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March 15, 2004

ROEL HOANG MANIPON

Tiaong was an unassuming town with a summer serenity punctuated by coconut trees and intermittent expanse of plantations. There is a charming legend behind its name. The town is said to be named after its kind, nationalistic and religious founder, Doña Tating, who was fondly called by the townspeople as Tia Ong or Auntie Ong. This was because she was always seen riding around on her pet ox, which was fond of giving a distinctive moo of “Oooooong.” She went to church everyday and it is said that the priest would not start mass until he heard the ox’s loud and distinctive mooing. But I digress.

We were here to visit potter and clay artist Ugo Bigyan’s house in barangay Lusacan. Along the road, one may missed it because of the lush hedges and trees that covered it. There was a stretch of driveway before reaching house. And we were delightfully greeted with a quaint, brick-colored, two-story, Mediterranean-inspired house, which was Bigyan’s living quarters. Bigyan welcomed us in an easy and homey manner, slackly dressed in a shy smile, a gray sando shirt that showed a slight paunch and jeans.

Bigyan’s house is actually a cluster of houses, which include the house he lives in, a showroom, a workshop and several huts. Bigyan’s main house was made from simple hollow blocks and coated with reddish terracotta. The front lawn was accentuated with a circular structure made of brick and equipped with throw pillows in woven buri cases, where family and friends can gather and chat, and at night, perhaps, create a bonfire. Another curious accent of the lawn was a rock, which was hollowed out and filled with water where little, floating quiapo plants grew. It was an innovative version of an outdoor potted plant. A winding pathways lead to other houses. The pathways themselves were interesting to look at. Some were made from cement and bricks with glazed, ceramic fishes served as accent. Others are made from old driftwood, which were actually pieces from knocked-down old houses, which Bigyan salvaged and gathered. Still another was made from bluish gravel strewn around with broad-leaf-shaped footsteps made from cement. These footsteps were cast from actual leaves. Actually most of his clay works with flower and leaf motifs are cast from actual flowers and leaves. Bigyan called it fossilizing. We saw one apprentice artisan meticulously impressing a hibisbus on one of the jars.

Anyway, these pathways lead to other houses. At the right of the terracotta house was another house that seemed to serve as workshop, storage and living quarter. And behind was the showroom, where Bigyan’s work were on display and were on sale. The two houses had a rugged look. Made of bricks and cement, they looked unfinished, at one aspect they could look like ruins if not for the newness of the houses. Not the unfinished look was intentionally and was somehow intriguing.

The center of the sprawling one-hectare lot were riddled with huts, a cluster that looked like a small village connected by paths made of eclectic materials in eclectic designs. Most of them had no walls. One hut had a bamboo sofa and pillows where one can lounge around. Another had a hammock for a tranquil siesta. Another had a big wooden table for feasts. Another was a little store selling square-shaped suman with latik and chocolate tablets tended by Bigyan’s sister. These huts were adorned with Bigyan’s signature wind chimes made from porcelain and soft stone, which gave a melodious tinkling sound. They were charmingly shaped into butterflies, seahorses, fishes and leaves. Completing this wonderful garden sanctuary were trees laden with impressive staghorn ferns and little ponds where water hyacinths thrived.

Midst these bucolic setting enhanced by human aesthetics, we were served lunched prepared by Ugo Bigyan himself. Cooking is one of Bigyan’s many talents. He said he learned how to cook from his mother. The buffet table were laded with halaan soup, fern salad with green mangoes and itlog maalat; kamansi in coconut milk, dilis and sago; and grilled tilapia and liempo.

We checked out the shop. A poster greets the guest with Bigyan’s quote: “Challenges drive me to survive and they make me stronger every time I work with clay.” Presumably, this serves as his motto in life and art.

Ugo Bigyan’s art works are mostly the functional kind. One finds here plates made of soft stone and in the shape of leaves; glazed two-colored glasses; the enchanting wind chimes; bracelets made from clay; bowls of different sizes and colors but all with simple but exquisite designs. A simple candy receptacle or platito is adorned with twigs where perched ceramic butterflies or birds. Bestsellers prove to be the big tapestries, big jars, plates and dinner sets, and other stoneware. And there are many more. These functional pieces can actually serve as objet d’arts.

Ugo’s real name is Augusto, but he adopted Ugo as nickname because it sounds exotic and “artsy.” Coming from a brood of five, Ugo is the youngest. Two of his brothers are engineers, a sister studies law and another is an accountant. Actually, Ugo is an accountant by education. But his passion, and a humble piece of earth, would change the course of his life.

His initial contact with clay art was during high school in Lucena City. Every time, he walked to school, we would pass by the house and shop of clay artists and potters Jaime and Ann de Guzman. He became fascinated with the clay objects and he would buy the rejects.

Also during that time, he made a sculpture series called “Binhi,” which were depictions of seeds in soft stone. He gave these sculptures to friends and teachers as gifts. He also drew. He used to make portraits of his classmates’ girlfriends and charged them 30 pesos. He was already an artists and businessman at a young age.

After high school, he wanted to take up fine arts in Manila but his parents discouraged him “Ano’ng mangyayari sa iyo sa fine arts?” his parents said, a statement of a classic and lamentable Filipino mentality regarding education and the arts, which is echoed over and over again. Thus, he ended up enrolling in commerce at the Luzonian University in Lucena City where he was a scholar.

After finishing the degree, he worked as a settling clerk at the PCI Bank in Makati but lasted only nine days. He went home, and there he devoted his time cultivating his first love and starting a business.

He started making jewelry and tapestry. Then, he eventually went into pottery and clay works with an initial capital of 6,000 pesos. He learned how to make jars and other clay objects through chemistry books. His works, at first, were commissioned. Designer Patis Tesoro was one of his first customers.

From 1989 to 1995, under CITEM, his works were exhibited here and in Europe, and through the firms Spiegel, Harrod’s and Pier One, his works were exported.

Then, he quitted in 1995. He discovered that getting involved too much into merchandising his works could stifle his creativity and he learned that he could not mass-produce his works. To Bigyan, six years of devoting yourself to earning is enough. Now, he is making clay works more for himself. He went full-blast into pottery and clay art in 1995. He gets his clay from Iloilo and Bicol. Often, he has to import other materials like ceramic from Thailand and Korea. He said that we have no technology to segregate the kaolin from other minerals.

Ugo Bigyan started building his house and garden piecemeal in 1991. He inherited the land from his father. Now, there are sixteen huts. But the center of the sanctuary is the terracotta house, which proved to be cool and quaint. The interior is a pleasant mix of the old and the new, the sophisticated and the rugged. Black, simple, geometric ironworks adorned the windows, while the arched doors are made from heavy wood. Polished wood furniture complements with the all-stone-and-brick structure and accentuated by clay jars, pots and ornamental pieces. The back porch had a series of cement-and-brink arches. There was a balcony at the second floor where one finds an old four-poster bed transformed into a lounge chair by adding pillows and potted plats. Balinese masks on the wall bestowed the area a tropical and mystic feel. At the center was a huge curtain made of strewn little, ceramic fish. It was actually an enlarged version of his wind chimes. Parting the windows, one enters Ugo’s bedroom: a polished floor made from planks of dregalin wood from Bicol, a bed made of bamboo, a wall decoration made from old cabinet doors, and more clay and stone accents.

After exploring his house, Ugo went to supervise his workers who are now packing jars one on top another to be baked into a kiln. Perhaps there were orders that have to be delivered, and we the visitors to be entertained. Despite, he seemed to be in placid mood. Who would not be in a place like this? Also, and more importantly, it must be some inner happiness, because he was able to follow his passion (a passion that was predicted to lead him nowhere) and set his own pace. I think will remember this. Many of my friends would set aside their passion because they worry about their future financial security. I tend to believe that one must follow the passion and do the best, despite the dearth of financial reward, because in time, the money, the recognition will follow. This echoes another Bigyan motto, cliché but true: Giving the best in everything you do.

Now, Ugo Bigyan is on his 18th year into pottery and clay art (he turned 40 years old on August 16, 2003). People go to Tiaong just to buy his works. He conducts pottery workshops for students and professionals in his home in a package deal that includes meals, transportation and lessons.

Being an artist is a vocation without retirement. This goes the same for Ugo. He said he will continue to make pottery and clay works for the rest of his life. What if the time comes when no one would buy your works anymore? asked a colleague. Then, he said, I will give them away as gifts.