Illustrado, January 2008
By Karen Galarpe
When he was in high school a long time ago, Filipino artist Manuel Baldemor would spend his recess poring over world maps and atlases in the school library. “I would look up places on the world map. It became a game for me,” he says. “I would ‘travel’ based on that map. Never did I think that one day I would travel outside the Philippines.”
But travel he did, and it looks like he’s been all over, almost. He has been to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. And in each of these stops, he would take in the country’s culture, create paintings of his impressions of the country, and promote his art and the Philippines as well. So good has he been at it that he has become an unofficial walking ambassador of the Philippines.
His most recent travel was to France, where he stayed from July to November 2007. Compared to his first visit to France in 1975, this latest sojourn took him to the provinces of France located in the north and south. “In 1975, I thought Paris was France. But in my subsequent trips, I discovered the countryside.”
This has inspired him to paint a whole collection of acrylic paintings of the French countryside which was shown last December 2007 at the SM Megamall Art Center in Manila. The said exhibit, dubbed “Somewhere in France,” was sponsored by the French Ministry of Information and Communications.
There are paintings of Provence in southern France near the Mediterranean Sea, Nice, Normandy, the cathedral of Liseux named after St. Therese, and Medieval cities on mountaintops. Through his textured brushstrokes and muted colors, Baldemor has given us a glimpse of the tranquil life in these places. Asked why he is drawn to the provinces, Baldemor says, “I think it’s because I’m still a country boy at heart. I’m still excited with provinces.”
Born after World War II in 1947, country boy Baldemor hails from Laguna, from the town of Paete, to be exact, which is well known for its wood carving industry. In fact, that is how Baldemor got known in the arts, as a master wood carver. He was the only wood carver who could draw and carve well. Baldemor also painted papier mache artworks when he was 9 years old. At 14, he painted movie billboards, and as a reward for his services, he earned free passes to the movies being shown in his hometown.
He took fine arts at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in the late ‘60s. He wowed the art crowd by winning twice the grand prize in the painting competition of the Art Association of the Philippines in 1972 and 1973. Baldemor then represented the Philippines in the XIV Salon International Art in Paris.
There was no stopping Baldemor after that, as he pursued painting professionally and going into printmaking, book illustration, and writing as well. From his first one-man show in 1972, he has exhibited in the Philippines and in so many countries abroad—the results of numerous grants given by foreign governments and private entities—that it is hard to count them all. He was even artist-in-residence in countries like Japan, Israel, Chile, Portugal, Estonia, Singapore and Switzerland. His artworks have been chosen for UNICEF cards for the past 17 years, and these have generated at least sales of P35 million for UNICEF. In 2007, he was named one of the most outstanding alumni of the University of Santo Tomas.
Painting what he sees in his travels abroad is just one half of the coin, though. Baldemor is most famous for his colorful Filipino paintings depicting fiestas. If Malang is famous for his women, Baldemor is well known for his fiestas. He is known to paint every detail, down to the last parol in his Filipino Christmas paintings. He would usually paint scenes from markets and churches, “because that’s the pulse of the town,” he says.
The big crop of paintings Baldemor produces each year can be attributed to his diligence even today at the ripe old age of 60. “I’m a senior citizen now,” he laughs. He would paint from 5 in the morning until 10 at night if he doesn’t have art openings or embassy events to attend in the evenings. “I’m already in the mailing list of embassies,” he reveals, a result of many years of working with foreign governments for various grants and exhibits.
“It’s really a blessing,” says Baldemor, of his success in the art scene. And he has always wanted to share some of his blessings. His designs for UNICEF cards are all pro bono. He has also taken part in various fund raising activities such as those for the victims of Typhoon Reming in 2006, the dying children being supported by SM Foundation, and the projects of the Tuberculosis Stamp Society (which he chairs) and the Leukemia Foundation, among others. “Every artist has to do something like that. Life is too short. If you reach 50 years old, the rest of your years are just a bonus. I’m blessed with the opportunity and the talent,” he says, that’s why he wants to give back.
And he wants to paint more so he can give more to society. “I never get tired. The secret is I like what I’m doing. It’s not work; it’s more like play,” Baldemor says. Already, he’s looking forward to his next projects this 2008: a 5 meter-by-3 meter mosaic piece to be installed at the Cathedral of St. Therese in Liseux, France, and some time taking in the sights of Norway, for yet another exhibit being planned.
“I’m like a traveler who never gets tired,” he says. And may we add, an artist who never gets tired. And that is good for all of us.