Farewell to Pacheco, the maestro from Morong

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - April 10, 2016 - 10:00am

His stentorian voice will resound no more in the hills of Uugong, that enclave of art he and his family built atop a river gorge once famous for the thunderous roar of its cascades. His fingers and palms — which for many years impressed audiences with their dexterity and speed in creating marine and cosmic vistas on canvases and murals — are now forever stilled.     

Familiar names in the community of art and literature have written about the exuberant life of Rafael “Ka Paeng” Pacheco, the poor boy from Pandacan who became an adopted son of Morong, Rizal, where he was to achieve a measure of fame and fortune after years of slogging through a subsistence life as a Mabini painter trundling out works for tourists.

National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin and novelist Andres Cristobal Cruz, journalists Julie Yap Daza and Elizabeth Reyes, radio reporter Clemente Bautista, environmentalists Odette Alcantara and Leonarda Camacho, art critics Manuel Duldulao and Jun Terra, National Artists  Hernando Ocampo and Napoleon Abueva, and visual artists Nemesio Miranda, Raul Isidro, Egai Fernandez, Prudencio Lamarroza, Leonilo Doloricon, Gene de Loyola, Jun Lofamia, Danny Acuña — they all marvelled at this eloquent, often raging man, an “elemental force” who had found a calling as the pioneer and foremost practitioner of finger-painting in the Philippines.

Nick Joaquin (as Quijano de Manila) describes the artistic gift of the prolific painter-sculptor in an article for the Philippine Graphic in 1998 titled “Rafael Pacheco: Artista and Artist”:

“The quality most salient in Pacheco’s work is what may be called its theatricality. In his paintings and even more so in his sculptures, the figures move, emote, pose, pantomime, gesture and gesticulate with a vehemence as dramatic as the action frozen in movie stills. Indeed, as in movies, emotion is motion in Pacheco’s world: the people there act out their joy or grief or anger or alarm. They cringe, they mug, they soar, they falter. Every feeling goes graphic, every happening gets dramatized. It’s here that the artista in Pacheco cues the artist.”

Nick Joaquin’s reference to artista has to do with the young Pacheco’s aspiration to be part of the film industry in any way he could, even if his movie career began inauspiciously as assistant to his mother, a movie bit player who on the side delivered food fiambreras to film crews on location shooting. He landed a small part at a very young age in the film Macario Sakay directed by Lamberto Avellana, and had no more acting role except as an occasional stuntman. At the age of 30, he gave up dreams of becoming a matinee idol, fell in love with and married a lovely woman from Morong named Araceli Cruz, and they decided to settle down in her town.

It was then he discovered he had a talent for painting. He had been been drawing since he was about four years old, but he was past 30 when he took up the brush. He began frequenting Mabini in Ermita where he became friends with the painters there who were younger than him as well as with the older generation of artists. Cesar Buenaventura, Roger San Miguel, Leonardo Zablan, Felix Gonzales, Crispin Lopez — he learned from these Mabini artists and his painting skills improved. But he found another way of doing art. As he narrated to Nick Joaquin:

“The Mabini influence turned me into a Sunday painter, wielding brush and palette in imitation of my Mabini friends, but since I had not been schooled in the use of the pinsel, I easily got tired holding it. I’d drop it and use my hands instead. I’d spread paint on a canvas with my palm and trace forms with a finger. Palm and finger instead of brush: that has exclusively become my method. I prepare no preliminary sketches: every painting of mine is a direct creation, growing under my hands right there on the canvas.”

I met Ka Paeng for the first time in 1998, when we were introduced by a common friend, the expatriate poet and painter Jun Terra who brought me to Uugong to witness a painting demonstration by the maestro, which was how the people of Morong and the folk artists of the lakeshore region of Rizal province regarded him. Struck by the natural beauty of the Uugong hills, and having developed a fondness for the dishes of his wife Ka Cely and their daughter Mona — sinigang na kanduli sa miso, grilled pork and fried tilapia on top of the list — I would visit Morong countless times over the years, to celebrate the town fiesta with the Pacheco family, to mingle with artists from Morong, Tanay, Angono, Binalonan, Pasig and Metro Manila, and to watch a Pacheco finger-painting demonstration before an enthralled audience which could be a high school class on field trip, art students from a university, or the wives of foreign ambassadors on a cultural tour.

My most recent trip to Morong was a sad one: to attend the necrological services for Maestro Ka Paeng and his interment at the Holy Angels Memorial Park on a wind-swept gentle slope from where one had a distant view of the serene Laguna de Bay, whose rich marine life and folk history had provided the artist some of the themes in his tireless pursuit — even when frailty and illness had set in — of what he called “the joy of art as the celebration of life.”

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