Napoleon Abueva’s long distance race

Napoleon Abueva’s house in Tandang Sora Quezon City is littered with busts of important people coated in dust. Some parts of the sculptor’s studio have fallen out of use since his sickness which restricted him to a wheel chair for over five years now. The stroke practically ended his major productions. At that time I was a sophomore in UP and he was constructing around six sculptures in the garden adjacent to the UP College of Fine Arts. I had met him before when he sat down our fraternity tambayan while eating some siomai. He sat silently. I had seen him in the awards night as a judge of an art contest for students I had participated.  I had seen him in high spirits while giving the opening remarks to an exhibition at the Vargas Museum.

Around four years ago, I met him again to invite as a guest to my first group exhibition but Napoleon Abueva, called by people close to him as “Billy”, was still bed-ridden. Despite this, he took time to receive us. Last year, he wrote a recommendation letter for our crew in support of the Dumaguete Art Project. He was already half-paralyzed and deteriorated to bed-rest. Billy Abueva is the first sculptor I knew and the first sculptor I admired. I learned that his modernist piece “Lover’s Embrace” was done about the time when Brancusi did his but I liked his version better because the lovers were lying down on top of each other as opposed to Brancusi’s which were merely standing up. In a visit to his house, one of his sons, helped us prepare for the challenges we would meet in making a public installation in Dumaguete. He was tough and discerning, he wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing before he gave his support. I was wondering then, What would Napoleon Abueva advise us if he had the strength to talk to us?

Tonight, Billy Abueva is celebrating his 82nd Birthday. It was only days ago when he suffered from a ruptured bladder and his son was calling for blood donors. I wanted to donate (just the thought of sharing my blood with a National Artist interests me) but I was out of the country. I wanted to send him a card to say thank you for all the support he gave, I wanted to tell him how his letter we presented to those concerned opened doors for our project and how this project eventually landed me a research residency in Berlin. I wanted to tell him how I studied his piece at the National Museum as a young-critic-in-training but I find that my gratitude is small compared to the outpouring of love from all his friends, co-artists, and relatives.

Billy Abueva once said that a career in the arts is a “long-distance race.” What matters he says is that an artist sets his goals for the long haul and not be discouraged by the many trials he will surely face. Every time I read his letter, I immediately recall a succession of images from when he was pulling the rope to hoist a sculpture, under the sun to a mental picture of him smiling in a wheel chair while viewing works by young artists to a picture of his pale face and thin hands in the sickbed slightly waving to recognize our presence. Billy Abueva is the grandfather artist I wish I had and so many artists wish they had.  His sculpture welcomed me to college in UP, shaded me under the heat while waiting for an Ikot jeepney, intrigued me endless while sitting endless on a bench in front of my building. My first essay about the art was relating his work to that of another Filipino modernist, Jose Joya.

Tonight, he is awake but could no longer support his head to see the people. I know he hears us, the people who were there and threw him a shindig. He could probably sense the warmth of our Happy Birthday song but he could no longer blush, could no longer return the gratitude, could barely touch because everything has to be sanitized. While dust gathers around his works and unfinished projects, a tight hand is grabbing my heart. Even though our relationship was at best between an idol and a fan, I could not look at him like this. I walked away and sneezed.

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