Sunday, April 15, 2012

hello, beauty

The air is cool and crisp, and the scent of freshly-mown grass hangs heavy in the twilit air. The musical accompaniment, a duo from Bataan that sings old Filipino love songs called kundimans, prepares discreetly at one corner of the long wooden balcony that encircles half of the hotel and overlooks the rising pine trees and the gently rolling hills of the Baguio Country Club.

Guests mill around the space in front of my grandmother's exhibit, aptly named Ala-ala (the Filipino word for memory), the men in their suit jackets and the women in their pearls. In front of the exhibit area, a woven screen of sinamay hangs heavy. Instead of a traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Guest of Honor gets to yank a string and the curtain is pulled up, simultaneously releasing a cloud of rose petals upon the guests below.

We've been in Baguio, one of the cities in the Northern part of the Philippines, a city built on the side of mountains, for about a week now. When it's dark, you can see the lights blink into existence across the surface of the slopes, like stars embedded in rock. The weather there is cooler - you need to wear wooly hats for warmth and tuck your fingers into your jacket before night falls. My grandmother is having another art exhibit, and the whole extended family knows the drill well enough by now that it we've taken for granted the fact that she's an artist.

(An aside: here's the thing. When you are young and you are surrounded by canvas and flowers and lace, a part of you thinks, "I am very lucky to grow up like this." But as you get older and things start becoming jaded and critical and [dare I say it?] disenchanted with things, you find that it just becomes another part of your life, not really examining what it is and what it means. But [But!] whenever you round a corner, or something catches the corner of your eye and draws you to it, some unexpected moment of wonder, and you find yourself looking at a frame containing a painting your grandmother made, then you remember what is beautiful. And then you remember that yes, you are incredibly lucky.)

Once all the VIPs have gathered - including the mayor of Baguio City, the president of the Baguio Country Club, and National Artist BenCab - we pause, hanging near the row of tables where small mementos of the exhibit are being sold. (Not everyone can afford one of her paintings, after all.) Speeches are made and my mother introduces my grandmother, who welcomes everyone the way a gracious hostess welcomes guests into her house. We all applaud politely. My nephew Rafa gurgles, passed from cousin to cousin to aunt to yaya like a squishy ball.

And finally, the woven cloth is lifted up, the crowd applauds politely, and the music plays on. (The rose petals take a bit of nudging before it falls to the ground, tumbling pink and white and red petals raining on unsuspecting passers-by.) We've seen the paintings more than once, those of us in the family, but we hope that the audience looks at the paintings with fresh eyes. The music rolls along, and we start dancing and laughing and singing along. Lights shine as cameras attempt to capture each moment, carven into our imaginations and in each second that passes by. Even the official camera crew, the ones with the boom mikes and large lights, train the lens on us as we hold our own small party.

See, this is the thing about beauty - there are some things that can't be captured by the paint brush or by the camera lens, or even by these words. They are insignificant. These words are either too large or too small to encapsulate the whole experience. The exhibit was not just about the beauty of my grandmother's paintings, but the beauty that she created with us, her family. And as cheesy as it might sound, this is the legacy she'll eventually be leaving behind. It's not just the paintings, or the student's she's mentored and helped, or the attention she's drawn to art and art education in the Philippines. She's created a work of art in her family as well - yes, we might be dysfunctional sometimes, and some relationships might be broken, but we're still good together.

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