The Maestro of Morong and his 'golden age' of finger-painting

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - June 18, 2012 - 12:00am

Back in 1998 when I was first introduced to him by our mutual friend, poet-painter Jun Terra who was vacationing from London, Rafael “Ka Paeng” Pacheco was the epitome of robustness — in speech, in gesture, in appearance, but especially in the way he conjured underwater vistas of undulating sea grass, luminous corals and darting fish across regular-sized canvases and wall-length murals, using a combination of jet spray and finger play in a swift and magical manipulation of colors. 

His physique belied his six decades, and he was confident enough of his body to pose as his own model for the sketches and photographs that prepared the way for the materialization of the 22-foot bronze statue “Juan” which dominated the rock outcropping on the river flowing down Uugong Falls, and below this archetypal Filipino everyman, of a female Oblation embodying nature and the environment with her sinuous figure, a smaller work in bronze called “Diwata ng Kalikasan,” supreme upon its own promontory, from whose outstretched hands gushed forth twin fountains of water that flowed from Morong’s mountain springs down into hidden pipes along the length of the naiad’s body. This imposing duo was soon eclipsed by an even more elegant sculpture, “The Filipino Artist,” a towering human figure sprouting wings of painstakingly welded stainless steel feather forms, mounted on a pylon, which rested atop a massive concrete terrace overlooking the hills of Morong.

I mention these masterworks of sculpture not only because in later life Ka Paeng would take to this arguably more arduous medium of artistic creation in a really huge way and he seemed obsessed, even at that late stage in his career, to follow in the footsteps of one of his foremost idols but also a most loyal and consistent friend, the National Artist Napoleon Abueva, who up to now has never failed to attend the most important events in the life of Pacheco even when already immobilized and reduced to a wheelchair-bound life. I mention “Juan,” “Diwata ng Kalikasan” and “The Filipino Artist” because they no longer grace the heights over Uugong Falls in Morong, but have left behind only a concrete stump or empty pylon, having been snapped up by avid collectors of Pacheco, whose changing fortunes (including the devastation on his mountain resort brought about by Ondoy) necessitated selling these masterworks that he had meant to be part of his legacy to his adopted town of Morong, which had adopted him in turn as its own son, this long-ago refugee from post-war Pandacan.  

Uugong, which is part of barrio Bombongan (“a place of bamboo”) was so named by the ancients of the place because of the booming sound created by several levels of cascading water downriver, especially in the early years when the current flowed more freely, swiftly and in huge volume, irrigating the ricefields before it joined up with the waters of Laguna de Bay. It is where Paeng Pacheco and his Morong-bred wife Araceli found a home away from their poblacion residence, turning the place into a mountain resort complete with bigger than average adult and kiddie pools. Uugong was also to become Pacheco’s studio, atelier, gallery, and informal academy for finger-painting demonstrations and art lessons, drawing pupils from elementary and high schools across Metro Manila and the province of Rizal, college students from other provinces, and even the wives of foreign ambassadors in the Philippines.         

Many of his contemporaries agree that “Father of Philippine Finger-Painting” is a deserved honor conferred on him, and this sobriquet is well-known not only in the artists’ community along the lakeshore region of Rizal, but in other places overseas — Hawaii, the West Coast, Iraq, Libya — where he was invited to demonstrate his technique and exhibit his works. In recent years, I have been to Uugong countless times to look at his new paintings and sculptures, and to watch his inimitable 30-minute demos of finger-painting using cans of water and acrylic paint, to the beat of Gypsy Kings music, all the while keeping up a spiel on his artist’s life of tribulations and triumphs.

But all these happened during what the Maestro of Morong would himself refer to as his “golden age,” peaking during the latter half of the present decade, before a series of ailments brought on by advancing age confined him in a hospital then kept him in bed at home for a long lay-off. Those who feared that Ka Paeng’s painting life was over were in for a surprise. He has slowly become mobile again, albeit with some help from a caregiver and assistants, and has resumed painting and even entertaining audiences with his instant conjurations of underwater seascapes that at times resemble vast cosmic explosions. His hands may seem less steady now, but the resolve is still there, the bravura sweep with fingertips and deft touch with palm edge still creating serendipitous marine forms, to which koi or kanduli are later added.    

His latest show took place at the Intramuros Visitors Center in Fort Santiago on May 18, on the invitation of the Intramuros Administration headed by Jose “Junjun” Capistrano. The exhibit of recent and earlier works, titled “Salamat at Patawad” — an interesting combination of sentiments that would resonate among those who have been privy to the colorful, often controversial life of the artist — was put together with the help of the artist’s closest friends, like IA and tourism consultant Gerry Isada and another Rizal maestro, Angono’s Nemesio Miranda (Nemiranda). Before the ribbon-cutting, Ka Paeng gave a brief demo of finger-painting, witnessed by fellow visual artists Egay Fernandez, Al Perez, Jun Tiongco, Jaime Medina, Pen Medina, Roland Rosacay, actor-models Cesar Montano and Sam Pinto, Gina Barto and Tess Pagulayan from the Philippine Association of Museums Inc., and many other guests.   

Ka Paeng’s speech during the recognition part of the program was vintage Pacheco: spontaneous, intense, an emotional apologia pro vita sua, expressing pride in his lifelong career which began during those poverty years as a Mabini street artist, paying tribute to the achievements of his fellow survivors in the highly competitive world of art. And as if to underscore the special relationship among artists, who would turn up again but National Artist Billy Abueva in his wheelchair, pensive, not saying a word nor cheerily smiling, his once-mighty forearms noticeably thinner now, the master and the maestro clasping their hands together in that old familiar grip of friendship and solidarity.

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