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‘Neocubist’ SYM feted

By Bertrand Quesada 2004

RICHMOND — The Filipino painter Sofronio
Ylanan Mendoza suggests that he be visited at home.

"Come see my works. We'll talk about paintings," he invites, with a palpable enthusiasm building up as we briefly touch on his new passion: a brand of cubism that infuses elements of Filipino culture— featuring,-quite distinctly, shapes derived from the sarimanok. He says tee colors and images identified with the mythical bird symbolize both Filipino and Oriental culture.

Mendoza – better known in Philippine and Canadian art circles as Sym (as in "seem", not S-Y-M) —'dabs it "neoclassical cubism or neo-cubism," explaining that his works infuse both realism and cubism. "It is not highly pure cubism (unlike die works of Picasso or Braque), that it becomes non-objective."

"Also, I'm dealing not only with flat surface (frontalism), I'm also dealing with form and shape to create certain depth and push and pull," he continues. "There is a dynamic movement."

The impressionist-painter-turned-neocubist was recently honored with a Transforming Art Award at the 2004 explorASIAN Heritage Awards Gala. He was cited for his significant contribution toward "transforming some aspect of traditional Asian culture to create a contemporary Canadian expression."

The award, sponsored by Simon Fraser University's School for Contemporary Arts, was one of four special awards presented Apr. 15 by the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society at The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. The annual gala is a prelude to a month-long celebration in May marking Asian Heritage Month across Canada.

"I was so excited, so excited. And it meant a lot to me," exclaimed Sym days after receiving the award. For once again, "after more than 40 years, all my hard work and my great intention in art have been recognized."

Multi-awarded for his oil paintings, Mendoza is featured prominently in that big coffee-table book, "A Century of Realism in Philippine Art" (1982).

For decades, Sym was a realist and impressionist favoring street scenes and landscapes in his motherland and, later in British Columbia, die West Coast's brightly colored flowers, blooming gardens and the vistas at Steveston wharf in Richmond.

But about four years ago, he began going neo-cubist, explaining that it was a return to his roots: As a student in the 1950s, he had a particular liking for cubism, admiring the works of Picasso, Braque and Gris.

"For me there is no more challenge in realism. I find cubism broader and much more interesting," he says.

Sym and family immigrated to Vancouver in 1981, after he was offered a four-year work contract by Heffel Gallery on Granville Street. Two months after arriving with his wife Elena and seven young children — Symele, Vilmen, Sovila, Zael, Ronel, Yvi and Eleza — they moved to Richmond where they continue to reside.

"I wanted to enter the international arena. I wanted to widen the scope of my art. But also important was the future of our seven children," he recalls. "Having traveled to Vancouver in the past, I decided I wanted to raise them here."

Born in Cebu in 1934, Sym took fine arts courses at me University of the East and University of Sto. Tomas, both in Manila. But his formative education came from a maestro, the realist Martino Abellana, sometimes referred to as Cebu's Armosolo.

In 1968, Sym founded the Dimasalang Group. The movement — its name came from (he street in Manila's Sampaloc area where Mendoza lived and worked — was inspired by the French Impressionists, and its members included the likes of journalist and painter E. Aguilar Cruz, Ibarra dela Rosa, Andres Cristobal Cruz and Romulo Galicano, his future brother-in-law.

Sym says he gave his children —all born in the Philippines and now aged 23 to 35 — the option of choosing to obtain Canadian citizenship or retain their Philippine passports. Three opted to be Canadians, the four others decided to remain as Filipinos, like their dad and mom.

"I do not know, but I have very deep feelings about my being a Filipino," muses Sym, who turned 70 in March. "After so many years, we have chosen to stay as permanent residents."

What is very clear is Sym's zeal to pursue his art. He gushes: "With this neo-cubism, it's like I'm a brand-new artist. Everything seems fresh. I just did a mother-and-child series — aba, na-challenge ako."

Although a bit hard of hearing nowadays and slowed down by three angioplasties, the last one three years ago, he wouldn't talk about retirement. The septuagenarian says, "What is definite is I will continue doing what I love to do. I'll continue painting everyday."