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Secrets from a master |

Arts and Culture

Secrets from a master

Leslie Miranda-Guillermo - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - There was once a teenage student who felt so dejected after losing in an art competition that he sat slumped on the pavement under the pouring rain, lamenting his misfortune. Decades later, he would become one of the Philippines’ painting masters.

In his home studio in Antipolo, Angelito Antonio’s masterpiece-in-progress rests on an easel awaiting his full attention while the artist narrates his student artist days. Born in 1939, the artistically gifted lad entered Mapua as architecture major, conceding to the wishes of a wealthy uncle who provided for his studies. Although he felt like a fish out of water there, he remembers happy days in the Intramuros campus, particularly in his drawing class.

After only one semester, Antonio decided to follow his true passion and moved to the University of Santo Tomas College Of Fine Arts, amid the frenzy of preparations for the Shell National Students Art Competition. Even back in those days, “all art students — from first year up to the graduating class — looked forward to the contest,” he explains.

He describes the Shell tilt as the premier search for talented young artists, distinguished by the prestige of its big-name sponsor and the sizable prize money. The contest generated intense rivalry, especially among the country’s top art schools at that time such as UST, the University of the Philippines, and the Philippine Women’s University.

The unknown freshman entered in the contest a watercolor piece that his famed professor Galo Ocampo picked out from a stack of works that Antonio showed him; he even helped the young man come up with the title, “The Beginning is Green.” Antonio clinched third prize in the abstract division, the only UST student to win a major award in the 1958 Shell National Students Art Competition. He recounts: “Dean (Victorio) Edades looked for me, ‘Who is this student?’” Edades is widely considered as the Father of Philippine Modern Art.

Professor Ocampo was so proud of Antonio’s accomplishment that he took him under his wing as a protégé and scholar. Such was the teacher’s trust in him that when Ocampo worked on the stained glass windows of the Manila Cathedral, the first year student was given the task of painting the main panel at the altar.

The entire episode induced a heady rush for the young student who began to think himself to be a genius in art and the savior of his university, and vowed to repeat the winning feat. The thing was, he lost the succeeding year. “I couldn’t accept the defeat. Sinisi ko ang sarili ko. Umuulan, naupo ako sa kalye. I castigated myself: ‘Did you do your best?” And just to prove to himself that he could do anything — absolutely anything — that he wanted to do, he licked his rain-soaked slipper in a fit of defiance.

What young people today would call an “emo” moment provided a spark of clarity for the teenage Antonio. “After that tsinelas-licking event,” he recalls, laughing, “I told myself I will not take myself and art too seriously. I’ll just enjoy it. Naglaro ako nang naglaro.” The realization unlocked a floodgate of spontaneous talent. He racked up win after win, bringing home some 17 consecutive major awards during that period, including a second place win in the 1963 Shell National Students Art Competition. “The more you seek awards, the rewards don’t come. But when you just do your best and not care so much about the awards, dumadating sa iyo.”

His talent was so special he was hired as a professor in the UST Fine Arts program even when he was still a semester or two short of a degree. Before he left the academe in 1971, his bold advice to graduating classes was: “Try your best to unlearn what you have learned here. Kasi lahat ng tinuro namin obstacle lang sa pagiging original n’yo. The students asked, ‘Eh ‘di wasted pala ‘yung four years?’ I told them, hindi naman because without you realizing, you’re able to hone your skills in school. Every day you’re here to paint, to draw.”

According to Antonio, there are many other platforms that encourage continuous engagement in the arts, “but you cannot ignore that competitions like that of Shell rouse interest in art,” especially among the youth. The Shell National Students Art Competition is a legacy program of the leading energy company that helps Filipino youth become productive individuals while helping the country move towards progress. As Shell continues to invest in building a sustainable energy future, it also continues providing support to programs that promote youth development. The nationwide arts program is one of many innovative methods in developing the potentials of budding Filipino artists.

Since 1951 when the competition was first launched and after almost 46 seasons, the program has helped produce artists that the nation can be proud of, like Antonio who is regarded as a major figure of the modernist movement in the Philippines.

In his youth, Antonio’s uncle used to tell him that artists can only earn quite literally as painters — “kung pipintahan ang itlog na maalat, ang puntod, o kaya ‘yung sign sa barberya.” Angelito Antonio’s fulfillment both professionally and personally — calling fellow eminent artist Norma Belleza as his wife — counter this notion and provide an audacious example for young talents who want to pursue a career in visual arts. Throughout his career, in his ever-evolving figurative cubist expressions, is a sense of the unexpected: “Hindi ako makakapinta unless ‘yung painting ko will surprise me.”

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