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A Filipino artist in New York (2)

“Igarta the artist resurrected. From oil paintings of Ilocos beaches, the pendulum swung to abstract watercolors, from realism to surrealism, from seascapes to cubism.

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This is a part 2 on “The First Filipinos in America.”

I met Venancio “Ven” Igarta in New York City in the early ’70s. This is his story.

He arrived by ship at Stockton, California, from Vigan, Ilocos Sur at the age of 18, worked as a farmhand harvesting asparagus during the Depression (ca. 1928 to 1930). Bored with life, he took a train to Philadelphia and worked as a janitor in a big hospital. At the hospital, a lady doctor was screaming.

(Dialogue reconstructed.)
Doctor. Who has been touching my sketch pad?
Ven. Ma’am, I am sorry. I got carried away.

Doctor. No, I am not angry.

Ven. When I get homesick, I just draw and draw and draw.

Doctor. So, you drew this seascape?
Ven. That’s our beach in my hometown in the Philippines.

Doctor. Oh, a Filipino.

Ven. I’m sorry, ma’am.

Doctor. I told you I’m not angry. Did you take lessons in the Philippines?
Ven. No ma’am. I just drew on pieces of paper in California when I got depressed.

Doctor. This is excellent work. How would you like to go to an art school?
Ven. I got no money, ma’am.

Doctor. I will pay for your tuition. I want you to go to the best art school.

Ven. If you say so, ma’am. That would be nice, ma’am.

Ven’s destiny soared from a peasant boy to a farmhand to a janitor to a scholar in an elite art school, to become the first Filipino artist ever to have an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In 1942, Fortune featured Ven together with American masters Maurice Sterne and Rockwell Kent. He rubbed elbows with other art icons such as Willem de Kooning, Fernand Leger, Man Ray, Ben Shalin, Rufino Tamayo, and Galo Ocampo. The deadliest critics pedestalled him.

“Igarta’s flowing patterns of color, such as ‘Phoebus Wings and Summer Solstice,’ are highly decorative and spontaneous impressions. (New York Times, 1948)”
“The interesting thing about Igarta is the fluent quality of his painting, his use of color of fiery orange red and black which is stirring. (New York Herald Tribune, 1950)”
There was a lull in his exhibits. Without sufficient income, Ven kept on painting feverishly every day, until he was so poor, he ate apples and whisky for dinner. He was becoming an alcoholic, and he knew it.

One night, he asked himself, “Igarta, are you willing to die for art?” In deep depression, totally drunk, he lit a bonfire of all his paintings in the few years.

Priceless paintings, that could support him for many five years, went up in smoke. He said, “Never again will I paint.” Up to the time I met him, in his early 80s, he never touched a brush for four decades. The essential Igarta died that winter evening.

He worked as a master mixer of colors for Color Aid, then retired after 30 years, living off his stock market income. He lived in a depressing dingy studio on Chrystie Street near the Bowery ghettos, home of derelicts. He invited me to dinner and within an hour told me the story of his life.

Ven was the aging filthy-rich bachelor playboy, adored by women half his age. He would pamper them, and they would love him. But he was as frugal as an Ilocano could be. You could not tell he was well off, except for the women, of course. One evening, I confronted him.

Me. Why don’t you go back to painting. You’re bored.

Ven. No more. After that bonfire, I vowed never to paint.

Me. No guts no, glory, Ven.

Ven. Stop it, Bernie. I don’t want to paint anymore. That’s it. End of story.

Me. (Throwing my KO punch.) You’re dead. The essential Igarta is dead.

Ven. (Glaring at me.) Stop it.

Me. The artist in you is dead. What is life for if you can no longer paint?
Ven. Shut up, Bernie.

Me. Ernest Hemingway killed himself when he could no longer write.

Ven. (Screaming.) Are you telling me to commit suicide?
Me. (Screaming back.) No. I am telling you start painting again.

He gave me a pained look, and banged his fist on the table. I saw tears welling. He told me to “just go.” After a week, I visited him, hoping he would not send me away. When he opened the door, my hair stood on edge. He had this smile as wide as the Niagara.

I knew I had won. His dim flat now had bright fluorescent lightning. He had a new drawing table.

And so Igarta the artist resurrected. From oil paintings of Ilocos beaches, the pendulum swung to abstract watercolors, from realism to surrealism, from seascapes to cubism. I was glad I helped in the resurrection of the essential Igarta, the peasant artist, the flamboyant playboy, epitome of the Artist as Filipino.

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