Penman No. 257: Wonder Woman in the House

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Penman for Monday, June 26, 2017

 

OVER MOST of the 43 years that we’ve been married, Beng has learned—not without some resistance—to resign herself to being introduced as “the wife of Butch Dalisay” (whatever that means). Lately, I’m happy to report, more of the reverse has been happening. I’ve been attending art events where I’ve tagged along as the quiet husband, content to watch Beng take center stage.

To step back a bit, center stage was where Beng (aka June Poticar) was when I first saw her in college. She was in UP a bit earlier than I was (although you’d never have known it just by looking), and I had a crush on her, but I didn’t think she was going to give me the time of day back then. She was a member of the University Student Council, where all the cool people were, representing Fine Arts; I was a scrawny freshman pecking away at a noisy manifesto in a corner. I admired her most when, sometime in 1971, she led the making and unrolling of the probably biggest wall painting ever made in Philippine art history, a protest piece occupying several floors of the Library building facing the Sunken Garden. I was a reporter for the Collegian, and I wrote up that story, not knowing that the girl behind the mural was going to be my wife just three years later.

We’ll save the love story for some other time, and flash forward to 2017. After variously working for many decades as a fashion designer, a jewelry designer, a graphic artist, and a watercolorist (as well as, of course, a wife and mother), Beng has found her métier and been recognized as an art restorer and conservator—one of the country’s best—and no one could be prouder than her writer-husband.

I was invited to Iloilo last May to speak at an international conference on intangible heritage, which we both enjoyed attending. But I’d have to admit that I was more anxious to attend Beng’s lecture that same week at the University of San Agustin, which had asked her to speak on art restoration before a group of young local artists.

It’s been almost 20 years since Beng joined a group of other Filipino professionals for an intensive, year-long training program in art restoration and conservation put together by the Agencia Española de Cooperacion Internacional, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. That turned out to be a life-changing experience for many of them—certainly for Beng, who put up her own art-restoration company and has trained other people in this very small but absolutely necessary occupation.

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Since then, I’ve watched her and her team patiently bring scores of priceless paintings and other artworks by the masters back to life, from the partial restoration of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which had suffered a tear, and many other works by Amorsolo, Manansala, Botong Francisco, HR Ocampo, Fernando Zobel, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Araceli Dans, Bencab, and their peers (once, even a Miro print).

I’d have to admit that I’m more scared than she is when she applies her brush to a century-old canvas, or cleans up the browned varnish on an Amorsolo with a Q-Tip, and I’m sure my mouth hangs open in wonderment when I see the magic happen, but she’s cool as a cucumber, knowing precisely what she’s doing. I nearly scream when we visit museums like the Louvre and the Prado and she comes to within a centimeter of a Renoir or an El Greco to scrutinize the restoration job.

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That’s the woman I saw transforming a roomful of young Ilonggo artists—almost all of whom had never met or even heard of her before—from curious and polite listeners to an animated gaggle eager to practice on their own artworks. I sat like a mouse in a corner of the room as Beng explained the basics and intricacies of scientific art restoration which, as she pointed out, isn’t really taught in art school in the Philippines. (Sadly, not even in UP; you’d think that with the number of beautiful and valuable paintings moldering away in this country, we’d be awash in art restorers, but there’s been very little interest in putting it on the curriculum, probably because there are very few qualified practitioners to teach it.)

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Beng’s lecture and demo in Iloilo was a preview of what a full course should be, where she discussed some basic principles—reversibility, compatibility, durability (“Less is more; don’t do anything that isn’t necessary; always make sure that whatever material you add for patching and grafting is weaker than the original linen or cotton,” etc.)

“My practice of restoration has led me to certain discoveries and I now use non-toxic ingredients to remove stubborn and deeply ingrained dirt and old discolored and hard-to-remove varnish. I have discovered new sources of local conservation materials that have lowered the cost of restoration. I have also developed my own techniques in closing and flattening cracks, softening and correcting dents, and patching tears and holes,” she wrote for Perro Berde, a publication of the Spanish embassy here.

“I’m no Wonder Woman,” Beng says when I tease her, but I suspect she had it all planned out. When she established her company 18 years ago, she chose the name “Artemis,” which English-major-me knows is another name for Diana. I better be careful.

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Penman No. 246: Beauty and Sadness on Calle Bautista

 

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Penman for Monday, April 10, 2017

 

WITH WORK piling up at the office, I’ve increasingly been looking forward to weekends, especially Saturdays, for some fun and leisure. Weeks ahead, I start scouting the cultural horizon for interesting things to do or shows to attend. A few Saturdays ago, for example, Beng and I drove out to Makati to explore the Istorya Vintage Fair at Warehouse Eight—a totally engrossing event that merits its own write-up, which I’ll do in a forthcoming column—before rushing back to Diliman to catch the Ihudyat! marching band competition at the UP Amphitheater.

It was the following Saturday that I’ll write about first, afraid that I might forget some important detail if I wait too long. Indeed, “forget” is the operative word here, because it describes what most people did to our destination: the Boix House (also known as the Teotico-Crespo House) on Ariston Bautista Street in Quiapo, Manila. I tagged along with a posse of UP Fine Arts alumni that included Romy Carlos, Boysie Villavicencio, Ernie Canlas, and Beng—a group that had heard about the house and were interested in seeing if and how they could help in its restoration, perhaps through a benefit art exhibit. (I was delighted to learn later that an old friend, the art dealer and patron Jack Teotico, is a direct descendant of the original house owner and will be pitching in.)

Located in what has become Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, the Boix House is so named because it was acquired by the Boix-Tarradellas family from the Crespos, who got it in turn from the Teoticos. Don Marciano Teotico had the Neo-Renaissance house built in 1895 on what was then Calle Barbosa, and it soon attracted student boarders like the young Manuel Luis Quezon, who reputedly went out partying next door. There, two decades after Don Marciano built his brood a home, would rise the better known and more fortunate Nakpil-Bautista House.

We don’t know what happened next, but at some point, the ownership of the house reportedly passed on to the Society of Jesus, and we lose track of the Boix connection except through the house and what’s been put on the Internet about it—if any reader knows any more, please do share. (I’ve also been wondering about how exactly “Boix” is pronounced; I initially defaulted to the French bwah, but online sources suggest a Spanish or Catalan origin, in which case it would be boish—but then again, what do I know?)

The sad part of this story is how decrepit the Boix House has become, despite the noble efforts of well-meaning organizations such as the Kapitbahayan sa Kalye Bautista to save the house through crowdfunding. Even the World Monuments Fund has taken note of and extended some assistance to the Boix House project (https://www.wmf.org/project/boix-house).

If you pay it a visit like we did, you’ll see why it could use all the help it can get. Just getting across the threshold to the stairs takes—almost literally—a leap of faith: two old doors now serve as creaky planks over which you cross a puddle of water. The wooden stairs and floor are thickly coated with dust and grime; a rat’s carcass molders away in a corner like a forgotten lab specimen. Framed panels provide a history of the house, and tattered flags and ribbons offer proof of some earlier appeals to patriotic fervor. Overall, one’s impression is a commingling of beauty and sadness, the passage not only of time but of care.

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One thing you couldn’t avoid noticing was the fact that while the second floor seemed eerily vacant, it was an entirely different story belowdecks, with the visual evidence of many families crammed into every habitable inch. The undisturbed dust and the odd debris upstairs suggested that the people left that space alone, most of the time, despite the absence of any kind of barrier or restriction. Why? Ghosts? A deep-seated respect of the departed?

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What’s clear is that no restoration project will succeed without taking the house’s present occupants—and indeed the whole neighborhood—into account. Even if you manage to raise the many millions required to return the house to its old glory, its antique opulence will stand in ironic contrast to the very present and very real poverty blighting its surroundings.

The well-preserved Nakpil-Bautista House next door might yield some clues—but not all—to what to do eventually. This ancestral home had seen generations of such notables as the composer Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s widow. Still maintained by the family and open to public viewing, the house has also served as a home and studio for the past 38 years for master carver Ner Manlaqui, whose religious statues crowd the basement. Priests, churches, and other patrons keep Mang Ner busy, as the half-finished saints and virgins being worked on by his assistants attest to, employing trunks of pale yellow baticulin sourced from faraway Quezon.

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So preserving or reviving the past might necessitate providing for the present, and the cultural activists behind the Boix House project will do well to temper their admirable passion with some dry-eyed pragmatism. Houses are always more than wood and stone, and bringing old ones back to life should also mean ensuring a sustainable future for the people who live in and around them.

I couldn’t have imagined a richer Saturday morning but yet also a more poignant one, spent in the crumbling heart of the city.

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Penman No. 194: A Tree Grows at the Met

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Penman for Monday, April 4, 2016

 

 

THE FIRST and last time I saw a show at the Manila Metropolitan Theater must have been in the 1990s, for a production of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” The theater was in fine shape then, and I recall being as enthralled by the place itself as by the spectacle onstage.

As a young boy in the early ‘60s, my father had worked at the old Department of Public Works building across Plaza Lawton (before they became the Post Office and Liwasang Bonifacio), and I had often tagged along to play with his red-and-blue pencils and his swivel chair. The most entrancing element in that locale, truth to tell, was the giant pot above the old Insular Ice Plant that spewed what seemed to be a steady stream of boiling water into a waiting coffee cup; but my eyes would stray to the strange pinkish building in the distance and I would wonder what went on there and what it held.

I got my answer, thanks to Nick Joaquin, but a few Sundays ago, I had an even more amazing opportunity to know the Met more intimately than I would ever have imagined. Sadly the intimacy was that which might exist between a doctor and a patient, like a probe of cold steel into some tubercular organ.

My wife Beng belongs to Kasibulan, a group of women artists, and they had been invited to do a sketching session at the old theater that Sunday morning, alongside a cleanup operation to be undertaken by volunteers. Did I want to come along, perhaps to take pictures, or at least hold bags and run errands for the ladies as they drew arches and vanishing points? Of course I did.

But before I go any further, especially for the benefit of our millennial readers, let me give a backgrounder on the Met and its sorry fate.

When the Manila Metropolitan Theater opened on December 10, 1931, it was an architectural wonder to behold and to step into—an Oriental palace in pink coral, crowned by exquisite minarets, statues, sculpture, and tilework. The overall style was Art Deco, the rage at the time, spilling over from the West but adapted to its new setting in the East. It could seat almost 1,700 people, and it had been put together and adorned by some of Manila’s finest architectural and artistic talents—designed by Juan Marcos Arellano, built by Pedro Siochi and Co., and decorated by the Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti, the sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, the future National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, and by Juan Arellano’s brother Arcadio.

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Erected near the site of its predecessor, the Teatro del Principe Alfonso XII which burned down in 1867, the Metropolitan was meant to be the city’s premier cultural venue, a showcase of the Filipino artistic genius. In its heyday, it hosted celebrated singers such as Jovita Fuentes and Atang de la Rama; from highbrow opera to the more popular zarzuela and vaudeville, the Met had the best to offer. Though damaged during the war, it was rebuilt and continued to be a haven for artists and entertainers until it began to decline in the 1960s, as other venues—and the growth of moviehouses in such places as Avenida Rizal, Escolta, and Cubao, followed by the establishment of the posh and modern Cultural Center—gained primacy among audiences.

At one point or other in its slide to abject decrepitude, the Met became a boxing arena, a movie set, a martial arts studio, a gay bar, an ice cream parlor, a TV stage, and a refuge for the homeless, among other incarnations. In 1978, Imelda Marcos took an interest and had the theater restored to its old glory, but then it fell again into disrepair, and was shut down in 1996 in a wrangle over ownership between the city government and the GSIS. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Mayor Fred Lim renovated and reopened it in 2010, when it was declared a “National Treasure” by the National Museum, but yet again it succumbed to politics, bureaucracy, and benign neglect; after a concert by the rock band Wolfgang in mid-2011, it was locked up by the GSIS.

In July last year, the ownership question was finally settled with the GSIS selling the property off to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and shortly after the NCCA received P270 million from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for a fourth and hopefully final restoration, which the NCCA expects to complete by 2017.

It was this Met that we entered that Sunday. We were greeted by my UP colleague and one of the restoration project’s consultant-architects, Gerard Lico, who assigned two young but very capable juniors to guide our group on an all-access tour of the building. The lobby was buzzing with the enthusiasm of student volunteers from National University who, after an orientation and a safety briefing, filed into the structure behind their team leaders.

We followed them into a dark and cavernous hulk (the electricity had yet to be brought back), and encountered a touching mix of fragility and resilience. The Met had to be cleaned prior to restoration, and thus we were being privileged to see it at its most hapless state. There was dust and rust everywhere, and the wooden floorboards, reduced to a pulp, were crumbling beneath our feet.

Even so it demanded attention and respect, and we trod slowly, reverentially. Through the squalor emanated a lingering magnificence—the echoes of long-stilled operas, the footfalls of performers scurrying down the corridors. In one room was a tangled mass of costumes—a sailor outfit unmistakably from The Sound of Music—and when we stepped out onto the broad stage, you almost expected the spotlights to burst into life and the phantom audience to roar in approval. There was a hole in the stage floor and water in the orchestra pit, but nothing, it seemed, beyond repair, beyond human care.

Out on the roofdeck, beneath the Moorish spires and the batik-inspired tiles, a small tree had sunk its rope-like roots into the masonry. I found myself hoping that it would be spared the restorer’s saw. Reprieves beget reprieves, and it would provide a fine organic testament to the Metropolitan’s endurance. (See more pics from our walking tour here.)

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