May 10, 2004
A tour of woodcarving, sculpture, or furniture stores all over Metro Manila and in the whole mainland Luzon would reveal an interesting fact — most of them are owned by families from Pampanga, in particular, from the town of Betis.
Indeed, the name Betis has become synonymous to sculpture and woodcarving. It has not always been this way. In fact, it is a recent phenomenon, one which started only in this century, a couple of decades before the Second World War. And this is the legacy of an unassuming, modest but brilliant and amazing man: Juan C. Flores, recognized in the art world as the Maestro, or Apung Juan.
One of the ironies of life is that often times of a great man’s contributions to society and his nobility towards his fellowmen are often not recognized until he is gone. Juan C. Flores, or Apung Juan, as he was known to artist and art patrons, and especially to his friends and “kabalens” (the Kapampangan word for “town mates”) was one such man. Five years after his demise, he is hailed as a master of sculpture, and a towering legend in his field.
Throughout his life, though idolized by fellow sculptors and appreciated by the members of the local art community, he remained a stranger to the public at large. He was never as well known to the public as other artists, many of whom are started as his students. This could be attributed to his preference for the simple, quiet life, single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in his craft.
Juan C. Flores was born on June 24, 1900 in Sta. Ursula, Betis, a sleepy fishing village in Pampanga during the dawn of the American regime in the country.
Betis then, like most of rural Philippines, offered few opportunities in livelihood for its youth aside from the traditional farming and fishing.
“I found fishing a dull, boring occupation, albeit a very respectable was to earn a living,” Apung Juan would later reminisce.
Not wanting to be a fisherman or farmer, he decided to embark on an adventure in search of youthful drama. Bitten by wanderlust and against the wishes of his family, he sailed across Manila Bay to the city itself.
In the country’s capital, fate brought him to R. Hidalgo Street which has then the Mecca for the nation’s avant-garde artists.
The eager probinsyano, after trying his hand at several menial jobs, eventually befriended a local woodcarver who taught him figure making. This chance meeting changed the life of the young man, and consequently made an impact on far-away Betis in Pampanga.
Later, Juan became the apprentice of the famous “santo” carver, Maximo Vicente. It was at this time that his inborn skill in fashioning inanimate objects into works of beauty was realized. He earned the praise of Vicente, and admiration from the locals in the neighborhood.
As his talent for sculpture emerge, his reputation outgrew the small streets of Hidalgo. His fame reached a point where he soon found himself shuttling between the “talleres” of Maximo Vicente and other artist like Garcia and Tampingco.
He was now on his way to being recognized in the field of art, and had he decided to remain in Manila, he might have achieved national prominence much earlier.
He never explained it fully – maybe it was loneliness, or desire to re-establish roots, or a wish to be with family and loved ones, or simply a desire to help his comprovincianos (province mates), but just as he was finally making a name for himself in the country’s capital, he decided to go back to his hometown.
Life is full of mystery, puzzling us mere observers with its might-have-beens. Had Apung Juan stayed in Manila, how would his art developed? Definitely, his life would have made an impact on Philippine art in an entirely different way. Without his homecoming, Betis would certainly have been poorer; on the other hand, would his stay in Manila have catapulted him to national fame smoothly and quickly?
Return to Betis
It was in 1922 that he returned to Sta. Ursula, Betis, with the primary mission of teaching his province mates his acquired skills. It also felt it was time for him to start his own “taller”. He decided to hire local artisans and taught them the finer points of woodcarving and sculpture. His “kababayans” gave him a warm welcome, befitting a local boy who return from Manila with some degree of success.
For decades, he labored as a teacher to generations of young carver in Betis. Later, as his generosity and skill spread by word of mouth, he likewise become a mentor to aspiring artist from Pampanga and other provinces in Luzon.
It was said then that it was Apung Juan’s “stick-to-it-iveness which impressed the people of Betis in particular and the citizens of Pampanga in general. Every trainee who passed Apung Juan’s exacting standards was given assistance in putting up his own shop and in promoting his products. This way, Juan had helped hundreds of struggling artisans.”
Among his more prominent students were Antonio Galleron, who would later become a well-respected craftsman based in Tondo; the National Artist Vicente Manansala, who made his mark not as a sculptor but as a painter; Antonio Dumlao; Berbabe Flores; Ronnie Cruz; Leopoldo Lugine: Alfredo Santos; and Allan Cosio, who remembers that “His apprentices came from as far as Zamboanga.”
It was because of Apung Juan’s efforts that the sleepy fishing town turned into a lucrative center for woodcarving.Betis today is the furniture-making and woodcarving capital of Pampanga, and in fact, of the whole Luzon. A stroll through the town – especially before the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions – would reveal the extent of Apung Juan’s legacy. Furniture, carvings, and religious images often spill out into the backyards from homes that double as small woodworking shops. One sees sculptors and carvers busy at work all over the town throughout the day.
The best furniture shops in Metro Manila, San Fernando, Olongapo, Baguio, and other urban centers are owned by families from Betis. With the introduction of the crafts of woodcarving and furniture-making , many Betis families have achieved affluence. Apung Jaun, instrumental in this wonderful change, had single-handedly created a tradition previously unknown to his hometown.
And while performing the difficult task of training and undertaking technology transfer, Apung Juan did not receive any salary or remuneration for his effort, time and expertise. He had never shown selfishness in any form. It was he, in fact, who encouraged the more adventurous Betis families to move on to more lucrative locales such as Olongapo, Angeles, Lucena and Metro Manila.
Recognition came slowly to Apung Juan. Throughout the years, the unassuming and shy Maestro had received numerous distinctions, plaques and awards.
In 1971, he was chosen by the Philippine government as the country’s representative in a three-day competition held among in Washington, D.C. He was chosen from among all the sculptors in the archipelago. The contest was to create a bust of the United States President Richard Nixon. He won the first prize, besting competitors from all over the world, and amazing the judges and critics with a truly life-like bust of Nixon.
The critics attribute his victory to two factors. First, there was his almost perfect rendering of Nixon’s nose. The second factor was that he was the only one who worked in wood, a difficult material for a sculptor to work with.
In 1977, the Grand Old Man attained the Panday Pira Award at the age of 77. Weary and in the twilight of his life, he was finally given the recognition that should have been accorded to him decades earlier.
In 1979, years after hard work had taken its toll, the old craftsman was crippled by a stroke. It hampered his creative work, and was a sad loss to Philippine art, as the paralyzed Apo could no longer create his masterpieces.
In 1982, another milestone in his life was reached. It brought special joy to the old man for he was accorded an award by the people he had love and serve so well all his life. He was chosen as one of the “Most Distinguished Sons of Pampanga”, and was honored in a ceremony graced by officials.
The last year of Apung Juan’s Life were spent mostly in a chair or bed. He had grown physically unable to continue his work as a sculptor. Yes he expressed happiness and contentment as he saw his numerous protégés make name for themselves, and the families of Betis improve their economic standards.
Apung Juan’s long, but colorful and productive journey ended on September 14, 1992. He was buried in his beloved Betis.
Art and Legacy
Dr. Rod Para-Perez, art historian and critic, has expressed appreciation of the works of Apung Juan. Such is the Apung’s contribution to the Philippine sculpture that even before his demise, the lack of an heir apparent made Perez sadly ask: “who will succeed Apung Juan?”
Apung Juan was influenced greatly by his favorite Italian artist, Bernini, who sculpted the fountains of Rome and the saints’ images in St. Peter’s Basilica. His local idol is his own teacher, the Maestro Graciano T. Nepumuceno who, together with Maximo Vicente, taught him the craft.
A writer had once describe the Apung’s style as marked with a love for detail to the point of being called rococo. The writer hypothesized that the adoption of his particular style was because most if his models for his religious imagery were based from religious pictures and icons from Europe’s post baroque period. There was also the native sensibility at work with the Filipino’s tendency for expression in a florid manner.
Aside from making forms with religious themes, Apung Juan also did historical ones in the large frieze-type work dramatizing Douglas MacArthur’s landing in Leyte.
Art historians say that the art of the santo or the “imagen” began to lose its vigor before the turn of the century with the advent of the secular spirit. But Apung Juan continued this art from through his carvings and sculptures right up to his death in 1992.
Apung Juan became one of the Filipino art masters to achieve a high level of excellence in the use of wood as a medium sculpture. Wood is one of the most difficult materials for sculptor to mold. It is considered more difficult and challenging than, for example, plastic, resin, clay, marble, chip, or esayola. Yet wood, especially the “batikuling” he favored, became Apung Juan’s forte.
He was deeply religious man, who instilled Christian values in his children and tried to follow these same value sin his own life. It is now surprising then that the Apung’s art was strongly religious in nature.
A masterpiece and legacy is the Mural which he did for the Catholic Churches in Antipolo. He also did numerous religious sculptures for churches, including San Sebastian in Manila.
One of his more impressive works is that of “St. Michael Versus The Devil”, depicting the fabled archangel overpowering the prince of darkness represented as a dragon-like beast. A critic said that viewing the masterpiece, one immediately sense that “this no mere artisan’s handiwork; that craft and art have one living flame in the genius of Flores. “Another artwork which caught the eye of critics is titled “St. Jude With the Seven Dragons”.
The Maestro was a meticulous worker, a perfectionist with a distinctive style. Though he did not sign many of his works, collectors know an “Apung Juan” sculpture because of his characteristic style.
In the final analysis, Apung Juan’s legacy lives not only in this greatness as a creative and talented artist, but also as a warm and loving soul. He was a giving man who generously shared his skill, knowledge and experience with his fellowmen. Like all men of talent, he was an example of humility who concentrated on imparting what he knew to his students rather than using his prestige for personal benefit.
Single-handedly, he was responsible for a renaissance of the art of woodcarving in Betis. Indeed, Betis would not be the sculpture, woodcarving and furniture-making capital of Luzon without Apung Juan.
He had a deep aversion to the limelight, a factor which hindered his commercial appeal when he was still alive. He concentrated on his craft, refusing to advertise himself.
Apung Juan was an original. Sadly, with his death, our nation lost an institution and a national treasure. He lives on, however, trough his works, now considered classics and priceless treasure. Perhaps, more importantly, he lives on through the work and art of his students.
Unassuming, shy and self-effecting, he was not only a great artist but a wonderful human being who left not only his art but wonderful memories to those fortunate enough to have him. He lead an exemplary life full of positive values for our youth to emulate.
|Adam and Eve
63 x 43 x 2 1/2 inches
|Bust of a child
22 1/2 x 6 x 7 1/7 inches
Bust of Christ
Flowers & Rosettes
Lady in Shell
Madonna & Child
Madonna & Child
St. George w/ Seven
St. Michael & the Devil
Sto . Rosario
Wheel of Fortune