(The Inquirer headline read: Hapag Ng Pagsa artist dies of kidney cancer, 43.” My eyes flicked from the obituary to our dining room dominated by a Hapagprint.. Painter Joey Velasco sent that framed print after he read “This Far Away Look:, our comment” on his painting. Here is that column. In memoriam. –JLM. )
It began to speak back to me, Painter Joselito Velasco recalls. He meant the oil painting: ”Table of Hope” or Hapag ng Pagasa.
The oil depicts the Master, breaking bread, on a slum home table of broken wooden slats. He is surrounded, not by the 12 apostles of traditional art but by12 street kids. Velasco picked and photographed them at random.
Since then, Hapag exploded into columns, even billboards along highways. “I could not get it out of my mind,” admits a brutal Makati policeman. He stoppedbeating arrested street children since.
The 12 kids sank back into slum anonymity after the photo sessions. But the haunted Don Bosco graduate searched for them in slums a year later. “It was like spiraling into Dante’s Inferno,” he wryly recalls.
He found all 12. Nene who lives among cemetery niches to kalkal boy Emong who scavenges for empty bottles, cartons old newspapers and peddles them. Yet, after seeing the finished Hapag, Emong was to say: The children invited the Master for dinner, not vice versa.
“I began to know gradually who (they) were,” Velasco recalled. Greed of the privileged few is glorified by society and media as competition. These condemns street kids to being treated like stray cats. His interviews resonate with their whimpers. Here are voices of three:
In the painting, six-year-old Christina is the only person looking at the Master. Tinay’s mother works as a maid abroad. Her elder married sisters have no time for her. Her drug addict father is in jail for raping her.
“Even if his bones were crushed and made into vetsin (food seasoning), that’d not be enough,” erupts the aunt who visits Tinay, now and then. “She cries all the time. She doesn’t speak. She always has this far away look..”
Tinay trembles when elder men approach. Velasco and the aunt show Tinay the painting. Not a word comes from her dry lips. “Does God really love us?”, the aunt asks. “Why are there evil people who destroy children?.”
Seven-year-old Buknoy also had this “far away look” when his photo was taken. Why?, Velasco asked. Buknoy recalls he was then thinking: his jobless father would beat him up. for failing to bring home food from selling sampaguita leis.. “My mother abandoned us”.
He collects empty cans, mineral water bottles, wires which are sold. Minsan po wala akong tubo. (“Sometimes, I earn nothing.”) But I try to help my three siblings.”
“Oftentimes, he eats a pinch of rice,” explains Buknoy’s cousin, 16-year-old Jenny. He puts soy sauce on it. He gets a boiled banana now and then. “Once in awhile, I give him some food. But then we don’t have enough at home too,”
Buknoy looks like a weary 40-year-old breadwinner. “He never smiled,” Velasco recalls. “And he acknowledged my greeting only by a slow lifting of the eyes that had odd shadows in them.” Constant hunger interlocks with having no one to turn to.
In the painting, Jun and Roselle sit together facing the Master. “Both were clad in the same clothes they wore when I took their photo a year back..” They scrounge for cartoons, drums, etc. to earn their baon.
“They have nothing yet they see a God as a compassionate father”. Nabubuhay kami sa awa ng Diyos.They end their sentence with: kung may awa ang Poon. “They inherited this phrase from their old people. These are words not merely spoken. But this is their real life,” Velasco marveled.
There have been other works since. For “Maria, Ina ng Banal na Puso ni Hesus, Velasco requested a Manila golf course caddy to be model for Christ’s mother.
“The congregation that commissioned the painting chose her because of her Filipina features and tanned skin,” Velasco recalled.
“She carries the heavy bag of the golfer and walks every day through all the 18 holes. Rain or shine she has to stand by her player, a slave in thefairway.“She symbolizes Mary’s obedience. ‘May it be done to me according to your word.’
He painted Christ amidst 12 tenant workers — one of whom was killed later in a rally for land. Hele or “Lullaby” came from seeing three youngsters, afflicted with Down’s syndrome, fall in line to receive the Eucharist. “They are not cynical or judgmental. When they love, it is unconditional.”
We met at a Cebu exhibit. He was then already battling the cancer that ultimately snuffed out his life. Velasco painted the Nativity scene in a garbage dump. The Mother lays the Child in a “manger” of discarded cartons.
Chiaroscuro (bittersweet) became his signature, an Inquirer feature pointed out. Velasco himself says: “I view my obras as ‘real’. Not because of the technique but because of the reality happening in our society.”
At a coffee shop, Velasco sat beside a lady who was off her rocker. She spoke to Edgar Allan Poe and Leo Tolstoy. We were not alone. She squinted at Hapag.
“This strikes me as poor kids last supper”, she added. “But they’re not actually poor because they have Jesus.”
And that’s the title of this 237-page book (Kenosis Publication) that Velasco wrote after his encounter with 12: “They Have Jesus: Stories of the Children of Hapag.”
It’s a good read. But these stories are not to be read on a full stomach.”