Art & soul
Twink Macaraig (The Philippine Star) - August 9, 2016 - 12:00am

When I first met Leah Caringal she had humongous hair. Not beauty-queen-big or country-western-singer-big. More like Diana-Ross-marooned-on-an-island-and-rescued-after-three-years-big. Leah was already rocking the big hair when Beyoncé was just destiny’s zygote.

Over, perhaps, a decade, we bumped into each other only occasionally, briefly, so you couldn’t really call us friends.  A PR professional, she would always be the first to greet me. “Twink!” she’d beam.  I, on the other hand, am not all that ma-PR. Plus, I’m so absent-minded that my St. Scho classmates rib me to this day for sometimes wearing mismatched shoes to school (once, with a cockroach nestled in one of them). But it was easy enough to create a mnemonic device the girl with wildfire hair. I’d think that the only way to possibly contain the blaze would be to divide it, twist it, and wind it up in two tight fat coils on each side of her head.  “Leia!” I would respond in a flash. We would then exchange pleasantries and move on till the next random encounter.

Some years ago, at a bazaar, I looked up from an overpriced Moroccan pouf and locked eyes with a thin woman across the room with a pixie chop. “Tweennk!” she mouthed. I had no idea who the friendly sunken-cheeked person was but her smile seemed familiar.  She must’ve read the cluelessness in my expression because she waved her hands and fingers about her as if miming lava erupting from her crown, cascading past her shoulders and flooding the hall. Of course! “Leah!” I mouthed back. There was just time for us to wave and for me to wonder vaguely why she’d dropped her signature ’do before I turned my attention back to scouting for exotic gift doodads.

In May, as I forayed into the ICanServe e-group for the first time with angry existential questions, one of those who responded to me directly with a thoughtful offer to get together, to talk, to knock down a few was, to my surprise, Leah. “Oh,” I realized, “that’s why.”

The next time I see Leah she’s looking more like herself — tall, tan and toned, her hair long again but nowhere near as voluminous. We’d agreed to try this place called Sip and Gogh where anyone of any age can spend a few hours copying a painting under the guidance of Fine Arts grads. All materials are provided — for those so-inclined, wine is available. I’d seen the group photos posted by friends who’d done it, cheerfully holding up their respective renditions of a famous still life, or a scene with pink grass and blue trees.  It looked like an easy convivial activity that would be more productive than hitting a hipster joint.

But from the way another sister, Libet Virata, was complaining, you’d think I had proposed going to a hipster joint. “This is already the second time you’ve forced me to do something new!” she grumbled. Libet is inordinately worried about putting people out, being an imposition, or calling attention to herself. (Which is weird because when you get to know her a little bit — as I have, a little bit — you’ll find her hilarious, opinionated, and more cultured than any probiotic drink on the market.  Maybe this incongruence stems from her being descended from someone Google describes as a socialite/nun. But I wasn’t about to get into that at that point, because the clock was ticking and we needed to get sipping and goghi-ing.)

“Libet, I swear, I have zero artistic talent,” Leah volunteered, “I only came here today because Twink promised to do a 2km swim with me in return (Leah lied like my Ikea cowskin rug, a natural attractant for my Shi Tzus to defecate on).

“Libet,” I said, “I’m the only one among my siblings never to have won a prize for art.  When it was getting obvious that I wasn’t ever going to win any of the competitions I’d entered, my mother fashioned a pin with a ribbon on which she’d stamped 2nd Honorable Mention. She gave it to me pretending she’d received it in the mail.” (When it occurred to me years later that my mom had indeed faked my prize, I noted that she could only bring herself to fake it as far as 2nd Honorable Mention.)

“I saw my grade school art teacher recently. She told me I was her favorite student,” Libet volunteered. “She mistook me for my best friend pala!” Oh well.  At least, it looked like Libet was finally getting onboard.

Acoustic music played as some families, and barkadas finished up.  A tangerine-topped boy and an ash blonde girl fixed the three of us up with aprons in front of canvases mounted on easels. Which painting did we want to copy from among the rows of graphic illustrations displayed on the wall?  I chose something that looked like it belonged in a love-motel because its color scheme matched the bathroom to which I planned to relegate my finished product.    Leah and Libet, however, found none of the paintings to their taste and decided to go rogue. “Okay. Whatever,” shrugged the blonde.

At Sip & Gogh, one fair-haired person or another is always on hand to help mix colors, demonstrate a crisscross brush technique for texture, take your plate for blow-drying, and explain that — duh —every piece begins with filling up the background.

I’d sufficiently covered my canvas but tangerine-boy noticed that Libet had little spaces on the edges still unpainted. He attempted to show her how to get to them, but Libet snarled, “No!”

We were instructed to combine the acrylic and water to achieve the right viscosity; so the paint would stay where we wanted it to.  Libet, though, had made six wet smudges on her canvas, and was watching intently as each blob dripped rivulets all the way to the table.

“Uhh, Libet, you want these guys to blow-dry that?”

“No!” declared the previously-diffident-but-suddenly-resolute Libet.

The conversation flowed as we poured ourselves into our masterpieces. So engrossed were we in our handiwork that we all narrowly escaped drinking from the bottles we cleaned our brushes in. When we were done, we all signed our canvases in bold letters and proudly posed with our oeuvres. I suggested we swap paintings; Leah and Libeth responded in unison “No!” We hugged and laughed and parted ways. We’re already planning our next Sip & Gogh session.

Cancer may have brought the three of us together, but we bonded over the enjoyment of creation for the sole purpose of satisfying no one but ourselves. For us, who live by the prescribed regimens that enable us to continue living, doing something just for the heck of it; just because we can —whether it’s putting antlers on human figures, letting colors run into each other, or painting with absolutely no talent — can be beautiful.

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