By Rachelle Cruz
The honey-coloured yellow walls brightened the living interiors, spotlights beaming at his paintings. Like a mini art gallery, his works of art formed a cultural mosaic that made its way through each room, from the moment you walk in. “Maestro” Romeo Mananquil, also known as Romi, invited us to his Mississauga residence, his home radiating familiar warmth, as each painting imbued a sense of nostalgia, drawing back to his roots of Philippine subjects and landscapes, recounting his life experiences as a young boy in his homeland.
Breakfast by the Beach displayed in the dining room showed strokes of his impressionistic style that depicted the simple life of a couple. Another painting stopped me in my tracks, as I gazed carefully at a beautiful portrait of a young woman, in seated pose, wearing a salmon-pink coloured dress, looking directly back at me. It hung in the main living area, and soon as I look to my right, I quickly realized that it was a portrait of his wife, Aniceta “Necie” Maron, whom he has five children with: Roani, Jordan, Anicee, Herson and Maila. At that moment, she was busy in the kitchen, an older version of herself, but still looking radiant and lovely.
Mananquil, eldest of five children, was born on December 1, 1942 in Caloocan, Rizal. As a young inquisitive boy, he discovered his calling to become an artist at an early age, when he found a stock room at his aunt’s house. Fascinated, he rummaged through stockpiles of old Liwayway magazines with Amorsolo covers and Carlos Francisco illustrations. In those pages he found a watercolour painting by his father of the Caloocan town hall, “So nagulat ako. Nag pa-paint pala ang tatay. I was so fascinated by that. Parang nagkaroon nang desire, on my part, to be an artist, parang gusto kong mag drawing kaagad,” Mananquil narrated. Thereafter, he hurried to the store, purchased bond papers from five centavos and started drawing, “Ever since, hindi na ako tumigil,” he said.
And he kept going.
While still a student, he started illustrating for Liwayway. He was later hired as Staff Artist/Illustrator, and later on became one of the top celebrated illustrators, alongside with veteran artists Rodolfo Herrera and Amado dela Cruz, commissioned to do paintings that were used as covers for special issues,. During that time, Mananquil popularized the dry brush technique that caught fire, “Instead of applying the ink in full, ginagawa ko, ipapahid ko muna yung excess sa isang papel. Pag meron nag texture, yun ang ginagamit ko,” he explained. By the late 1970s to early 80s, Mananquil worked as professor and chairman, at the Department of Visual Communications, U.P. College of Fine Arts. He also held Illustration and Cartooning classes at the College of the Holy Spirit in Manila later on. Since his 1976 first one-man show at Rear Room Gallery, Mananquil had participated in more than 100 group exhibitions in the Philippines, Australia, United States, and Canada.
One of his career highlights was when Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) hired him to design banknotes and coins with two other artists. “To me that was a very singular honour because there were so many artists in the Philippines, and yet I was sought out. It was truly a huge honour. Lahat ng Pilipino makakahawak ng trabaho ko,” he humbly expressed. Mananquil designed the first two-peso Bonifacio decagonal coin, the Balagtas 10-centavo coin, the one-peso tamaraw coin and the Tandang Sora five-centavo coin, including the discontinued green five-peso Aguinaldo bank note, the tri-hero 1000-peso bank note, and interestingly, a 500 pesos Marcos bill that never circulated.
Mananquil’s flowering career blossomed in the Philippines, amidst growing political instability and social unrest at the height of the Marcos movement. In the 1980s, when his career was gaining momentum, he made the difficult decision to leave the country and relocate his family to Canada. “The biggest factor was the safety of my family and my kids. Because at that time nga, medyo magulo na. Puro rally. Marcos was so unstable, and sabi ko, I don’t know what future we have here, so might as well go and try my luck in Canada,” he said. His friendship with the Canadian Consul General at the time helped him facilitate his immigrant visas to start a new life.
Fast-forward years later, Mananquil was hired as a part-time art instructor for Watercolour & Oil Painting at the Hilltop Community for Continuing Education in Etobicoke, and later conducted workshops for the Etobicoke School of the Arts. One of his major contributions is to reorganize the group and became one of the founding officers for the Philippine Artists Group (PAG), a community of Filipino artists. Their mandate is to showcase Philippine visual arts through art exhibitions. Mananquil served as its first president and held the title for 14 years.
But like most immigrants settling in a foreign place, the road to this path was never easy. “Back in the Philippine, modesty aside, I didn’t have the experience of looking for a job. I was the one who was offered a job. Namimili ako kung ano ang gusto kong trabaho,” he said. “Pag dating ko dito, first time na I was rejected. Maraming rejections parang naiiyak na nga ako dahil naglalakad ako, nag yeyelo, ginaw na ginaw ako, sabi ko, ano ba itong napuntahan ko, tama ba to?” he recounted, as memories of harsh winter, of feeling alienated, of not knowing where to go, who to see, all the elements of a newcomer experience sucking him back into the cold vortex.
Eventually, in 1989 he was hired as a graphic artist, designing flags for The Yellow Pages Group. Though he adjusted to this new lease of life, his memory and heart still yearned for something more fulfilling. “If you noticed, nandito na ako sa Canada, but I still paint Philippine subjects. I long so much about my home country. So lahat nung experiences ko as a boy, the things that I remembered when I was there, they are the ones that inspire me,” he said. “Actually nung bata ako, madalas ako mag bakasyon sa Pangasinan. So most of my subjects were rural… very Filipino,” he expressed, recounting the childhood days he spent his summers at his grandfather’s house.
The everyday rural living of locals told the stories in his paintings. Although Mananquil does not ascribe to a specific style or artistic influences, his expression leans more towards impressionism, with strokes of romanticism. Gathering Seashells and Nay…Hanggang Saan ang Dagat? paint a story of subjects along the beach. Munting Ate, tells the story of girl feeding her little brother with a spoon, not with a fork. In his art forms, he remained the outside observer looking in, and by committing to memory and compiling photographs, it helped arrange his compositions and vision. His works also represented reveal the true inspiration behind his paintings: his wife. The iconic tricycle captured in Tanghalian and Talipapa, symbolize, not just of the life in the province, but to a larger extent, the beginnings of his love for her, “Nung unang nagpunta ako sa kanya, first time ako naka sakay ng tricycle,” he admitted.
One day, unfortunate circumstances drove the young Mananquil, now working as a professional for Liwayway in Manila, back to Pangasinan because he learned that his grandfather was ill at the hospital. There, his mother’s cousin convinced him to stay on longer so she can introduce him to a special friend, “I wasn’t excited. But hindi muna ako umuwi,” he recalled, sharing the story of how he went with his aunt to visit a school in Pangasinan where Necie of Binmaley, was studying.
“So naghintay ako kasi wala naman akong choice andun na ako. So nanood na lang ako nang nagdadaan. Tapos nung lunch break na, andami naglalabasan. Nakita ko sa malayo (si auntie) pero wala akong nakitang kasama. Yun pala nasa likod. Nung malapit na sabi ko, aba merong maganda sa likod. Sana ito na. Fortunately, she was,” he smiles as he shares his story.
His meeting Necie was synonymous to the first time he discovered the love for art. Just as he quickly was inspired to draw, his initial meeting with the love of his life also inspired him to draw her face from memory as soon as he got back to Manila. And from there, the outpouring of love letters were sent, the first one with his portrait of her tucked in. With all the frequent visits to Pangasinan, not just for his lolo, the waiting game he had to endure just like the rest of his rivals vying for her attention and affection, developed the two-year courtship into something worthwhile. Asked if it was love at first sight, he laughed merrily and said, “I can say she was!”
With more than 40 years as an artist, and a slew of accolades and trophies honouring his work, Mananquil also became either a member or affiliate of many associations such as the Society of Philippine Illustrators & Cartoonists (SPIC), grUPo (Artists from U.P.), and Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), among many others. Notably, he was among the recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012; and was one (for Visual Arts) of the five recipients of the ASNA Award trophy and certificate, the highest and most prestigious award to outstanding Pangasinenses given personally by Governor Amado Espino at the highlight presentation ceremonies of the 433rd Founding Anniversary of Pangasinan in 2013. In that same year, he was given a Plaque of Recognition and Conferment of the title ‘Maestro’ through the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs by Ambassador Leslie Gatan and then -Toronto Consul General Junever Mahilum-West, during the formal opening of the 25th Anniversary Art Exhibition of the PAG.
His career may have taken a turn into a new direction once he migrated here, but the success still followed him, and his passion remained unceasing,
“I always love my mother country. And I always miss living in my country,” Mananquil stated. “All my life I really wanted to be an artist. Sabi ko nga sa nanay ko either I take art or I don’t go to school. And in a way, I was able to prove to them that I was right,” he said, with the only tinge of wonder where his career would have taken him if he had stayed behind in the Philippines.
Yet, in exchange for what he sacrificed, he also had much to gain. Being in Canada now, he is grateful nevertheless,
“Sabi ko nga sa wife ko, if we stayed in Philippines, baka byuda ka na ngayon. O kaya meron ka nang ibang asawa (laughs) binibiro ko sya kasi syempre pag nawala ako, and she was still young, baka maligawan,” he commented, explaining away his health issues of undergoing heart bypass surgery back in 2004. He also suffers from poor eyesight, “I am glad I am still able to paint, pero hindi na kasing bilis noon. Hindi kagaya noon maliwanag lahat. Ngayon medyo nahihirapan ako,” he admitted.
Today, Maestro Mananquil spends his time with his wife and big family, enjoying the simpler pleasures in life, and of course, you will find him in his basement studio, “Sabi ko hanggang kaya ko, I will paint.”
Photos by Michael Carlos Panganoron/DigiCambay