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About Sym

By Rod Paras-Perez

(July 1994)

From Canada's cool Pacific coast at Vancouver, Sofronio Y Mendoza, more widely known as SYM, the founder of the Dimasalang Group, literally comes in from the cold bringing paintings full of sunshine. They highlight people strolling in the parks, flowers in singing colours celebrate springtime love and summertime's redolence.

Sym's flowers bloom joyfully, indeed, apparently content to simply be: no need to underscore any message of profundity. They are flowers promising no more than the perennial bloom only a painting can give. Yet, not too long ago Sym was painting the flowers and backyard nooks and ponds, and water lilies galore, around Dimasalang. They were equally colourful flowers, except somehow that they almost always carried a hint of the smells of the estero.

Like some rare talisman, however, Sym still hangs on to a few of his old paintings: they allow him to touch the distant days marked with ineffable simplicity. With his friend Romulo Galicano, he used to go on landscaping trips which always gave them not only a harvest of paintings but also . . . shall we say, colourful adventures.

Once, they planned on painting the sunrise - of capturing every nuance of daybreak - so they woke up early and having no watches, they checked the time at the gas station across their house. They hopped on a jeep and waited for daybreak. The sun was taking a long time coming up, so they walked a bit and decided to sleep on some stones they felt in the dark. It was a rather quiet place they found; not even the pesky jeepneys bothered to pass this way, the jeepneys (which both regarded with delightful wonder). However, when dawn came finally, both discovered they were sleeping atop tombstones! And the clock at the gas station across their house was, they found, not working.

Now Sym sighs at how complex his life has become - he had to put on his Cellini Rolex to fittingly celebrate his friend's birthday and another Rolex for gadding-about-town. And, sending three of his children to one of the top medical schools in Canada is an even more complex proposition for a painter.

For Sym, his education was simplicity itself in spite of the poverty he had to hurdle because he knew exactly what he wanted and above all, what he can do.

Thus, when he met Fred Villanueva, Sym's candor easily won him his friendship and support. Although not a wealthy man, Fred Villanueva believed in Sym's talent enough to send him through art school. The relationship further developed so that his friend eventually became his brother-in-law. At that point, however, Sym had no inkling that the young girl playing hopscotch out in the street was going to be his wife.

As with most things with Sym, everything seemed to start with painting. Toward the latter part of his student years, the thought of going on a landscaping trip to Montalban. He figured it would be nice to convert the trip into a kind of picnic, so he invited his artist friend Mulong and the two young girls. Being innocent but nonetheless full of romantic notions, Elena took this picnic as a date.

It was the start of Sym's rose-tinted path. Later, when Elena turned sixteen, they got married and even treated a few friends at a restaurant in Manila's downtown Quiapo for all of five pesos (20 US cents).

Nowadays, a single painting by Sym can go as high as P600, 000 (US $20,000). A real jump from those days in Mabini when getting a fifty-peso portrait commission felt like a real achievement.

During Sym's Mabini stint, he was happy enough sleeping at the Luneta Park with his shoes as pillows (so these won't be stolen) and subsisting the whole day on a bread called binangkal. He was young and eager for anything. The Cebu he left felt like a small town; Manila, especially at night, was a continuous cinema.

When the writer and painter E Aguilar Cruz discovered Sym, life became more exciting. E Aguilar Cruz bought his paintings, gave hike clothing and other things, and above all introduced his works to the "Imeldific" circle of the then first Lady, Imelda Marcos. Soon enough, high society went trekking to Dimasalang where Sym had moved. High-heeled, well-heeled ladies braved the makeshift bridges during the rainy days and the noise and dust of summertime.

But the collector who really made an impression on Sym was the one who belonged to a prominent old family. Unknown to Sym, he had sent his secretary to check out the prices. When he came, he made it more than clear to Sym that he knew his prices. He then started looking all over the place for paintings. He looked at every nook and corner; he even went down where he succeeded in making the acquaintance of the chamberpot.

E Aguilar Cruz did not only act as the grand patron of the Dimasalang Group. If Martelino Abellana was both Sym's and Galicano's technical mentor in Cebu, E Aguilar Cruz provided the intellectual challenge.

He made life for them more complicated, but also more fun and intense. E Aguilar Cruz went sketching with them, he took them through the maze of the city, showing them with zest and a discriminating taste the best food in the most unlikely holes-in-the-wall, the women of the demimonde, and, with the cooperation of Lothario friends, the delicious refinements of voyeurism.

Eventually, however, the family side of Sym won out. A family is a serious matter, he told his pals, and took them, wife and children, to Canada for the quality of life it promised. It was an uprooting, all right, but one considerably eased by the presence there of Sym's former student and ardent collector, Simeon Dee. Sym resumed giving private lessons in painting and luckily, was able to sign a four-year contract with the Heffel Gallery.

Soon, Sym's painting won enough of a following to make life abroad easier. Some of those who had initially snubbed him ended up collecting his works. Apparently, in life as in art, a big chunk of the world goes to the one with a smile. --Call it the Magic Moment