"High on Pots" Filipinas Magazine April 2006 by Barbara Mae Dacanay
Filipino American sculptor and potter Hadrian Mendoza draws on Filipino indigenous culture for inspiration for his creations.
For the past nine years, Hadrian Mendoza, a Philippine-born artist from Washington DC has been making intermittent trips to his homeland in arduous search for indigenous color and form for his pots.
The search for identity, common among Filipino artists and writers who are based in the Philippines, is unusual for Mendoza who grew up and studied in the United States.
"I have been coming home for culture," Mendoza says of his sojourn in Manila in 1997, after finishing a business Administration coursed at Mary Washington College in Virginia, and a year of studies at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC.
"Bulol" is the latest of his search for the heart and soul of Philippine pottery.
Bulol is the wooden rice god of the Igorots who made the world-renowned rice terraces in Banaue, northern Philippines two tousand years ago. The antique rice god had an over sized bald head, oval shaped eyes, protruding ears with holes, a wasp waist, short and small limbs with hands on knees. Mendoza's stoneware version is a shining and colorful bulol with open knees, seated on top of a big circle with a vertical pedestal.
Mendoza's other recent experimentation in the Philippine shape is "Tikbalang;" a powerful half-horse / half-man figure in Philippine folklore. His "Tikbalang" has a powerful organ that is half-hidden under long legs. It's also seated atop a giant ring on a pedestal.
According to folk legend in the Philippines, the tikbalang's knees are higher than its head. The creature lives in dense forests and slimy swamps, and waylays travelers who can find their way again by wearing shirts in reverse.
In 2004, Mendoza created a colorful series of "Manunggul," a boatman carrying a passenger into the other world. Mendoza has propped the eerie-looking boatman and his passenger on top of a colorful ring and a vertical base, as if to overpower the pull of the death boat.
He was inspired by the Manunggul jar, a 3,000-year-old funeral vessel (dated 710 and 890 BC) which was unearthed by Filipino and American archaeologists in the Tabon Caves of Palawan in southwestern Philippines in 1964. It was discovered with a 22,000-year-old skull, which is now known as the Tabon man. The elaborately designed Manunggul jar has been described as the most beautiful vase unearthed in Southeast Asia. The Philippine government has declared it a national treasure. It is now illustrated on the 1,000 peso bill.
"The emotion I feel when working in the same spirit of these ancient works is a powerful one," he says of his creative process, adding, "I ask myself how and why these pots are Filipino. I still run around in circles. As I contemplate what I will do next, I feel something boiling inside of me."
"Looking at books and pictures of ancient Filipino forms and sculptures, I have incorporated into my work a version of my own," he explains. Why not? "There are many versions of Filipino idols and gods, all have morphed in the hands of their creators, each new one evolving into artworks of modern era."
In past shows in Manila, Mendoza's bamboo forms signified his seriousness about cultural identity. The hankering for something Filipino has always been with him even while he was a student in the US. In 1996 he made "Bahay Kubo," a creative rendition of a Philippine nipa hut in stoneware.
Before venturing into sculptural works and conscious search for Philippine forms, Mendoza disciplined himself with functional pieces in the tradition of Asia's master craftsmen.
His pots, plates, tea sets, bowls, pitchers, glasses, slab plates, and vases are a craftsman's happy re-invention of the functional pieces often used and taken for granted at home.
Mendoza had also become a shaman in conjuring unusual colors on his pots. "Juicy" hues run a swirl blazing on round and flat surfaces. Colors simmer or flare, making his pieces as brilliant and luminous as Manila's sunset, or as lush as the Philippine countryside. They imbue his pottery with emotions; temperamental or shy, bold or conservative, all hinting of a Filipino soul.
Mendoza had patiently searched for the magic of "natural" colors in Manila and in the provinces.
He gets Storm-struck pine trees along Manila's South Super Highways. Their ashes give various shades of green. He scouts for ipil and fruit-bearing trees in the forest of Laguna in Southern Luzon, for variants of blues, browns and reds. He begs for ashes from bakers with wood-fired ovens. He retrieves sacks of sugarcane ash from sugar mills. He scrounges for the ashes of Mount Pinatubo (which erupted in 1991) from silted riverbanks in Angeles City, 45 kilometers north of Manila. It has twin colors, light brown and orange.
"Now, I know how to get a nice blue-white swirl in the middle of a plate," he boasts of his enormous plates that shine with memories of Philippine landscape.
The use of natural glaze has become an art movement among Philippine potters. "Parts of trees and sand are made into powder and ash. Using them as glaze on a piece of clay, who knows, after firing, their colors might give a hint of the sky, nature or the universe. Its like recreating nature in a more permanent way," Mendoza explains.
Which aspect of pottery is more challenging, the shape or the color? "Now that I can make any shape, I think glazing will be the challenge for the rest of my life" he answers.
Mendoza was a recipient of the prestigious Anne and Arnold Abramson award for excellence in ceramics in 1996. But an eight-month apprenticeship in 1997 in Manila with Jon Pettyjohn, a half American- half Filipino artist acknowledged as the father of Philippine pottery, mad Mendoza decide on a life long commitment to pottery. Together, they set up the Pettyjohn-Mendoza Pottery School in Makati in November 1999.
Mendoza built his studio with a gas fired kiln in Makiling, Laguna in February 2001. Since 2004, he has been teaching at the Makiling high school for the arts, also in Laguna. Participating in pottery festivals in Japan and South Korea from 2002-2005 has brought him to the heart of Asia's way about pots.