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Remembering Billy

Text and photos by Ma. Glaiza Lee, Contributor

Early Friday morning, on February 16, artist Luis Yee Junyee Jr. received a short message from Mulawin Abueva, saying: “Tito, Daddy has moved on.”

“Daddy,” of course, referred to the late National Artist Napoleon Abueva, who passed away at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Cherry and three children, Amihan, Mulawin and Duero. He was given a tribute through a necrological rites held last February 24 at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Internment immediately followed at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

In his eulogy, artist Luis remembered the day he received the sad news. That day, he wanted to rush to the National Kidney Center, but Mulawin urged him to go to Abueva’s house instead. He arrived there and met Abueva’s widow.
“Ma’am Cherry saw me and cried. Nag-iayakan kami. Ang natandaan ko at tumatak sa akin, sabi ni Ma’am Cherry: “Alam mo, Luis, napakabait ng asawa ko. Kahit minsan, hindi niya ako pinagtaasan ng boses,” shared Luis, who was an apprentice and scholar of Sir Billy, as the late National Artist was fondly called.
He would know about his gentleness and calmness because he lived with the Abueva family for three years, from his first year to third year at the UP College of Fine Arts. Back then, he hardly noticed that his boss, his professor would never get angry.
“When I think about it, I’m surprised. I think it is a marvelous achievement for a person not to get angry for so long. Hindi siya nagagalit kay Ma’am Cherry, sa kanyang mga anak, sa akin, sa mga trabahador niya sa studio,” remembered Luis, who is forever thankful to his mentor because “binigyan niya ako ng dignidad” as an artist, and as a person.
Jose Abueva, the brother of the late National Artist, echoed what Luis shared in his eulogy. “Billy was always grateful, generous and had fun. He always wanted to pay his workers on time, even if he had to set his works at very low prices to have money when it was time to pay the workers.”
When they had to work overime, Jose shared, Abueva would feed his workers and eat with them. For his apprentices and fellow artists, Abueva would always share acknowledgment, listing their names on his sculptures. Abueva was always grateful for his suppliers who extended his credit, and would later became family friends.
Abueva was known for attending all the functions he was invited to, even if the artists were new and unknown. “If he could afford it, he would buy a piece of their works to encourage and support them.” He would always enthuse “Para sa bayan ito” to his workers whenever they were working on a difficult project that needed extra effort and time.

Generosity of spirit
For sculptor Ramon Orlina, only a few artists have inspired and influenced him as much as “Dean Billy,” who he first met when he did an exhibition in 1980. Back then, he saw the late National Artist admiring two of his glass sculptures. He remembered shaking the hands of Abueva and listening to his words of praise and encouragement.
In 1982, the Czech Republic had an exhibition at the CCP. It was Abueva who told a museum director about Orlina’s glass sculpture in Silahis Hotel. When the museum director visited it, he was amazed by Orlina’s artwork, so amazed that the Embassy immediately offered a scholarship for Orlina.
“This was how Billy was as an artist. He was always supportive, encouraging and helpful. He was generous with his expertise and knowledge. He was kind to lend his tools and apparatus. He would always see the positive potential in a person,” said Orlina.
According to the sculptor, Billy was a well of energy. During the 6th Scultpure Symposium, which was hosted by the Philippines and installed at the CCP grounds, Billy, who was one of the consultants, amazed all Asian scluptors with his energy and tirelessness.
“He was already 60 then, and yet he was not afraid of hard labor. I would see him carrying blocks and heavy loads on his shoulders. There was a time I found him in a dark pit, supervising the pumping of the water out. He told me that as a sculptor, you must be carpenter, a mason, a welder, etc.,” shared Orlina was very grateful for the chance to have collaborated with the National Artist, saying then, “Dean Billy, you have given me the greatest gift. You believe in me. From the bottom of my heart, I’m happy and honored to have you in my life.”

Playfulness and depth
Fellow National Artist F. Sionil Jose remembers Billy as “a very playful artist.” This playfulness was reflected in all his works.
“He would reached out to the cosmos for ideas far more profound than his boyhood memories. I once visited him at his atelier in Diliman. He was surrounded by all those junks and big pieces of woods. He was musing. He said, ‘You know, Frankie, these were once trees, beautiful living things. Do you think they have feelings like us? And now they are all dead.” And he was going to give them new shape as any artist should,” shared F. Sionil Jose in his eulogy for his departed friend. They had known each other since their college days.
The two great minds would often talk not just about trees, but also about the arts — what is its logic, the reason for the arts and artists. “Maybe art does help make life livable, make pain endurable and our lost regainable.”
Manong Frankie mused that the arts created by our artists are what binds us together as people. “All these that the artists have created shape our very soul, identify us. Therefore, it is the artists who have created the foundation of a nation.” And with his brave, strong and caring hands, Billy has helped “define us” as Filipino people.

National Artist
National Artist Virgilio Almario has never forgotten Abueva’s strong sense of humor. “Pinag-uusapan namin, kasama ng iba pang mga National Artist, na lahat ng mga nagiging National Artist ay mga senior citizens. Biro ni Billy, puro nasa pre-departure area. May katwiran siyang ngumiti sa amin. Nahirang siyang National Artist noong 1976, 46 lamang siya. Hanggang ngayon, hawak niya ang rekord na pinakabata sa mga roster ng mga National Artits mula noon 1972. Idadagdag ko pa, isa siya sa mga unang buhay na non-Tagalog na National Artist. Isa siyang Boholano. Kasabay niya si Jovita Fuentes, na taga-Capiz,” said Rio Alma.
Even though he became the youngest to receive the highest national honors, Billy never rested on his laurels. He continued to create artworks replete with his Filipino creativity, artistry and sensibility. He was so dedicated that art critic Cid Reyes recognized him as “the sole Filipino vanguard for modern art sculpture.”
His more than 1,600 known works are testament to his diversity in medium, style and execution. He was known for utilizing and promoting local and indigenous materials such as molave, acacia, ipil and kamagong, among others.
Adept in either academic representational style or modern abstract, the Boholano artist pioneered the buoyant sculpture, an early artistic innovation where the sculpture juts out from the surface of a placid pool, in 1951. He was one of the first Filipino artists put up a one-man show at the Philippine Center in New York in 1980. His piece, The Sculpture, can be seen at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
His notable works include the Blood Compact Monument in Bohol, Eternal Garden Memorial Park, UP Gateway (1967), Nine Muses (1994), UP Faculty Center, Sunburst (1994) at the Peninsula Manila Hotel, the bronze figure of Teodoro M. Kalaw in front of National Library, and marble murals at the National Heroes Shrine in Mt. Samat, Bataan. He also designed the door handles in all the National Museum galleries.

“Billy, sinulit mo ang pagiging National Artist mo sa pamamagitan ng patuloy na paglikha. Sulit na sulit ang pension ng gobyerno sa’yo. Kaya ngayon totoong nagdeparture na siya, gusto kong sabihin na baon niya ang ating mataos na paggalang at matas na paghanga. Mabuhay ka, malikhaing Pilipino. Mabuhay ka, Billy.”

Last modified on Thursday, 01 March 2018 20:10

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