The State of Art in Paete

Paete, Laguna, the Philippines

June 26, 2010

Pain was contained in the word “painting,” an art teacher I know once said. He explained that pain was an affirmation of life, and art was about life, thus, about pain. This pain, however, was never as palpable to me as in the paintings in Paete Church.

Dante’s Inferno in Dans’ Impyerno: Paete Church Mural

Paete, a lakeside town in Laguna south of Manila, was attributed as the birthplace of the yo-yo. Known more for its world-class folk art (woodcarving, papier-mache, and paintings), the town boasted of artisans and artists who had lived there for centuries, their dexterity imprinted in their genes. Much was made out of the fact that the town hero was neither a soldier nor a statesman, but an artisan.

I visited the town with fellow art aficionados and Paete-philes. Our welcome party was a box-full of neon-colored chicks, begging to be papped. The street vendor admitted that spray-painting poultry was merely for aesthetics, nothing more.  There was art even in business in this town.

Colorful Chick: Cyndi Lauper of the Chicken Set

In fact, art was the business of this town. One particular stretch, J.V. Quesada Street, had all the aura of an art fest. Heritage shops, ateliers, and at least one gallery cafe flanked this narrow street. Craftsmen were busy chiseling blocks of wood, oblivious to cam-toting passersby. The chisel had not only defined the town’s destiny. Some historians claimed the name Paete was derived from the vernacular word for “chisel.”

Workshop and Ateliers on J.V. Quesada St., Paete

A shop called Joseph Husband of Mary Handicraft was the most eye-catching. Two icons prominently displayed side-by-side at the front door were the iconic image of sex symbol Marilyn Monroe and religious icons, particularly St. Joseph and the Christ Child. The pairing was more Joseph Husband of Marilyn. Intentionally juxtaposed or not, they spoke of the scope of Paete’s art – from religious to pop.

An Artisan in Action
Another Artisan in Action

I mistook a nearby shop for a fruit stand. Baskets of fresh produce and tropical fruits crowded the entrance. All looked vividly colorful and succulent – if you found chomping paper particularly appetizing. They were agricultural art in papier-mache – literally, chewed paper – of local fruits: red banana (yes, there’s such a variety), atis (round and polka-dotted), water apple (pink and bell-shaped), rambutan (red, hairy balls), lomboy (violet and berry-like), and the fruit most associated with Paete – lanzones.

Fruitage, fruitage everywhere but not a fruit to eat: Papier-mache in Paete
Woodcarving by Lino Dalay of Paete

The shop went by the name Ang Buhay at Hugis sa Paete (The Life and Shape in Paete). The owner, Lino Dalay, was an artisan-turned-movie-production-designer. He was not around then but his elderly mother, Marta, was manning the store. A spunky matron of her son’s artwork, she regaled us with anecdotes about the items that cramped the shop. Most were the handiwork of her son, some were consigned by other artists, still others were props in movies her son had worked on.

Good luck at haggling though. The woman could not be charmed; I would’ve been luckier with a snake! In retrospect, I charged it for art’s sake, a few more pesos to support our local artists.

Marta Dalay, Then and Now

Food for the body and soul could be had at the homey Kape Kesada Art Gallery & Cafe, serving hometown pride with its brewed coffee. Paintings by local artists were showcased on its walls. Recycled decor, salvaged disposed bric-a-brac, made up the interiors.

Two subjects dominated the paintings: churches and women (Paeteños’ preoccupations?). Female depiction ranged from maternal to maverick. The woman in Jerry Morada’s Apple belonged to the latter. Garbed in voluminous baro’t saya (traditional dress for women), she cocked her head with eyes shut, hair swept up, and a red scapular around her neck flying in the opposite direction.

Having Jerry Morada’s “Apple” at Kape Kesada, Paete
Leandro Baldemor in Purple Onion
Purple Onion Restaurant, Paete

We lunched at Purple Onion Resto, owned by erstwhile screen stud Leandro Baldemor. The cozy restaurant served mostly Italian dishes, some from recipes shared by the owner’s showbiz friends. Such trivia didn’t come with the menu; the owner just mentioned it offhand.

We were the only diners, but our orders took forever. The teenage girls who waited on tables had turned the tables on us. Time seemed freely-flowing in Paete rather than running out. We managed a shuteye before our food arrived! It was quite a restful stop, despite such small (town) inconveniences.

But our raison d’etre for visiting the town was the art at Paete’s St. James the Apostle Church. All four murals had been dated to the mid-19th century and attributed to one local artist, Jose Luciano Dans. We found them in various states of deterioration. Three of these were near the main door; the fourth was nearer the altar (and was the least damaged). Two paintings were twins, depicting the same subject: St. Christopher (San Cristobal) – curiously not the saint the church was named after.

The First San Cristobal Fresco in Paete Church

I had never been familiar with the Catholic canon of saints, but St. Christopher didn’t seem to be one of those superstar saints. Legend had it that he went on a quest for the most powerful ruler. He served a king who shuddered at the mere mention of the devil. Fail. The devil betrayed his cowardice by trembling at the sight of the cross. Epic fail. This led him to search for Christ, the fearsome, not fearful, King of kings. As an act of Christian service, he put his heft and height to good use by carrying people on his back across a turbulent river. He became a human bridge and converted people to Christianity until his decapitation for proselytizing in what became Turkey.

The legend served as the inspiration for two of these murals. Both depicted St. Christopher fording a stream with the Christ Child perched on his shoulder. The first one was the original mural. It was in better shape though because it had been concealed under the newer one for decades, consequently protected from the elements.

The Second San Cristobal Mural in Paete Church
Scratching the Surface of Art Desecration: Paete Church Mural

My friend explained that the original rendered the saint with indio (native Filipino) features that may have displeased the ethnocentric Spanish friars. Either Maestro Dans had a ballsy sense of humor or it was an artistic Freudian slip. No matter, the second mural was perhaps commissioned to correct the anatomical anomalies and moored over the original – an ancient way to photoshop. This time, San Cristobal had acquired a pinched nose and fairer complexion, a standard of beauty that explained the modern Filipinos propensity for nose lifts and whitening soaps.

The original mural was a fresco – a painting on a stone wall and plaster. Some parts had chipped away, marred by awkward attempts at smoothening out the pockmarks. The newer mural was painted on a wooden (molave) panel, which by now had deeply-grooved cracks and gaping holes, especially at the lower periphery.

Epic Scale Mural and Scaffolding: Paete Church

Directly facing the San Cristobal murals was a singularly majestic mural titled Langit, Lupa at Impierno (Heaven, Earth and Hell). Its sheer scope and exquisitely elaborate artistry rendered it a significant piece of colonial art by a Filipino artist. Like the other murals, it towered at 5 meters tall. It was a dense and detailed three-tiered painting. The lowest tier, hell, was at eye level, serving up its Dante’s Inferno images directly at the viewer. This was punishment at its most explicit, care of the Catholic colonizers. I imagined its dramatic impact on the indios who were not strangers to macabre mysteries of folk beliefs. Despite its darkened colors, the writhing figures and shadowy strokes still packed a wallop. The serene and sublime depictions of earth and heaven were higher up, almost beyond the viewers’ gaze.

I had to step back to the opposite end of the pew aisle to behold it in its full glory. Alas, concrete blocks were stockpiled on that side; a scaffolding frame was erected right in front of Langit, Lupa at Impierno. The choir loft was under renovation at that time. The faded painting was further exposed to sawdust and what-not floating in the air. And what if the scaffolding toppled on it?

Part of Langit, Lupa, Impierno Mural by Jose Luciano Dans
Jose Luciano Dans’ Obra Maestra: Langit, Lupa, Impyerno

It pained me to see magnificent art in such a state of damage and neglect. Expert restoration and vigilant care might still recapture its lost splendor. I could not fathom how these masterpieces had been left to rot without informed intervention for so long. I thought it was almost cavalier for a town steeped in the arts to allow time, the elements, and indifference to take their toll on the shining glory of their heritage. But who was I to pass judgment and assign blame? I was there only for a day. Ultimately, it would be the people of Paete who would bear this “pain in painting” every day.

Paete-philes Elg and TTT

30 thoughts on “The State of Art in Paete”

  1. Hey, that was a wonderful beginning of September- my first day back to work with food for my eyes and soul…. thanks,AJ!!! (btw, not in the mood of discussing how irresponsible we are leaving such things neglected and damaged… shame!!!) I bet the people living there take everything for granted, a part of the scenery, nothing much or.. I might be wrong???
    Anyway, loved it!!!…;)))

    1. Glad to be part of your first day at work, Teacher Reny! We’re winding down our first semester over here. That’s why I had time to post this. 🙂

      I don’t really know who should be responsible for these murals. The parish church? The local government? The national government? The private citizens of Paete? Maybe me? My good guess is all of the above.

      There’s a silver lining to this depressing story though. My friend who invited us there (the REAL Paete-phile…’cause he thinks being a one-day visitor there doesn’t give me the right to be called such…haha) is involved in the restoration of the paintings.

  2. I never knew there was something called red bananas! When I was a kid I managed to borrow (yes borrow) some neon chicks from my friend for a few hours to play with them. But I had to return them back before my father would arrive back from work :p…they were quite fun I must say!…. And fresco is something I came to know via a movie “Love Aajkal” last year, where the profession of the female lead was that of a fresco artist. It is sad though, much was not spoken or showed about Fresco because the plot revolved around Love as a base. I am sure having a look at the work in person must have been enchanting! Lucky you:)

    1. I’m always amazed by your comment, Nehha. Seems like India and my country share too many things in common! 🙂

      Oh, I didn’t actually see a fresco artist in action. That fresco in the photo is almost 200 years old! But I did see woodcarvers doing what they do best. 🙂

  3. Paete is one place worthy to visit. Its amazing to see those fruits made of paper. They look so real! What is a water apple in our dialect? I am curious if this is an apple after all. Preservation/Restoration of murals should start locally. Local citizens should band and support. I was wondering if a portion of the local congregation offerings can be allotted in the restoration of wall paintings. If the Church is actively promoting these, the local citizens will follow.

    1. Water apple in Ilonggo is tambis, in Tagalog makopa. 🙂 Don’t think it’s a member of the apple family.

      You’re right. The initiative should start from the parish church. But I don’t think funding is the primary problem. I heard sometimes the money’s there, and perhaps the good intentions, but the expertise is sadly lacking. The clergy should be educated in art restoration as well. It’s a sensitive process, not a matter of painting over damaged parts.

      My church conservationist friend is now in the thick of discussions with a Paete organization regarding these mural restorations. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. 🙂

  4. the storytelling is exquisite, the lines rambling, the prose winding – but always, always creates vivid images in my mind’s eye. i love how you tied up the start and ending of this piece, pain in painting indeed. 🙂 – i haven’t written a decent piece in a long while, have been doing more picture taking than writing ha ha ha. forge on AJ!

    1. Glad you noticed that lil tie-up at the end. 🙂 Oh, and I think you always come up with decent entries, even if the content may be indecent. LOL! And I just love your photography so I’m not complaining about your shutterbug moments. Click on, Cacho!

  5. Wow, what a beautiful posting. A work of art in itself!
    Thanks so much for posting this, we will be in Manila in November and will now definitely take a trip to Paete. 🙂

    1. How timely! Do explore the small towns around Manila. They’re rife with colonial quaintness and vestiges of history.
      I’m glad this post has convinced at least one person to visit the town. Thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂

    1. Hi Nehha! Sometimes I ask myself the same question! 🙂 My online life has taken a backseat to real life lately. The spirit is willing but the body is weak. I’ll get down to blogging again in due time. I still have one more entry about this town, then it’s all Java after that.

  6. Hi AJ!

    Your recent posts seem familiar… I really wish to tour the various places in the Philippines in the future…They do have great beaches!!! I’m interested in exploring each one of them..^_^

    1. Hi Jorie! We have enough beautiful beaches here to make your head spin. 🙂 Skip the world-famous Boracay; check out Coron in Palawan, Anawangin in Zambales, Pagudpud in Ilocos, Caramoan in Camarines, Siargao in Surigao, Panglao in Bohol, and CNN-recommended Bellarocca in Marinduque. But the Philippines is more than its beaches. Explore our more inland delights. 🙂

  7. Oh…give me a moment..i need to jot down everything you recommended… lol!
    OMG! There are just too many…My head’s really spinning now…I’m so excited! Thanks AJ!

  8. Thank you for this post. As a student who needs to make a documentation on our visit to Paete, your post helped a lot when it came to the various highlights of Paete. Thank you again!

  9. sarap nga mag walking tour sa Paete. I visited Paete last year, it was accidental, ang trapik kase kaya nababa ako ng bus tapos dumerecho ako dun. Love Kape Kesada Gallery kaso brown ut kaya wala naman ako na order. haha at d ko alam na si Leandro Baldemor pala may ari ng Purple Onion, sayang, d ko xa nakita dun, pa-piktyur sana ako w/ him! hihi

    1. That was more serendipitous than accidental, Gael. Unplanned discoveries like that are the best. Oh, but you missed half of your Paete experience without a photo op with Leandro Baldemor! If only for that, you should go back! 😀

  10. Very eloquently written. Love your blogs, AJ. I say they couldn’t be written any better.

    Hey, what is it with artists running gallery restaurants? No, I’m not complaining. I love it. Been to a few and must say they make fine dining destinations.

    1. You made me earn millions today, Lili. 🙂

      I guess artists are just like us, bloggers. We all want to promote our stuff any way we can. Restos and cafes are places that don’t fail to attract people and make them linger. Once they’ve nourished their physical bodies, they might be more receptive for some food for the soul – that’s when their art comes in handy. 🙂

  11. Gave this a second read, while searching for places to eat and visit (in that order) after visiting a friend in Los Banos this Thursday. Drop me a line on FB PTB (same thread re Paete) if you have more ideas, pls. Growing frustrated with the eats around Laguna. Am entertaining a balikbayan. 🙂 Ta Ta

    1. Go for Exotik Restaurant in Barrio Longos, Kalayaan (the next town from Paete). The name says it all – they serve exotic food like snake and lizard. 🙂

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