My visit to Baguio last week was a pleasant shocker. After dozens of visits to the summer capital in my lifetime, I thought I had seen everything this charming destination could offer, until I went with Sydney friends Edd Aragon and Menchie Maneze to the BenCab Museum along Kilometer 6 in Asin, Tuba.
National Artist Ben Cabrera — the BenCab himself — greeted us at the gate, and after taking some photos by the museum entrance, we went in. I was immediately charmed upon entering the lobby where large art pieces greeted us and I knew this was going to be a special treat to my artistic senses.
The museum building is multi-level, made of glass and steel. To view all the exhibits, one must take the stairs four floors down. On the top and bottom platforms are viewing decks decorated with sculptures and outdoor paintings, and a breathtaking view of the entire property.
In full panorama are thousands of trees on a steeply slanted hill that is at least a couple hundred feet tall. Between the museum and the hill is a valley of streams, lily ponds and pathways that lead to large gardens and hidden delights such as waterfalls, orchards, fishponds, small gardens and little Igorot huts scattered throughout the property. Strewn randomly but artfully about the huge property are carvings in stone, wood and petrified rock and lots of bonsai. Within this magical kingdom are also the studio and living areas of the artist himself.
We were lucky to have been accompanied on our tour by BenCab himself. He knew every detail of the place by heart. He described every tree planted, every patch of land beautified, in a continuing conversation from the time we arrived, through lunch, and until we left the premises four hours later.
I gathered that it had been BenCab’s dream to build a site like this for sometime. Walking with him around his property, I realized that, in this case, the artist was a creator in the grandest sense of the word. He has not only created artworks that have delighted his international audience, he has also created entire landscapes, environments, ecologies and mindscapes — worlds, if you will — in this generous sprawl of nature.
It was a special delight listening to BenCab, who allowed us into his creative universe pointing out his art pieces and giving us the background of each. He spoke intimately about the paintings and sculptures, including those that were not his own creations. Bulol statues that occupy an entire wall, ancient Igorot wooden pieces — bags, rice containers, harvest vessels, etc. — displayed in a huge room are really impressive.
A valuable bit of trivia I learned from the artist himself is that Paul McCartney actually bought one of his paintings in Ermita when the Beatles played Manila in the ‘60s. Sir Paul paid P70 for it. The sale transpired while the artist had stepped out of his gallery. To Bencab’s dismay, no one in the gallery had taken a picture or even had thought of asking for an autograph from the famous buyer. Years later, when BenCab wanted to include the sold artwork in a book he published in London, he wrote to McCartney who acknowledged he still had the painting and even sent a photo. The title of the work is “Fishing in Sexmoan.”
A friend who had visited BenCab’s museum a few months ago described it as “world-class.” I would have to agree. It isn’t just a nice or impressive place for Baguio or the Philippines, it is comparable to great museums we have visited in other parts of the world, such as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for example.
There was a small but steady stream of visitors when we were there who, like us, were enjoying the exhibits, the outdoors and the café. Once in a while, BenCab would gamely pose with them for pictures or autograph a museum flier. Marveling at BenCab’s capacity to create something as maddeningly beautiful as this, I realized that not everyone shared my appreciation of the place. I am hoping that local officials see the value of the great art and heroic effort in an investment of this magnitude that honors, propagates and preserves man’s higher longings.
A few tax beaks would certainly encourage more investments in fine and worthy projects like the BenCab Museum that uplift our sensibilities, instead of the crass materialism of golf courses, theme parks, malls and parking lots.
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For the first time, I am offering an Advanced Photo Workshop on March 10, 2012. This will be in a location where we will shoot under different sets of lighting conditions with a model. For details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 426-5375 or 0916-8554303 to reserve.
View to a thrill: The breathtaking view from the top floor of the museum.
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