“The plight of the artist is somewhat similar to that of the long-distance runner. You have to cross the finish line. What counts more in life is the end result… Artists are judged by the end result… The artist must possess the inner drive, passion, and ‘loneliness’ of a long distance runner to go very far.” – Napoleon Abueva
On February 16, National Artist for Sculpture, Napoleon Abueva, peacefully joined His Creator after a lingering illness. With his passing, the nation has lost one of its greatest institutions; a revered virtuoso who had enthralled more than four generations of artists emboldened to follow his footsteps. He was 88.
I have long heard of his name during our Art classes in Xavier School. He had always been mentioned in the same breath as some of our more venerated masters as Amorsolo, Francisco, Ang Kiukok, Joya, and Tolentino. Today, he is remembered as one of the most recognizable sculptors known for his incredibly diverse portfolio of extraordinary work and a reputation for unrelenting passion for experimentation.
I had the incredible honor of having first come across this multi-faceted craftsman on a personal level during my stint as Deputy National Chairman of JCI Philippines’ prestigious TOYM Philippines: The Outstanding Young Men Awards Search in 1999. I was casually introduced to him as my “seatmate” during an awarding ceremony in Malacañang Palace where he was the award’s perennial “special guest” – not only for the reason that he designed the now-iconic trophy, but also because he was one of the first six honorees of the award in 1959. For a person acknowledged as the Father of Philippine Modern Sculpture, he came across as surprisingly genteel and unassuming – almost modest to a fault. He was absolutely engaging to talk to and completely changed my long-standing stereotypes of artists being cranky and difficult to work with.
Since then, I have followed his career with great interest. I later found out that he was, in many respects, a true Renaissance Man; a quintessential artist who was also a writer, poet, philosopher, and composer whose talent knew no bounds. What I used to take art pieces for granted in the past, I now appreciate them with much élan. Oftentimes pleasantly discovering that many of his signature sculptures have sat in such ubiquitous public places as UP Diliman, the Quezon City Hall, as well countless hotel lobbies, museums, and hospitals, both here and abroad. Each one conveying a sense of realism with their intimately physical presence, lifelike forms and evocative gestures.
Fate led me to cross paths with this extraordinary man again in 2011 when, as the JCI Senate Philippines’ National Chairman of the TOFIL – The Outstanding Filipinos Awards – where he was the commissioned trophy artist since the awards began in 1988 – I decided to pay a courtesy call to him one Saturday morning at his old, modest house in Quezon City. Then 81 and bed-ridden as a result of a stroke (his third at that time), he was, nevertheless, exceptionally accommodating and glib – even if his condition undoubtedly left him frail and hampered his ability to speak clearly.
But he seemed to be so delighted to have a fellow alumnus from the University of the Philippines pay him a visit that he insisted on calling him by his nickname, “Billy,” and eagerly toured me around his museum-like abode on a wheelchair (much to the chagrin of his wife, Dra. Cherry). He even gave me a “take home” gift – a reproduction of the famous U.P. Oblation statuette originally designed by his mentor, the late Guillermo Tolentino (worth over USD350) and a signed copy of Cid Reyes’ hefty commemorative book on him, published in 2010 (worth USD150).
Needless to say, I left his home incredibly ecstatic, as I felt completely undeserving of his time and attention, given his stature as one of The Philippine National Artists of the Philippine Award (at 46, the youngest to be conferred as such).
That was the last time I saw him.
Reginald Yu is president of the Alumni Association of Xavier School in the Philippines.