(The following an essay is a tribute to a National Artist Awardee from Bohol)
YOU HAVE left an incredible monument upon entry to the Elysian Fields, one with highlighted inscriptions: meekness, humility, endurance. Another one protrudes but not effacing these: legend. Who would be of great stature and not swagger a little?
Nevertheless, the late Ruben Cañete—an art critic and University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman professor—dramatized your qualities and wrote:
(He) lived a full life as a recognized artist, a celebrated mentor, and a decent human being who never had to justify his award, call a press conference to malign a detractor, or hire groupies to blanket the background of his media interviews with placards and streamers.
Your living sister at Duero, Bohol, supports this observation. She said about your virtues: “He was a living saint. I say this not because he was my brother. But he was really boutan (kind and just).” You did not go to bayles (balls or dances) when you were young. “He was very focused on what he wanted. Very humble, no yabang (boastfulness). Not showy. What he wanted to speak, he speaks,” Teresita avers during my inquiry at your ancestral town.
The Handurawan—where your ancestral house stood, and now, the two-storey concrete house–exudes an aura of reverence, awe and a little nostalgia as I enter. This is where you played, molded clay and found refuge after you received disheveling blows from the Japanese who tortured you and killed your parents during the war. At the entrance, the spiraling wooden-stairway, also your eye-catching design with carved wood supporting the rails, gives the viewer a preliminary thrill—preaching that the way up is a path well chosen, although circuitous. Looking left, one views the Revolving Altar (unfinished work), a huge set of three tableau forms, one of them already done, elevated on a circular wooden pedestal. At the middle of the living room, The Family and bust of Dr.Jose Rizal arouse wonder. Teresita shares about your beginnings.
The name that appeared on your birth certificate was originally “Isabelio”, according to your daughter, Amihan. When you went to an elementary school in Duero, the nuns decided to change it; although for you and your family, that was a welcome move. It was prophetic because the meaning of your new name is “conqueror”: you did not conquer cities and towns, but you have vanquished the hearts of your people through your pace-setting art and virtues like Sir Galahad, the purest of King Arthur’s knights who found the holy grail.
In the foundry where sculptors forge their designs, metals undergo more than 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. You did not realize that you were first the subject of an artwork that sustains such heat before you could make prodigies. This took place during the Japanese war. “Lola Cadia—the mother of our father—was arrested with Billy and me. We were brought to the Poblacion of Duero,” your brother, Jose, shares in a video. “Billy was asked, ‘Are you brothers (referring to you and Jose)?’ He said, ‘No we are not’. So only he was brought with my grandmother.” The Japanese soldier, through a Filipino interpreter, told Jose to tell his father Teodoro (a Congressman in Bohol) that if he wants Cadia to live, he must surrender. Your parents died in the hands of the invaders.
You returned to your family after being hogtied and severely beaten. “I did not recognize him because his face was so swollen. His teeth were broken. Very pitiful, indeed,” Jose recalls your ordeal. The war’s aftermath would become a hard knot for you and your siblings who were orphaned.
After the Japanese occupation, your uncle who owned a pharmacy took all the orphaned siblings to Cebu. In Cebu, right after the liberation, Teresita recalls what you did for a livelihood: “He had sold Frances bread. Early in the morning, he put two containers held by a pole carried through his shoulders.”
Your adoptive uncle died after three years, so the siblings were again struggling on their own. “My sister was a good tailor,” Teresita narrates how they survived, “so we built a shop.”
You were also employed as a tender of the milling machine at M.O. Ponce Machine Shop in 1946. You then moved closer to your real passion: a student of Guillermo Tolentino, sculptor Fidel Araneta, who opened a workshop in Cebu, took you as an assistant.
You returned to Tagbilaran City and worked as a storekeeper in the supplies section of the Department of Public Works and Highways under engineer Tagorda. You stayed with Tagorda because the engineer’s wife was your relative in the Veloso side. Though your job was not related to sculpture, it gave you the basics of construction which you later applied in your reinforced concrete sculptures.
About your work ethic: you toiled whether you have money. “He continually draws (for his sculptural designs),” Amihan, your daughter, observes, celebrating the many opuses of her father. You do not just work when you have the money. You had sculpted more than your money’s worth.
You had shared your art flair and leadership as a UP Fine Arts professor and dean of the college from 1978 to 1989. You taught a graduate class in UP and a course of advanced materials in sculpture at the College of St. Benilde until you suddenly had a slurred speech, numb face, arm and leg on one side of your body and began to weaken since 2008. Some of the country’s established artists had quaffed from your wisdom.
As a professor, you described through your book the habits, dynamics, mindset, and processes of a winning artist, just like in any profession:
I always tell them that a struggling artist is like a long-distance runner. All the principles of running come into play when he’s out there running by himself. The important thing is the performance—how far and how fast he has finished the race. In life, we are all long-distance runners. It is not how much theory we know. It is how we have performed at the end.
A few more years, your encounter with the Ultimate Artist, after you fought with a dysfunctional kidney, would only be a fulfilling finish after you had trekked a lot with love, awe, and wonder.
In your own words written: “Love…is so strong. It can split the hardest stone.” Many have melted with your illustrious wonder.
You are Napoleon Veloso Abueva—cast from the foundry and now a monument to be proud of and celebrate.
I would like to learn how to live as an artist. I come to the Handurawan and your studio at the Tierra Vierde Subdivision because there your artworks and loved ones can share your legacies. They are legacies I embrace as long as I breathe. Quaffing from your wisdom and grit makes me grow in grace.
I can, you know. I can see that life is grace in a foundry. I live it. I also offer my flesh, my bone, marrow and—if I must—go through the melting degrees Fahrenheit as you did. In the mould, I am no victim: I am a celebrant, the subject, an heir of a promise like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Where I did not want to be—with parents who had been perennially rumbling volcanoes that had scared the children, stripped of a teenager’s life, lived with a father who drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, and thrown out and vilified by my former boss for not belonging to the gang of Gold and Blue, to name some – I should count and accept these as the only requirement to reach the liquefying point. In the heat I am not the villain in hell. A few more hours and the Artist removes the cast after the element solidifies. And I ask the Greatest Artist: “Please remove now the mould that has long made me feel boxed and shackled and losing virility.”
He did. And eureka! I am ready to stand. Before I know it, I celebrate like you—making real art, knowing immortality.