A peaceful, tree-shaded rotunda accentuated by beautifully gnarled bonsai and old stone arches seems like an unlikely place to find a hub of unusual activity. Uniformed young adults hack at stones, chop and saw wood, unsnake electrical wires, lay pipes, paint walls, make intricate designs in paint and gold leaf, or slather walls with lime mortar.
Since 2009 when the Revellin de Recoletos, which housed the Bonsai Society, became the vocational and restoration school Escuela Taller de Intramuros, the structure has since been restored and maintained by the 80 or so odd students per school cycle. The students themselves have been transformed from ex-future delinquents into useful, skilled craftsmen who view life from a more productive perspective.
Every year, the students and workshop faculty prepare an exhibit that showcases the results of a grueling 18-month school year.
This year, their efforts will be seen at window 4 of Rustan’s Department Store on Ayala Avenue, Makati, featuring an unusual nativity scene executed by students’ works in wood and stone carving, paint finishing, metal works and electrical workshops.
At the center of the display window are the carved wooden figures of the Holy Family dressed in native Filipino wear, designed by wood carving instructor Willy Layug. Layug guided the students in carving the figures and painting the saints’ clothing through a traditional Spanish paint technique called estofado.
The technique employs the application of a base of gold leaf, followed by an overglaze of oil paint, sometimes using fine lines in various thicknesses and distances to give an illusion of light and shadow, and at other times using a negative or reverse process wherein the design’s background is painted to expose the positive design in gold leaf.
Layug, a sculptor and artist hailing from Betis, Pampanga, learned the technique in the artisans’ workshops in Seville, Spain. Assisting Layug, and himself teaching basic wood carving, is Ernesto Martinez who was among the first graduates of the school.
The figure of the infant Jesus stands on a large carved stone Corinthian capital done by the stone carving class under the guidance of visiting Mexican instructor Delfino Nicanor Nequiz, whom the students fondly call “Mang Canor.”
Accessorizing the space are marble-ized and patinated carved lampstands with flame-shaped metal tops, gilded medallions and a replica of a 16th-century wooden chandelier, parcel-gilt and finished in French lime in the standard old rose and mint epoch colors. The scene is enveloped by walls in “Giotto blue” and dotted with gold-embossed stars whose points resemble the blades of a Muslim dagger, the kris, designed by painting student Berwin Bernales.
Basic paint techniques were taught by Glen Ilona. Finishing and decoration modules were led by Judy Cervantes and Tats Rejante Manahan, both mentored by foremost American paint finisher JoAnne Day. Manahan further trained in fresco restoration and lime mortar techniques in Venice and Vicenza, Italy.
Metal works were under the guidance of master welder and metal artisan Jimmy Buenviaje, and electrical works were supervised by George Camangian.
“Showing off their work gives the students a sense of pride and accomplishment,” says finance manager Maxima Febrero.
Adds Gie Santos, student affairs head: “There is a marked enthusiasm when they see their work being admired. They have the same reaction when they go on exposure tours. Somehow their horizons broaden. It is encouraging to them.”
Santos keeps close tabs on each student, oftentimes going beyond purely academic matters.
“It can’t be helped. Sometimes their problem is very simple—they don’t have enough transportation money, for example, because the allowance they get is used up right away for their household expenditures, like electricity. So we have to talk to the parents and tell them that they need to set aside money for the transportation of our student, because if they are absent too often, they get dropped from the course.”
The proper use of materials and equipment, which requires constant watch over the supply allotment, is the concern of warehouse manager, Tristan Bentia.
“Before they go over their quota on materials, I have to warn them that they will have to pay for it. It’s the only way to discipline them not to be wasteful,” he says.
The school curriculum, coordinated by curriculum head Tina Silao Bulaong, an architect, is divided into three modules: academics, workshop and on-the-job training. The workshop module is developed with product output as the aim, involving collaborative work among most, if not all, the decorative arts courses.
“Workshop facilitators discuss among themselves what product they will develop. As much as possible, I prefer that as many workshops are involved in the development and final output. These are the things we put on display at our school gallery and eventually at an exhibit,” she said.
Malate Church restoration
A current project managed by Escuela Taller is the restoration of Malate Church. The crew members on the job are graduates of the school. To date, the group has finished one side of the church, restoring the degraded lime “palitada,” conserving the old adobe stones and restoring six big narra doors.
For the restoration of the doors, wood conservation consultant Cheek Fadriquela did the analysis and sought to arrest further fungus growth, with a materials recommendation for the consolidation of the old wood and the newly replaced pieces, and the further preservation of the parts that were intact. To homogenize the color and wood grain of the new and old wood, Manahan, with Fadriquela, worked out a consolidation process, which Manahan then taught to her students.
In a TV interview, 23-year-old Paulo Nunez, a former drug addict now working as a mason for the Malate Church project, expressed his concern that Philippine heritage is fast disappearing, even as that heritage is something that needs to be kept alive.
It is not surprising to hear such insights from students who have passed through Escuela Taller, the only such school in Asia established by the Spanish government. Other Escuela Talleres can be found in South American countries, which, like the Philippines, are former Spanish colonies.
While the school emphasizes traditional methods, materials and techniques, advanced technology finds its way into the equation in the documentation process.
Architects Jeffrey Cobilla and Randolph Cobarrubia, who oversee the Malate Church project, did the building survey with the assistance of high-definition laser scanning upon the recommendation of architect Michael Manalo, Escuela Taller project director.
“It is precise, with less guesswork. You get the big picture right away and you know what you’re up against,” says Cobilla.”
Cobarrubia adds, “It gives you more time to lay out a more detailed restoration plan, so you go to the site better prepared.”
The Rustan’s Christmas window display culminates close to 15 months of skills training for the students of Escuela Taller, to be applied further in the next three months on actual work sites.
The patch of green on Victoria Street will be quiet for a few months as the students move on to their respective job sites. The batting average of employment after graduation has hit more than 50 percent every year. Just this year, two graduates from the first batch have been deployed overseas.
As a rule, graduates are asked to work in the country for two years before considering work abroad.
With natural calamities and government neglect having led to the disrepair or outright demolition of many built heritage structures in our country, the skills of Escuela Taller graduates will certainly be of good use.