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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Penman No. 191: For Love of Art and Artists

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Penman for Monday, March 14, 2016

 

 

MUCH AS I’d want, I can’t possibly go to all the literary and arts events I get invited to, so I’ve occasionally had to deputize my wife Beng (June Mercy Dalisay to others)—a painter and an art restorer—to do the kibitzing for me. Or, I should really say, for herself, because, as president of the Erehwon Art Foundation, she often has more immediate reasons than I do to meet with artist-friends and luminaries from the arts world.

One recent event I was truly sorry to miss was a special raffle and auction held last February 27 for the benefit of Beng’s dear friend Norma Liongoren, doyenne of the Liongoren Gallery, sister, mother, and confidant of artists young and old. The Church Café, a Bible study group founded by Norma, initiated a fund-raising project for her, called “For Love of Norma.” The group was composed of writers Alma and Mario Miclat, painter Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, writers Fe and Roger Mangahas, sculptor Julie Lluch, and Magel Cadapan, Norma’s gallery assistant and curator.

Norma’s artist friends donated almost 150 artworks to the cause, and Simoun Balboa, manager of the Sining Kamalig gallery in Cubao, lent the venue. A mini-concert and performance was put together by pastor Ed Lapiz, together with the Day by Day Ministry, Kaloob Dance Group, and Jerry Dadap’s Andres Bonifacio Concert Chorus.

The event proved a resounding success, with the spirited bidding raising a substantial sum for Norma, who very graciously and bravely left her hospital bed to join the party with her husband Fred to personally give thanks. The audience—all deeply moved by Norma’s gesture—included writers Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Menchu Sarmiento, and Wilson Lee Flores, gallery owner Silvana Diaz, artists Junyee, Gus Albor, Adie Baens Santos, Anna Fer, and Ato Habulan, diplomat Al Vicente, Quezon City busybody Ruby Palma, pulmonologists Rene Cheng and Julius Dalupang, activist Princess Nemenzo, GSIS museum head Ryan Palad, and journalist Jenny Juan, who emceed the event. Beng helped organize the auction-raffle, which lasted well into the evening, along with businessman and art collector Sonny Go.

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A few weeks earlier, Beng also attended a media event organized by her friend Ricky Francisco, an independent curator and fellow conservator, at the Fundacion Sanso in San Juan. This time I’ll let Beng’s words speak for themselves:

“It was a sunny afternoon when I walked up the steps of the new and modern building of the Fundacion Sanso. I passed through a lobby with minimal furniture but glimpsed lovely watercolor paintings that filled the walls.

“I was late and the media event had started. I tried to be inconspicuous and sat between sculptor Toym Imao and a dignified elderly gentleman who turned out to be the artist himself, Juvenal Sanso. He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and said a few words. He didn’t say anything and just nodded his head. Later I would know why.

“Gilda Socorro Salita, managing director of Fundacion, briefed the guests and media people on the series of events for the celebration of Sanso’s 70th year as an artist. The retrospective includes art exhibits at the Ateneo Art Gallery, the Vargas Museum, and the Lopez Museum. By the time this report comes out, the first in a series of exhibitions will have started, entitled ‘Other: Zobel and Sanso,’ an exhibition of prints and drawings at the Ateneo Gallery. This exhibition is free and runs until May 20. As a memento of the afternoon, the media kits given to everyone included a charming bookmark lifted from an old plate and printed on cream paper by Pandy Aviado.

“The guests began to leave but I decided to stay behind so I could talk to Sanso some more. But it was Ricky Francisco and gallery owner Jack Teotico whom I found myself with. Jack was one of the founders of the Fundacion, which serves as a repository of Sanso’s personal collection of artworks, books, and other mementos representing seven decades not only of creative work but also of travels and lasting friendships nurtured and preserved despite great distances. An old friend from our UP days, Jack invested not only funds but also much time and effort in gathering good people to run the gallery and museum.

“When I asked Jack why the artist seemed to have a hard time hearing, Jack told me the story of how, during the Second World War and when there was heavy fighting between the Japanese and Americans in Manila, a bomb landed just a few feet away from Sanso. He sustained injuries on his arm and still has tiny bits of shrapnel embedded under his skin. However, his hearing was greatly affected, and he remains practically deaf on the left side.

“The afternoon settled quietly into dusk as I was transported to many places and events from stories Jack and Ricky narrated—Sanso as a child of an affluent family in Spain, his country of birth; the blue-eyed Sanso as a young boy in Sta. Ana, Manila speaking fluent Tagalog, playing with boys of his age and forging strong friendships with his playmates, especially one with Henry Sy; Sanso as he diligently worked on his drawings with his teacher Alejandro Celis; Sanso as a student at the UP College of Fine Arts in Padre Faura and his friendship with artists Araceli Dans and Larry Alcala; and his entry ‘Incubus’ winning first prize in a competition held in the 1950s and sponsored by the Art Association of the Philippines then headed by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma.

“It was time to leave but before I did, I treated myself to the mesmerizing display of visual delights that represented Sanso’s beautiful watercolors from the Brittany series as well as the paintings representing memories of Parañaque and Cavite. Sanso’s haunting and mysterious images in the retrospective Elogio de Agua or Hymns to Water keep running like a lovely brook in a quiet corner of my heart. The exhibit can be viewed until October 1st at Fundacion Sanso, 32 V. Cruz St., San Juan City, Metro Manila.”

Many thanks, Beng, for that glowing report, which makes we wish I had been there to chat with the artist (and now I’ll know to stay on his right side). I’d always been engrossed by Sanso’s dark waterscapes and their vegetal inhabitants, made even more intriguing by the total absence of human figures.

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I did, however, tag along on a day trip up to Baguio last week with the folks of the Erehwon Art Foundation led by Beng and the foundation’s chairman, Boysie Villavicencio, on a very special mission: to receive the donation of an etching press to the foundation by none other than National Artist Benedicto Cabrera. I’ve been a frequent guest of Bencab’s at his museum because UP’s summer writers’ workshops have always begun with a visit with Ben (except this May, when we move to Los Baños), and I’ve watched that museum grow from a few stakes in the ground to the breathtaking complex and tourist attraction that it’s become.

Bencab was as gracious as ever in meeting us, and his donation of one of his two etching presses will be a great boost to Erehwon and to other Filipino printmakers. The press used to belong to National Artist Arturo Luz, who gave it to Ben in the 1990s. Erehwon is now planning a printmaking workshop with Fil de la Cruz, Ambie Abano, and other noted printmakers leading novices into the art.

As a former printmaker myself, I just might reignite this old passion, this fascinating interplay of paper, ink, and metal. It was at the old Printmakers Association of the Philippines (PAP) workshop and gallery on Jorge Bocobo in Ermita that I met Beng in the early 1970s, so without art and a shared love of it, we’d never have married, and this column-piece would never have happened.