase the value of the work in the eyes of art buyers looking for something totally unique, like an oil painting. But printmaking’s great contribution to art was precisely its democratization, by making art accessible to many, beginning with the engravings that illustrated old books and newspapers and lent visual credence to literature and journalism. Prints also adorned books on anatomy, horticulture, geography, and astronomy, among others, without which science could not have progressed.

It was an imaginative step to move from the print as functional appendage to the print as an art form in itself, and many artists took that step because it offered a fascinating alternative, with its own fresh challenges, to the sometimes staid art of painting. Prints require a heavily physical and tactile engagement with one’s tools and materials, like sculpture, working with plates, inks, papers, and presses.

Back in the PAP days—employing techniques that hadn’t changed much since Durer and Rembrandt used them centuries ago—we drew designs on zinc plates coated with an asphalt “ground,” soaked them in nitric acid which ate away the designs, cleaned and inked the plates, then rolled them onto paper under enormous pressures to produce etchings. (Today printmakers use polymer plates, not metal—a technique I’ve yet to learn, not having touched a burin or engraver’s tool in over 40 years. The Japanese, of course, used wood, and others use linoleum and stone for their material.)

The PAP was formed in 1968, led by such pioneers as Manuel Rodriguez, Sr. By the time I found my way to Jorge Bocobo five years later, its regulars included the likes of Orly Castillo, Manolito Mayo, Fil de la Cruz, Jess Flores, Joel Soliven, Rhoda Recto, Petite Calaguas, Benjie Cabrera, Fernando Modesto, Bing del Rosario, and Emet Valente. Some days I’d watch Bencab and Tiny Nuyda at work, or just listen to their banter, which was just as valuable to the salingpusaI was, eager for a whiff of the artistic life (I would become a full-time writer a few years down the road).

Some of those stalwarts have since passed on, but seeing their works on display at the CCP—alongside a whole new generation of brilliant Filipino printmakers—revived happy memories of the kind of camaraderie that AP leader and master printmaker Pandy Aviado referred to in his remarks. Painting can be a lonely art, and perhaps it needs to be, but printmaking typically attracts the collective assistance of others, as physically strenuous as the work can get.

My solitary contribution to the show—a 1975 etching of my grandmother—proudly hung beside one of Bencab’s in the corridor outside the main gallery, but I felt happiest just to share the company of old friends from another branch of the arts that I’d stepped away from, perhaps too quickly. I remembered the sheer exhilaration of lifting the dampened paper off a pressed plate to see one’s design in vivid ink, a joy tempered but also deepened by the intensity of filing away and smoothing out the rough edges of a zinc plate, or inhaling a vinegary cloud of acid, or pouring cold lacquer thinner onto one’s fingers to wash away the grime.

“I wish we had a small etching press at home,” I found myself telling Beng—only to be told by a new acquaintance, the artist Angela Silva, that the renowned Raul Isidro had one, or a few, to sell, having commissioned a raft of them to help spread the faith. I made a beeline for Raul, and then and there reserved myself a unit, with Beng’s blessings.

I’ve decided to return to printmaking in the most old-fashioned way with a technique called drypoint, scratching out my designs with a sharp tool by hand on a copper plate. I can just see how busy my retirement’s going to be a year hence—and how messy. But what a marvelous mess I hope to make.

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(With artist Raul Isidro, receiving my baby press. The print above is Joel Soliven’s “Owl70” from my collection.)

Penman No. 296: My Past as a Printmaker

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Penman for Monday, April 2, 2018

 

EVERY NOW and then I get a reminder from somewhere very far that, at one point in my past, I led a very different life and might have gone down another path altogether.

Last month I received a message from a gentleman in England, asking me if I knew the artist of a print he had acquired, an etching of a water buffalo with a bird perched on his back, dated 1974, titled “Katuwaan Lang,” and signed by a “j y dalisay jr.” I received similar inquiries from two ladies in the States back in 2008 and 2015, who both sent me pictures of prints I hadn’t seen in decades.

Yes, I told them all, once upon a time I worked as a printmaker, and it happened this way.

In January 1973, I was arrested by the military for alleged subversion—I was 18, a college dropout, and a fledgling reporter for the Philippines Herald and Taliba—and was thrown, along with a couple hundred other inmates, into a detention camp somewhere in what people now smartly call Bonifacio Global City. Back then it was just the Ipil Rehabilitation Center, a repurposed Army barracks enclosed in barbed wire.

Among my fellow detainees—aside from the likes of Jojo Binay, Orly Mercado, and Zeus Salazar—was the artist Orlando “Orly” Castillo, who organized an Artists’ Group which conducted sketching sessions and painted and sold little souvenir items to our Sunday visitors. Not knowing how long we were going to be detained—I for one was never arraigned or tried in court, although I was interrogated and beaten up—I signed up with the group, having done a bit of drawing since grade school.

As it turned out, I would be released after seven months (“Go pack your bags, we have nothing on you,” said the officer). Instead of returning to school in UP—which I found deathly quiet and unconducive to learning—I sought out Orly, who had been released earlier, and joined him and a group of new friends at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio and gallery at 1680 Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, Manila.

It was really little more than a big box at the far end of a lot, but it housed an etching press, and I learned printmaking on that press just by watching the regulars going through the motions of coating zinc plates with asphalt “ground,” drawing their designs on the ground, soaking the plates in a bath of nitric acid, inking the plates, and printing copies of the artwork off them under the rolling press. I looked over the shoulders of people like the late Manolito Mayo, Tiny Nuyda, Joel Soliven, Bing del Rosario, Fil de la Cruz, Ronald Veluz, and Emet Valente. (Yes, most of the regulars there were guys, although Petite Calaguas, Adiel Arevalo, and Ivi Avellana-Cosio would also come by.) Sometimes Bencab dropped in, and I was very happy when he remarked kindly on one of my etchings of a boat in Romblon harbor.

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I did etchings like everybody else, but my preferred technique was drypoint, which meant scratching and digging the design straight onto the zinc plate with nothing more than the needle of a compass. My fingers would get so sore they nearly bled, but drypoint lent the work a certain delicacy of line that you couldn’t get with nitric acid. For inspiration, I turned to the pages of E. S. Lumsden’s 1926 classic The Art of Etching, a copy of which I still keep.

I became a printmaker for a while, not just because I loved the craft and the company, but because I was jobless. Selling prints in bulk to a dealer who sold them framed to US servicemen sustained me through that lean season. The prints sold for maybe just 15 or 20 pesos each, but a few hundred went a long way then.

At some point I won an honorable mention for the drypoint print of a farmer, and served as Vice President of PAP under Lito Mayo—not for any abundance of artistic talent (I was way too conservative to amount to much), but, I suspect, because of my way with words, a facility I have found useful to this day. But inevitably life’s other challenges caught up.

It was at the PAP where I met my wife to be, a pretty girl named June, and I courted her with letters handwritten with a Mars Lumograph and, of course, a drypoint portrait I made of her. A few months after we met, we were married—but not before I managed to find a more stable job, at my mother’s insistence, this time as a writer for the National Economic and Development Authority, just around the corner.

The PAP has long left J. Bocobo and all I have from those days is a small album of about a dozen stray prints, but I still feel a surge of fraternity whenever I meet Bencab, Tiny, Ivi, and the other true masters of the art. I like to think that I’ve ported over my sense of imagery and detail to my writing. We can always hope that here or elsewhere, in whatever form, the art will survive the artist; ars longa, vita brevis. (That’s my grandmother Mamay below, in and etching with drypoint and aquatint.)

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