ON campuses, it is easy to spot the Fine Arts students. Their hands are often tinkering with paint, clay, or bottle caps to be hammered into a towering anemone-like installation that reminds me of mobile breasts.
In the outside world, the artist is a creature so seldom spotted, I have begun to think that as soon as they get their diplomas and leave the gates of academe, artists dissipate like bubbles.
That’s not to say that I’ve given up hope of rare sightings. I ran into a most persistent fellow while trying to find my way past the idle rich in station 1 of Boracay’s White Beach to the more plebian surroundings of stations 2 or 3.
It was my fortune to dispossess him of his last wooden carving of the Holy Family, the fellow insisted. To prove that I was in the right place at the right moment to take home a one-of-a-kind souvenir, he rummaged through the crumpled sheets of newspaper in his tote as if to conjure the other carvings that he already sold.
It took me a day to carve the Holy Family but it will bless your home longer than eternity, he intoned while I traced the plaque’s crowd-pleasing features, which came from a plasticine mold and had never surfaced from wood grain, cajoled by a deft chisel.
Half an hour later, I was still wandering when I spotted again my artist friend, now showing the newspaper nest inside his tote to a Korean couple who had unlinked their hands to hold the man’s last great sculpture-please-bring-this-back-with-you-so-I-too-can-go-home-and-have-lunch-with-my-wife-and-seven-small-kids-thank-you.
To be fair, three days and two nights of wandering among the crowds in Boracay do not constitute a serious effort of tracking down artists in Aklan. I anticipated more from an afternoon’s jaunt in Paete, Laguna, named the capital of carving in the country during the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Traveling along the shores of Laguna de Bay, the husband and I passed first Angono, Rizal, which, according to a marker, is the Arts Capital of the Philippines. I saw several papier-mache “higantes (giant effigies)” along the road, which reminded me of fiestas and flag-burning protests, highlights defining the temperaments of the nation.
It’s not only an hour’s drive that separates Angono from Paete. Angono is a first-class municipality resembling any metropolis aspiring to have its first mall. A fourth-class municipality, Paete is tight and curled around itself, the streets clinging to the town center as the inner whorls curve possessively around the heart of a shell.
According to legend or history, the town was so named after a carpenter answered “paet (chisel)” a Spanish friar asking for the name of the place, thinking the man of God was interested in the implement he was wielding, not proselytization.
The chisels of Paete are still the major draw of this small town, although, according to reports, they are less applied now to wood and stone than to vegetable and ice sculptures dominating the banquets of cruise ships and luxury hotels.
In the falling rain, we walked the narrow streets and peered into shops. “Taka (papier- mache” masks and figurines, another legacy from a colonial past, competed for space with potbellied Santa Clauses on parachute, preening cherubs and American Folk (Faux) - styled birdhouses. If I were an artist, there is no contest between the siren call of dollars and local patrons who buy art only when it is decorative and not bulky for transport.
Neither dusk nor the brownout swamping the town for hours cloaked the monumental figures of San Miguel trampling the devil and the body of the Christ taken down from the Cross. Both were carved by the same man, one who worked with stone, narrated the store clerk. Only a master’s chisel used to stone could move on rare hardwood, without exposing an apprentice’s indecision or the indelibility of a mistake.
When we departed, night closed in on Paete, caught in the counterflow of stringent environmental laws, the Filipino diaspora, and a local art market that pigeonholes art into crafty birdhouses no self-respecting bird will ever make its nest in.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 12, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”