"Natural Selection" High Life Magazine (Business World), November 2006 by Hans Audric Estialbo
Hans Audric Estialbo talks to two sculptors who are looking to tradition for a revolution.
It was curiosity that led me to The Pinto Art Gallery in Antipolo, the venue of the annual Antipolo Arts Festival. The annual convergence of painters, potters, sculptors and other artists picked an ideal setting: at the entrance to a city, yet still very much within the idyllic surroundings that characterize this small town just outside of Metro Manila. The religion ringing in the air was the art these people practice, most of them fresh talents in different media, and some of them familiar names, like Hadrian Mendoza. I first met Hadrian during a fund-raising exhibit to help stop women's prostitution in the Philippines. Hadrian was, by that time, already quite a prolific sculptor; he has always been a firm believer in sculpture's ability to connect a people to its origins. "Art is what keeps us connected with the roots we were born with. Amid technology and other modernity, pottery will survive the way it is surviving now," he said.
He has, in the past, been referred to as Philippine pottery's Picasso, having held an impressive number of exhibits in and out of the country and blown away a far more impressive number of enthusiasts with his skill in stoneware. In recent years, Hadrian has mounted shows that has left an unforgettable impression of what pottery, and Philippine pottery, for that matter, has to offer. His collection of functional pots, plates, bowls, tea sets, vases, glasses, pitchers, ans slabs, stood in Pinto Art Gallery for a far simpler context: reinvention. Potters like him, undeniably, are up for nothing less than reinvention.
Prior to this engagement, he had traveled and researched extensively to expand his craft. "The shades of greens and browns and red in my work come from ashes of ipil, pine, and fruit-bearing trees, most of which were destroyed by storms and strewn along Manila's South Super highway," he said. He has begged bakeshops for ashes, too; those who wood-fire their products were happy to supply him in return. He has visited sugar mills and riverbanks of silted cities outside Manila for sugarcane and volcanic ash, where he finds the orange and brown colors he seeks to use in his work.
Hadrian still relies on the traditional ways of making his masterpieces; where some go with the tide, he goes against the grain. It is the young potter's skill with glazing, however, that sets him apart. Glazes-both utilitarian and decorative- play a vital role to the potter, and Hadrian takes his glazes seriously., He has, in the past, shared his technique: blending three types of glaze and mixing them to create white streaks that adapt to any color. The combination of glazes has allowed him to achieve different results. His pieces are nothing short of inspired- be the chess sets, drinking glasses, basins, or a sculpture of the mythical half-horse, half-human tikbalang on a circular plinth of green clay.
Although Hadrian first trained in the US, it was not until he came home to the Philippines that his affinity for native themes became apparent. "Pottery is different here in the Philippines- which was why I came back home. It's just as different as those who practice it. It's like recreating nature in a more permanent way- taking things from the earth like clay, ashes, trees, sand, powder, altering them into your desired shape or form, glazing them with your creativity, firing a piece of clay that might just give you the brightest hue of the sky or the sea or even the universe. We, as Filipinos, keep it blooming. It's when you get down and dirty with dirt, ash, and clay that you feel the connection with the earth or with your culture," he said.
FIRE FROM WITHIN
It is this sense of connection to one's roots that is shared by another equally gifted potter, Pablo Capati III. Pablo is one of only tow people in the country who have mastered the anagama kiln, an ancient method first brought to Japan from Korea in the fifth century.
"Potters like us recreate the traditional- the natural- thing again. We create something to cope with the moderns. This is what keeps us rich," Pablo said. Pottery offers a raw connection, a spirited desire to just let the hands do the talking wile minutes and seconds disconnect one from a busy modern life. But like all things in the world, there is a diversification in pottery. The approaches that divide those who practice it are the same dynamics that keep them together. Pablo does this with anagama.
An anagama (meaning "cave kiln" in Japanese) consists of a firing chamber with a firebox at one end and a flue at the other. Anagama kilns are sometimes described as single-chamber kilns built in a sloping tunnel shape; in fact, ancient kilns were sometimes built by digging tunnels into banks of clay. Unlike electric- or gas-fueled kilns that contemporary potters use, the anagama is fueled by wood, where a large amount of fuel is needed for firing until an appropriate temperature is reached. Stoneware and porcelain pieces will typically mature at a measure of "heat work" dependent on the final temperature coupled with the time required to achieve that temperature, which would reach as high as 1,300 degrees celcius.
In this manner, fly ashes are produced as wood in the kiln is burned. Wood ash settles on the pieces during the firing, and in a complex interaction between ash, flame, and the minerals that make up the clay body, forms a natural ash glaze. The glaze shows incredible variation in all its texture, color, and thickness. It may range in texture from glossy and smooth, to rough and sharp.
Pablo said the placement of pieces within the kiln definitely affects the look of the piece; sometimes, the longer and the more fly ashes are present, the better and stronger the hues produced. As pieces closer to the firebox may receive eighty coats of ash, or even be immersed in embers, those deeper in the kiln may only be gently touched by ash effects.
Besides the location within the kiln, Pablo shared that the way pieces are placed near each other also affects the flame path an, naturally, the appearance of the pieces. The best thing about this, said Pablo, is that the potter can only imagine the flame path as it rushes trough the kilin and use this sense to paint the pieces with fire. This is why most of Pablo's works look raw, almost prehistoric. In contrast with Hadrian's, Pablos's creations come out with different hues, the effects significantly embossed in every stroke of color.
A slab in the middle of the gallery- the center piece of his collection- stood out from the rest of his works. This, he said, took a month to make, and was helped all along, by accident, by the quirks of the anagama. "It was supposedly a bigger slab that i tore in two, with my feet no less, and with the amazing faculties of wood firing, became what it is now." it was almost six feet high, ruined on the edges, with a surface that looked wounded and elegant at the same time.
The rest of his masterfully crafted pieces, created by the work of both hand and foot, took demanding hours to put together. Present in his gallery were big carved pots that swank of ash colors and splendid finish that are perfect for display. A big circular pot was in one corner, its powdery texture was the reason it stood out among the other objects around the area.
For both Hadrian and Pablo, nothing much has changed since potters of old expressed their art in clay and fire. In fact, they say, things should stay the same. Given the richness of Philippine culture, contemporary Filipino artists can look to their own selves for inspiration, and, through common methods of creating pottery, connect with a past they share with many other artists from distant parts.