Last week, my mother turned 95 and as we gathered around her bed to sing the birthday song, I realized that she was indeed the first person with whom I first hung out. Curiously enough, when all that hanging out began, she was newly married to the dashing Architect Angel Nakpil, my stepfather. Perhaps it was a transition period for both of them, he was a widower with two children, just like Mom; they must have decided to move on and start a new family.
Before my first Nakpil half-sibling was born, we used to hang out at a place called Philippine Art Gallery (PAG).
The PAG was located at the Petrona Apartments on Taft Avenue, a Bauhaus-style building designed by Daddy Nakpil which is now hidden from view because of the LRT and a jungle of nondescript high-rise condominiums. The edifice was named after the wife of Dr. Ariston Bautista. Mrs. Lydia Arguilla, a war widow like my Mom, was the inimitable dynamo of the PAG. At the same time, she was managing an enterprise called Promotions, Inc, which I suppose was an advertising agency aimed to assist the struggling artists the PAG had taken under its wing. My mother’s media colleagues, Consuelo Abaya, Flora Lansang, and Estrella Alfon, were involved with Promotions and I would see them often at the PAG.
These days, whenever I am at the National Museum of Fine Arts, browsing through its galleries dedicated to eminent Filipino painters, the PAG always comes to mind. How fortunate I am to have met some of the masters and seen them sketching and painting, talking to each other at the PAG. Romeo Tabuena did the creatives for Promotions (before he fled to Mexico), Vicente Manansala was a regular and so was Nena Saguil who later went to France. She had appropriated a corner of the white-tiled kitchen; there were dozens of tubes and canvases, rolls of ingres paper, brushes, palettes; the place was perfumed with a combination of linseed oil and turpentine. When I visited her in Paris many decades later, she remembered those afternoons when she taught me the basics of oil painting.
However, Daddy Nakpil was not as thrilled as I was about Nena’s impromptu lessons. He felt that I was in danger of turning into a pseudo-artist if I continued using oils before learning how to draw. When Nena left for Paris, he hired a private teacher to give me formal lessons at home. I have always been grateful for my stepfather’s stabilizing influence.
Be that as it may, we hardly ever missed an event at the PAG. Mrs. Arguilla was so creative and driven she regularly curated art exhibitions primarily to introduce young artists to the public. There were also lectures about art, ceramics, and creative writing. My mother began to take a course in scriptwriting under a visiting American playwright, Rolf or Ralf Baer, I had never asked for the correct spelling of his surname. Unfortunately for my Mom, the course was suspended because most of enrollees gave up. I heard Rolf exclaim with exasperation, “Why can Chitang can?” – which probably meant that only my mother could handle the work.
Apparently, Mrs. Arguilla met my stepfather shortly after WW II when both were working for the City Planning Commission and it was he who offered the first floor of the Petrona building to PAG. There were exhibits of local products like regional weaves and fabrics, which the government was promoting rather aggressively. In one of those exhibits, the PAG was draped with yards of jusi dyed in brilliant colors. Mommy said I could choose one and I immediately went for the mauve, which she rejected instantly as not being appropriate for an 8-year-old. She bought a few yards of cannery yellow with artistic blotches of mauve, as a consolation, and had it made into a party dress, which I wore with pride until I outgrew it.
When I became a mother, I found myself taking my daughter Fatimah to art exhibitions, lectures, cultural events, hanging out in civilized enjoyable places like the Philippine Art Gallery.