ADMITTEDLY, many pieces of “tourist art” were done by hacks, with no pretensions to high art.
Still, there were some artists along Mabini in Manila who were seriously trained in art, mentored either by Fernando Amorsolo, dean at University of the Philippines Fine Arts, or Victorio Edades, dean at University of Santo Tomas Fine Arts, the two rival artists and schools.
One of these artists with established galleries had on the glass pane of his window showcase the distinctively hand-painted name “Roger Sn Miguel.” (The Sn is stylishly intentional.)
He is Roger San Miguel. Our meeting with the artist, now a still active septuagenarian with a white shock of tousled hair and beard, sparked the thought that we were talking to one of the country’s elder statesmen in the field of Philippine art.
Having his own space in Mabini was itself heaven-sent. The voluble and expansive Vicente Manansala, not yet the National Artist, was a good friend of the Mabini artists. San Miguel himself has never been insecure about having worked and sold his works in Mabini. In his own words, “Let the painting speak for itself.”
Mostly, the artists worked in the classical conservative mode of painting; indeed, they were adherents of National Artist Fernando Amorsolo. In one interview, San Miguel declared, “I sharpened my craft in Mabini.”
Roger’s studio at 1114 A. Mabini was truly masuwerte (luck-bringer). Due to its vantage location, the studio was often visited by the wives of consuls and other officers from foreign embassies in the area. Many became his ardent collectors.
Moreover, for Manila’s top interiors designers, he had become the dependable “go-to” painter.
When Martial law was declared in 1972, San Miguel was forced to reassess his situation in light of the country’s crumbling economy and the political turmoil. By then he had a growing family—his supportive wife, Mercy, and five children, Romer, Reynor, Ruben, Ryan and Marianella.
Now all his kids are grownups and professionals; San Miguel obviously made the right decision to stick to his art.
‘You look like an artist’
It was from the back of one of his paintings brought to Israel that an art dealer, an American Jew by the name of Michael Kroner, was able to get his name. Kroner came to Manila and stayed at the Manila Hotel, from where he contacted San Miguel and arranged to meet him at the hotel lobby.
In a place teeming with Caucasian foreigners, the dealer immediately identified the artist, telling Roger: “You’re the one that looked like an artist!”
The other providential meeting, this time at 1114 A. Mabini, was with Cornelius Choy, or “Cornie,” the owner of Bamboo Gallery in Bali, Indonesia. As a regular purchaser of San Miguel’s paintings, Cornie was able to sell 50 of his paintings to the Indonesians.
Cornie also invited the painter to visit Bali. More memorably, through this Balinese sojourn, San Miguel made the friendship of J. Elizalde Navarro, the first of Cornie’s “Resident Artists Program,” who also came on regular visits to Bali.
San Miguel is held in high esteem by fellow artists, with whom he enjoys a warm camaraderie. There was a time when an artist was needed to recreate the missing pair of Fernando Amorsolo murals at the Metropolitan Theater. The honor went to San Miguel, who had to depend on the photographs of the mural in the Amorsolo book. After working on the mural for months, he finally unveiled a mirror image of “Sayaw,” as if the mural had never been lost.
When it comes to portraiture, San Miguel is considered among the best; he has done the portraits of three National Artists, namely Elizalde Navarro, BenCab and Napoleon Abueva.
Now, in his Parañaque studio, one finds Roger San Miguel working on his latest works for a scheduled solo exhibition, titled “Seasons of Life,” at the SM Art Center. Organized by Gallerie CMG, the show is bound to take the art scene by surprise, mainly because not much has been heard from San Miguel these past so many years.
He remembers affectionately to this day his mother’s advice: to learn his colors and their harmonious combinations from nature, from leaves and flowers. This comes from a deep insight, for it was no less than Marc Chagall who once remarked, “When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”
Mother—and Mother Nature—always know best.
“Seasons of Life” will be on view Feb. 2-13, at SM Art Center, SM Megamall, Edsa, Mandaluyong City. Call 8719765 or 0917-8293961.