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The Painter and Peasant

Author Unknown 1974

He is not bearded or bemoustached, neither does he grow a goatee. He does not have temperamental fits such as other artists have. He is not what you call 'gaunt', slim or sensuous looking at all. He does not sport a 'starved' 'hungry' far-away look, nor is he ever stern, esoteric or smart. He is not prone to prattle about his achievements not does he dwell on the glory of his successes. Sofronio Y. Mendoza or 'Sym' to you and me still looks like a peasant. Feels like a peasant and no one or nothing can ever take away this 'peasant' from him.

Sym is squat, heavy-set with short stubby fingers and owns a pair of smiling, chinky eyes. He is neat, simple empty of all superficialities and affectations. Despite the citations, the plaques, the laurels heaped on his lap, he hasn't changed a bit. And he is glad that he hasn't. Over a cup of coffee, he asks, "What do you think would have happened to me if I merely stayed in Carcar?" Carcar is a sleepy town by the sea in the province of Cebu.

Well, we could have told him, he would have painted the seascapes and the landscapes, the sunsets and the moonsets, the fishermen and the farmers, the women and the children, got married, raised children, planted comote and lived happily ever after. Of to be sure, he would have grown grapes to sell, dug up some ancient burial sites for artifacts, became and expert seaman perhaps, climbed its jagged mountainsides, explored its numerous caves or sailed in its placid waters in search of fulfillment. He would still be an artist without a name. He would have died first before being 'discovered.' He would have been plain and simple Sofronio Mendoza. A peasant to the letter.

'It is true that Abellana, Cebu's Amorsolo, taught me the basics of painting, and I am thankful indeed for the foresight of my father-in-law who sent me to school, but I wouldn't know where I'd be if it were not for Abe Aguilar Cruz' Sym is always quick to admit that it was Abe and Abellana who gave him much of his stature as an impressionist.

Sym came to Manila in the early '60s when the modernists were having a heyday and abstract art was the thing to hang and talk about. He went around the galleries and marveled at the works of H.R Ocampo, Zobel, Joya, Luz, Lee Aguinaldo, Legaspi and all their contemporaries and felt humbled at the presence of so much genius before him, Bt unable to grasp the significance of abstracted art, he stayed on with the traditional style he woke up to, hoping that one day, people would come back to appreciate it again.

Soon after Sym net Abe Aguilar Cruz, he found that there were other young artists painting in the Amorsolo style and in the sophisticated manner of impressionists and once he got into the swing of things, he found himself and active member of the Dimasalang Group, a small but prolific set of painters composed of Ibarra de la Rosa, Andres Cristobal Cruz, Romulo Galicano (his brother-in-law) and Abe Aguilar Cruz himself, who sort of headed it.

Thence started a regular series of Sunday outings to Marikina, to Malabon to Montalban, and farther out into the outskirts of the big metropolis to capture on paper and canvas what there was left of nature before 'progress' crept in. When they got tired of painting pastoral scenes, they stayed in the city and explored its ancient streets, and here, Sym found much to his delight, vast material for his canvases. He was and painted facades of old, crumbling houses, poked at their antique interiors paused at makeshift windows made gay and colorful with flower pots, tracked down the pasillos and small passageways of Blumentritt and Binondo, stopped at some sari-sari stores and came out with hundred of sketches, drawings and paintings projecting Manila's old, ignored and forgotten atmosphere. He also painted landmarks, historical monuments, imposing buildings and bridges, but his hand really went kinetic for folksy places and things.

By this time, the Dimasalang painters were making a breakthrough in the art scene. Collectors and enthusiasts now shifted their gaze to the stirrings of their own culture. They saw scenes and vistas of their childhood, gaped a t the beauty of crumbling walls and gates, marveled at the interiors of churches and houses, at the seascapes and the landscapes that may not be there anymore in the years to come. They saw all of these captured in a style they readily and easily understood. And they liked what they saw. The impressionists now threatened to displace the modernists. The Dimasalang Group was now suddenly 'in.'

Sym sold several paintings but deep within him lurked the seed of adventure. He wanted to see for himself the seat of great art and soon, just a s portrayed in his dreams, an art collector came by, bought all of his paintings and with enough money for travel, Sym immediately left for Europe.

There, he roamed around 'with the eyes', said another writer, 'of a child devouring everything in sight…' He went to Amsterdam, on to Rome and Venice and saw the miracles wrought by Michelangelo. He went farther on, sinking himself in the summer warmth of Florence and Paris where hi visited the Louvre six times. In the afternoons he would wander by the riverbanks, sketching all there were to sketch, watched the sunsets 'whose beauty', he says with nostalgia, 'is really nothing compared to ours'. (Where else in the world can one find sunsets of purple, red, orange and gold converging?)

Sym brought home 24 oils, innumerable sketches and drawings, some of them on paper napkins and theater tickets, and they were bought immediately as soon as he displayed them.

'One of them lapped up eighteen of them all at once', Sym said with amusement. Then came a series of one-man shoes, all of which were sell-outs, and at the moment, after a long break from the galleries, Sym is exhibiting 40 paintings at the Galerie Bleue, some of which are already marked 'Sold'.

We predict more sellouts in the days to come but for Sym, this in only a beginning.