Manila’s urban sketchers

There was a time when I used to visit out- of- the loop towns in search of potential domestic tourist destinations. Many were dense with cultural and heritage capital, a wealth of apocrypha, historical minutiae written off as mere footnotes. Curiously, the local government rep assigned to guide me would apologetically say that there was “nothing to see” in her/ his town. What about the church? I would insist, and the standard answer was, “ Oh, yes, we have a church, but it is so very old!” What a low resolution view of the Philippine landscape.

That was why I was lured by the Urban Sketchers of Manila exhibition of San Nicolas district held at the Instituto Cervantes in Intramuros. The director of the institute, Archt. Javier Galvan, convened “ Endangered: First International Congress on Fil-Hispanic Architecture” in 2002. His doctoral thesis “ Heritage Churches of the Cagayan River Basin ” was recently published by Vibal Foundation. It was not surprising that Galvan invited the Urban Sketchers to exhibit their works in the Instituto Cervantes.

According to Janeil Arlegui, co-founder of the Urban Sketchers, one of their goals is to encourage people to sketch, draw and paint places of interest, replete with history. “ The art of sketching what you see is ‘intentional observation’ which leaves a more lasting memory of the place.” During sketch walks, they make it a point to discover places and meticulously record these through sketching.

I had not heard of the Urban Sketchers Manila which was formed in 2011 and is a regional chapter of a global movement. Sketch sessions usually bring together approximately 50 artists from myriad fields and with different sketch techniques. I noticed that most of the exhibitors were millennials and of Gens X and Z, encouraging, isn’t it? Although San Nicolas is in irrevocable decline, there were enough young people who found beauty in pathos and decrepitude. Ms. Arlegui added that sketch walks are free of charge and open to everyone regardless of background, experience, age and paper preference.

Before the ribbon-cutting, we were led to a small high-ceilinged lecture room where Ms. Cecilia Sunico of the San Nicolas Heritage Community showed slides of old San Nicolas and shared information gathered during decades of intense research… She is a descendant of Hilario Sunico in whose foundry hundreds of church bells were cast.

When Archt. Javier Galvan offered to exhibit the works of Manilal Urban Sketchers, a second walk was organized in April 2023. From pen and ink to watercolor, the exhibition features 50 selected artworks. At the center of the exhibit hall, there were panels with photographs and quotes from some of the exhibitors:

Sarah Luison Ongsun (wearing an anti-covid mask) said that sketching on location is like being in a time capsule that brings you back to the sights, sounds, feel and the smell of the place. She was on Lavezares street, in sweltering heat, surrounded by bystanders who were very curious about what she was doing there and what she was staring at. “They were watching and asking about who, which and what I was trying to capture. They look at your work and ask to be included. ‘ ‘Draw me there!’ ”

Meg Roxas, in self-portrait, said urban sketching was an excuse to go beyond her usual route and create meaningful memories from unexpected places. From his part, be-spectacled Ched de Gala commented that one rarely sees street sketchers probably because of various fears or lack of awareness and a dearth of conducive places; the heat factor is an obstacle. However, their group wants to prove that despite all odds, “ we are able to share a glimpse of beauty ( or no beauty at all ) in our cities, or otherwise about life, through our sketchbooks. It has less to do with skill levels and techniques, the important thing is experiencing the process of looking, seeing, feeling and recording on paper. “

As for Gerard Jimenez (with back turned to the camera), urban sketching is “ like creating a visual journal of the places I had inhabited and visited. These visual entries store up my thoughts, emotions, mood, images of people I associate with. I can look at these places and for a brief moment be transported back to the place and the time when I did each sketch. “

A smiling Jirah M, Millano with a pink sun hat declared: “One of my favorite things about being an urban sketcher is the creative freedom it gives. It does not limit one on what medium to use, or when and where to sketch. It is a personal activity, and a means to record special and simple moments. No one judges you as your sketch is your own story.”

Their intricate sketches gave the familiar story of San Nicolas a startling intimacy. I hope the Urban Sketchers create more chapters so no one will ever again say that there is nothing to see in their towns.