Tito owed me a story.
In a Jan. 8, 2012 email, he said that “one of these days,” he “maybe” will tell me the “story behind the making of ‘Amen (So Be It)’."
On that day, this space ran my thoughts after I went to the “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit mounted at the Cebu City Museum.
I wrote in “Instructive accident,” the “Matamata” column for Jan. 8, 2012: “In ‘Amen (So Be It),’ white smudges obliterate a sea of faces. The symbol of purity, white here is anything but restful. (Wenceslao ‘Tito’) Cuevas wields the color with the icy precision of an executioner expunging, reducing the canvas not to the original state of blankness but the bleakness of a death-soaked field.”
That same evening, Tito wrote to thank me. He capped that email with the promise of a story, a promise I remembered last Wednesday, when my fellow teacher, Karl Roque, told us in the faculty room that Tito passed away last Sunday, Mar. 18.
It’s hard to think I won’t be running again into Tito. I first met him in the year 2001, when he lent some of his works to accompany an essay Raymund Fernandez wrote about Cebu art for the maiden issue of The Cebu Yearbook.
When Tito brought out an immense abstract work from his Volkswagen Combe (which has his artwork covering the windows like avant-garde sunscreens), I fidgeted but had to admit aloud that I didn’t know which was the right side up as I would have to instruct the photographer. Tito pointed out his signature, a swirl I first mistook as part of the art.
Rather than dismiss this ignoramus, Tito talked, and talked in the parking space outside the P. del Rosario office of Sun.Star Cebu. Later, when I knew him better, I told him he would make a good teacher, not because he knew the answers. Even though I was hardly more than an acquaintance, I saw that part of Tito his family and friends value in him: he was generous with himself, and gentle with those who stood outside the sanctum of art, admiring but never initiated into its mysteries.
The last time I saw him was in a clinic. I was picking up medicine prescribed for my son, and he was waiting for his doctor to show up.
A conversation about his battered leather satchel digressed into an exhaustive, passionate discussion about the virtues of the Volkswagen Beetle left by my late father. My sister and I were mulling about selling it. When I told Tito that it was a Beetle assembled in Germany and despite being older than me, had retained nearly all of its original parts, he argued why we should restore it, why selling it would betray my father’s efforts to preserve it.
How could a piece of pre-Berlin Wall vintage fire up a modernist? I would not have been able to string together all of Tito’s stories if I had not met Nena.
Nena was a regular at the 7 a.m. masses I once heard before walking to my class. When we became friends, we often talked about children, folk cures and the unpredictability of the weather and AM radio announcers (listening to them was a routine for Nena and my late father).
When I first visited her at home, I found out that my self-effacing friend had two surprises: she has a gift for quilting and she married the man who gave me a crash course on art in a downtown parking lot.
At first, whenever Tito was around, it was hard to focus on Nena. Tito’s stories and interest in people are as grand and sweeping as his art. Nena’s quilting consists of long silences working the Singer sewing machine her mother owned and tiny, nearly invisible stitches that put together a canvas of intersecting minutiae.
With every visit to the Cuevas home, though, I discovered two people who could inhabit the same room, even after years of marriage, in perfect complementation. I saw Nena at church, never Tito. I saw Tito at exhibits and on the road, never Nena.
At home, though, one completed the other: Tito couldn’t find something without asking Nena where she had thoughtfully filed it away; Tito spun stories behind the quilt his Inday, as he called her, was silently piecing together before my eyes.
Though he has rushed away again, leaving another tale unfinished, I’m grateful. “Padayon (continue),” Tito.
*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 25, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column