What I've Learned

Ben Cab

In Baguio, the National artist Ben Cabrera shares with us the benefits of being a painter, a bonsai enthusiast and a tai-chi practitioner.
IMAGE Kidlat de Guia
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This article was originally published in our June 2013 issue.

I had to look for a job to earn a living. That was my first ambition, to get a job after college.

I became a layout artist for the Sunday Times Magazine, and it was a good start. You earn a little bit, and at the same time you get exposed to photographers and writers—that expanded my vision. Then an artist-friend asked me, “Why don’t we have a show?” That started my career.

Basic lessons from being a painter? It’s a source of income! You do something you like and you earn from it—it’s a great situation.

As you become established, there is a demand for your work, and then there’s the challenge of how to continue, how to change and evolve your work, which is very important. And, well, I didn’t expect to be a National Artist, but that also helped in that I am now better informed about different art events. I’m always invited to judge art competitions, cut ribbons and things like that.

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The perks? You get a monthly pension! You also have medical insurance and a state funeral—everything’s arranged.

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Sabel is actually just an excuse for a subject matter. There’s a certain abstraction about her. There’s the humanistic approach, there’s the aesthetics—a lot of variations and possibilities. My fascination with Sabel started when I was living in Yakal Street in Bambang. I would see her across our house and I would photograph her and sketch her on the spot. I never really met her, I would just watch her from a distance—there was a mystique about her. She eventually became my iconic figure. Every artist has an icon. Malang has his women vendors. Arturo Luz has his squares. It’s the way you make your mark on your art.

You can never get bored with the female nude. There’s always something new that you discover. For me, drawing nudes is a form of exercise. And there’s nothing like drawing from life, which I love doing.

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Art and sex are both very interesting—they’re stimulants, I think. Sabi nga ni Manansala, “Kung wala ka nang libog, ‘di na gaganda trabaho mo.”

The bul-ol is a ritualistic art of the Cordilleras. It’s a very underrated piece of art. I find it really original compared to Christian images. It has a sort of power, you know? You can see that it can also be a big influence to modern artists. Picasso was influenced by African art. Our highland tribal art is a source of inspiration for our artists including myself.

Bonsai is a kind of exercise in patience. Bonsai is really taming a tree so it eventually becomes a miniature. It’s a way of contemplation. Sometimes you need to empty your mind and have a fresh start.

I’m the youngest of nine children, can you imagine? I have two brothers. The eldest is now 84. Next was Salvador, who was also a painter, I learned a lot from him, there’s a 13-year gap between us. I had two older brothers and six sisters. So I’m really at home among women. My sisters used to dress me up. Good thing I didn’t turn out gay.

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If you’re more at home with women, they become closer to you. That’s when you score! Mas malapit sila kasi you’re relaxed with them. You’re not a predator. A friend once told me, “Ba’t malapit sa’yo mga babae ta’s sa’kin hindi?” I replied, “You’re a predator kasi eh. Dapat harmless ka muna. Do it slowly. Don’t harass. You seduce instead.”

I like observing people. I like the nuances of Filipinos. This has always interested me, the humanistic aspect of painting.

When you’re young, you do your partying, you have plenty of energy. And as you grow older, you look at your trees, you do your pottery in the garden, I don’t know. I think that’s how an artist evolves as well, you know? But what should not be missing is your enthusiasm, your curiosity about life around you. That’s your inspiration

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Kidlat de Guia
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