Three months ago, there was this recurring feeling that I should make time to see Arturo Luz (Nov. 20, 1926-May 26, 2021). Only caution and concern for his health condition kept me from going to his home. The Covid-19 pandemic was not abating and numbers of infection were escalating. Phone calls were discouraged because I was told he had difficulty of hearing.
We met on a queue many years ago. He and Tessie, his wife, were standing ahead of my husband Chito and me. It was not quite mid-morning and we were patiently waiting our turn to enter the Folk Arts Theater where the International Bazaar was being held. The annual event brought together different embassies that sold products from their countries to raise funds for charity. I recognized them both and the fan girl that I was mustered an opening to casually chat with an artist I already admired then. Photographs I had seen of him were mostly unsmiling and had impressed an image of sternness and standoffishness. On that first meeting, I found out he was reserved but not arrogant. Years later, I would conclude that he was not given to paltry talk and trifles.
Our short exchange became a conversation and the beginning of a friendship of many years. It turned out we were both interested in food that was not readily available then and could be had in the bazaar at prices lower than in specialty retail stores. Arturo was a food enthusiast, as I was and the prospect of picking up sobresada or some new flavor to discover in the different booths made the wait bearable, although I may have caught a hint of impatience and some muttering under his breath.
The next time we met, it was again on a line at a buffet of an outdoor evening wedding reception in the old part of the city. It had just been a few days from our first encounter and if memory serves me, he looked at me and said, “You again!” We navigated the epicurean spread together and discovered that not only were we assigned tablemates but we were also seated beside each other. He jestingly called the attention to one and all of our dinner companions and pointed at the generous portions on my plate. “Look at her food and how slim she is. Can you believe her appetite?” I was just over a hundred pounds. His remark, said with light familiarity, made me feel we moved from being friendly strangers to kindred spirits bound by an appreciation of palate pleasers.
He looked up from his bulalo and said, ‘You, too?’
We continued to run into each other at the national day receptions of different countries. He was my reference for which part of the buffet was worth prioritizing as he would have surveyed the lot by the time we arrived. Once, soon after he was conferred the National Artist for Visual Arts in 1997, I saw him leaving just as we were entering the Inter-Continental ballroom. Chito and I paid our respects to our hosts and shortly after, went down to the Jeepney Coffee Shop to have a proper dinner. Who do we find there, sitting by himself, except Arturo? He looked up from his bulalo and said, “You, too?” The cocktail fare was insufficient to satisfy the end- of-the-day meal requirement. As he was already almost done, we sat at a separate table. He passed on high recommendations on his beef and bone marrow soup.
A few weeks prior, Chito had tried to enlist him as chairman of the board of judges for the annual Metrobank Art competition, then called the Young Painters’ Annual, and now widely known as Metrobank Art and Design Excellence or M.A.D.E. Chito was and remains the president of the Metrobank Foundation that runs the nationwide contest. Arturo had declined saying that if he accepted, he would have to agree to all the other requests for him to judge art meets. Being named National Artist made him even more sought-after to review and appraise the works of other artists in art competitions. I understood that he was protecting his time for creative work.
Before we ordered our dinner, I suggested that my husband quietly settle Arturo’s bill. When Arturo was done and asked the waitstaff for the charges of his order, he was told it had already been paid. He came to the table, genuinely appreciative and surprised though I thought a bit uncomfortable. When he asked how to return the favor, the matter of sitting as the head of the judging competition was spontaneously brought up again. In a moment of genuine gratitude, he agreed without thinking and steered an illustrious panel in the selection of winners. Years later, we laughed together at how he had been seduced by a bowl of beef shanks and bone marrow soup.
What began with a portrait he made of his mother when he was 17 flourished into a level of expressiveness unseen in Philippine contemporary art
Much has been and will be written about the artist and his work. My personal appreciation for his aesthetic philosophy that removed extraneous elements to highlight the innate beauty of his subject in lines and austere forms was heightened after getting to know this elegant man. He wasn’t into many words but when he did engage, it wasn’t inconsequential. When persuaded to do an interview, he forewarned that questions should be informed. Enough material was available on his long career to waste energies on what had already been published. What began with a portrait he made of his mother when he was 17 years old flourished into a level of expressiveness unseen in Philippine contemporary art.
I was particularly taken by a plyboard size, acrylic on canvas exhibited at the Luz Gallery. The willful economy of lines depicting three figures had humor, intelligence and made me happy. There was an emotional connection. It was the largest canvas in the show with a price that matched its size. Besides being the biggest investment I would have to make in my modest art collection, I had no walls to hang it in our home. Arturo dismissed my deliberations and told me to take it and pay when it was convenient. I was thrilled and embarrassed by his generosity. This was no bowl of soup. I thanked him and said I would think about his offer.
We continued to see each other in events although much less than before, since he was socializing less and less. I refrained from referring to the painting entitled The Entertainers until a year later when I casually inquired who had finally bought it. He stared at me through his glasses and said, “You haven’t picked it up? It’s been waiting for you.” The following day, after handing a wad of post-dated checks, the 42” x 62” art work was transferred from the gallery to dominate a wall in our bedroom, where no one could see it. We have since moved to a more spacious residence where the painting holds a place of honor in our living room.
Once when I visited Arturo and Tessie in their residence, I noted that none of his paintings were on their walls. There was only one solitary Zobel hanging in the living room. His works were kept in the studio where he worked. We would talk about food but if my recommended restaurant was out of a 10-minute radius from his home, he would say it was too far.
During one of my visits, he said he didn’t think he would ever paint again
Some years later, they moved closer to where we stayed. There were elements in the exterior of the house that reflected his design sensibilities. Linear. Minimalist. Subtle and stunning. Inside was pretty much the same. Again, none of his paintings was displayed in the interiors, at least not when I went for visits. They were mostly leaning over each other on the second floor where he now spent most of his time, especially after a medical episode that left him debilitated. During one of my visits, he said he didn’t think he would ever paint again. I told him to continue his physical therapy and not discount the possibility of resuming his place before the canvas, brush in hand. Tessie said he enjoyed watermelons so I sent him some. I thought I would be able to see him more frequently with the proximity to their place but it didn’t happen. We would see Tessie, who accepted our invitations until she passed away in April 2019. I was traveling when it happened and had been unable to personally condole with Arturo. Visiting him was on the list of things to do but schedules were tight and then the pandemic put a hold on this intention.
Last March, I found the receipt of my first Luz painting while I was cleaning up. Immediately I tried to reach him but I used to do that through Tessie, who told me to text her first. Since she was no longer around, I reached out to our common friends for contact details but was told they had changed numbers and the former mayordoma had retired. When I finally got the number of his daughter Luisa, who was staying with him, I realized it wasn’t the most opportune time to pay a call. I thought of sending watermelons but it remained a thought. Now he’s gone and I deeply regret not visiting him or letting him know that his painting still makes me smile, makes me happy whenever I look at it. Besides its intrinsic beauty, I remember the man and wonder what he is feasting on these days.
National Artist Arturo Luz passed away May 26, 2021 at age 94.
Arturo Luz in his own words (With thanks to Marty Magsanoc)