Saturday, May 23, 2015

paying tribute to Jess Aiko [not Ayco]

In today’s blog we pay tribute to Jess Aiko [not Ayco] and his art - highlighted in Fugue Frolic: A Retrospective of Filipino Modernist, Jess Ayco” at the Balay ni Tana Dicang in Talisay City, Negros Occidental. Forming a central part of the VIVA ExCon's 13th biennale, the exhibit ran from November through January. 

Late as this post is wonder | wander | world wishes to recall this stellar Renaissance man and acknowledge his all encompassing artistry - former resident artist of our hometown Bacolod in Negros Occidental [Philippines]. 

I met Jess Aiko all too late and too briefly my last year in high school - at a time when I was too flighty to care for or attend to much. Yet one photo session with him at his dimly lit and cluttered studio was enough to make me enroll in Fine Arts at our state college - the University of the Philippines in Dilliman, Quezon City. 

This was quite a feat considering it was right after the campus barricade under Martial Law and my mother wanted me in one of the collegiala schools.

But if you ask what Jess Aiko did or said, we'd be hard pressed to scramble for where to begin and what to focus on. In desperation we asked a favor of yet another stellar man and resident artist of Bacolod, Peque Gallaga - one of Philippine cinemas most talented and versatile director, producer and production designer. 

I first got to know Peque as my college instructor when he was the head of the Mass Communications department in La Salle. I had returned there to finish after three years of Fine Arts at UP Diliman where I was having too much fun to attend my classes much. 

Peque was the first teacher who taught me that learning can be fun too - provided you have the discipline and commitment to be professional about it. Through countless school projects together we collaborated more and when I graduated he (along with his wife Madie) became my first boss and lifelong friend and mentor. 

In Peque’s own words he describes Jess :

When we moved to Bacolod to live there permanently as a family in 1962 or 63 – you   know how I am about dates – we were invited to watch a performance of The Skin of Our Teeth at UNO (it wasn’t UNO-R then) put on as a community endeavour and directed by one Jackie something, a member of the now historic Peace Corps. I was the only one who went to see the play in my family and I stayed behind after curtain calls to congratulate the cast members. That’s where I met Jess who invited me to join the next production, which was going to be The Matchmaker. 

It was summer, I had nothing to do, I was enamoured with theatre (and in La Salle Taft I tried to join the Drama Guild and was never accepted) and here I was being invited to join the group. I accepted and became part of the stage crew and the first thing I ended up doing was painting flats supervised by Jess. 

When he found out that I had a knack for painting, he invited me to his house to check out his art-in-progress, of which there were many being painted simultaneously. I brought him some of my work and he became my mentor. He didn’t actually teach me any techniques, because like all good teachers, he taught me to think and to think about what I was doing and what I wanted to achieve within the medium. 

After that, we became friends and we checked each other’s works out, especially in theatre, where at that time he was doing Oscar Wilde’s Salome for West Negros. What struck me most about Jess, was that he made himself totally available to any artistic project. 

You know how provincial we are and can be and so being part of the La Salle drama group, we looked down on LCC, UNO, West Negros and everybody else. And everybody else looked down on us in return. We were full of petty jealousies, envy and snobbery. Jess was above that. He cut through the bullshit. 

I went to Manila after graduation, and when I returned to teach full time at La Salle Bacolod where I met you, Jess and I became closer. I was very heavily into Science Fiction and he had this unbelievable vast collection of Science Fiction books from Jose Philip Farmer to Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison. We would exchange books and discuss the movies we would see throughout the week as total fans. 

I was amazed that he had no snobbery involving the kind of movies that he would enjoy – he paid equal attention to Stanley Kubrick all the way to Bruce Lee and the Trinity/Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns. That was much of my education: to look at the art, craft and stylistic touches each artist employed in solving the problem of his genre. He taught me to confront art, and eventually to become an artist.

At that point, browsing through his albums, I realized that world famous choreographers and directors were his friends and they would exchange correspondence on a regular basis. Alvin Ailey, just to name one, was a personal friend and would stay in his house on San Sebastian Street.

I discovered that he was a master in photography - great landscapes reminiscent of Ansel Adams and Bresson, except that [Jess] was using a simple Kodak box camera to shoot these. His portraits [used] more sophisticated equipment, but they compared to Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton way before Beaton and Avedon hit their stride and were known in the Philippines.

The same went for dance - what struck me most was a whole collection of pictures of young men dance-leaping in the steps of the Capitolyo that was Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” years, if not a decade and a half before Robbins created West Side Story.

This man was a genius. But the lesson that transformed me is when I realized, reading all the news clippings where annually and regularly he would always be in the top three in the painting awards – he was first, second or third place in the company of [our national artists] Ocampo, Legaspi, Luz and other now-masters, that with this heritage behind him, he chose to live and work in Bacolod. 

I don’t have to spell it out for you, what that means. I dedicated the rest of my life to be part of Bacolod society and establish myself as a Negros artist. I didn’t need to be part of what we now term Imperial Manila. Jess taught me this, and now I teach this to all who come after me. ~ PG

In our experience Bacolod was not always kind to its artists. Unlike other places where folks fall all over themselves for the honor of hosting a resident artist - Bacolod is home to a few clueless ones who tend to remain snobbish - ignoring or taking local artists and their art for granted by being patronizing or dismissive. 

They unabashedly love to hobnob with the recognized and famous ones but they give little else in support and acknowledgement to our home grown talent or art initiatives. Even so or maybe precisely because of this attitude, Bacolod artists thrive and are among the country's top multi awarded assets - abroad if not in our own home turf. 

To heroes like Jess, Peque and many more who share so generously of themselves - we offer our gratitude and praise. 

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