Kaleidoscope: Araceli Limcaco Dans — Her life, art, lifestyle

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By Joan Orendain

Examining Araceli Limcaco Dans’s many-faceted life, art, and lifestyle can only be compared to the multitude of surprises beheld when peering through a kaleidoscope. Those serendipitous surprises haven’t ceased to awe their viewers.

Surprising, fascinating, many-colored, jocular, a feast for the eyes, lovely. At 88, she has much to do still, and we have much to look forward to, still.

Ah yes, the calado artist, one will say in the attempt to quickly label her. She is that, but her childlike curiosity, experimentation and playfulness have wandered into many other areas of imagination and artistic endeavor, even wood, metal, and glass sculpting.

Her calado art: calado is the exquisite pineapple or banana fiber-textile finely, artfully embroidered, which has offered the artist a kind of deus-ex-machina, painting unborn children subtly into its intricate design, or slinging a swathe of the textile hanging on a clothesline, or simply employing them as corner slivers for brilliant gumamela and bandera española blooms, but always, a surprise, a touch of whimsy.

What first drew her to her early artistic forays were an uncle and her elder brother drawing to amuse themselves. At eight, she and a playmate began to draw Disney cartoon characters and the child star Shirley Temple (in the pre-Barbie doll era). Out of paper, she turned to the reverse side of her mother’s recipes. Her charmed childhood included a tree house and a crocodile from Semirara which her handsome mining engineer father (whose love of adventure she inherited), introduced to his family, but was ordered thrown into the swimming pool by her irate mother, a glamorous beauty. Their daughter inherited both parents’ good looks.

From pre-war cartoon drawings, the budding artist was enlisted to draw propaganda posters clandestinely — a guerrilla at 12!

Post-war, her father enrolled her in formal art lessons at Santa Rosa College where her teacher required an apple, for example, to be drawn in its exact dimensions and replicating its shade of red.

The discipline held her in good stead when her father forsook his family for another. While an intramural swimmer in high school at Philippine Women’s College, she drew portraits of American soldiers for a fee to support her family. Besides paying the young girl, they gave her art supplies. Grateful mothers of the GIs mailed her their thanks. In addition were also fees earned from portraits of classmates and pals, all of which paid for the family’s rent and utilities.

Spotting the senior high school girl’s talent, Fernando Amorsolo, the University of the Philippines (UP) director of the School of Fine Arts (and later National Artist), allowed her to enroll there as a special student at the Padre Faura campus before it was blasted to smithereens by Japanese, then Americans. At UP, she continued swimming on the varsity team.

Besides Amorsolo, another of her professors was the eminent sculptor Guillermo Tolentino. By then, the Fine Arts Department had moved to Diliman where her classmates were Napoleon Abueva, Larry Alcala, Juvenal Sanso, Pitoy Moreno, and Celia Diaz, whose boyfriend (and eventual Vice President of the Philippines) Salvador Laurel, drove them in his car to rural areas to paint. Pitoy Moreno’s model of choice for school dances was also his date, Araceli Limcaco, wearing his fabulous gowns and dresses.

As painfully shy as Amorsolo was (even ducking into another corridor to avoid having to converse with his students or a confrère), Araceli Limcaco was one of the few he spoke to because he passed on to her photographs of deceased subjects he didn’t want to paint himself, which portraits she painted and signed herself — such was his confidence in his student, with whom he commiserated, knowing she was having to help big time with her family’s upkeep.

It was during this time that the Ilang-Ilang magazine gave her two pages to fill — one for her illustrations for P45, and another, also for P45, for fashion designs which were copied by people in the provinces. Moreno — the future couturier — would advise her on borloloys to add, and she would follow his advice.

Immediately after graduation (which she finished in three years in 1950), she organized the Philippine Women’s University’s Fine Arts Department where some years later, Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera and other famous artists taught.

At UP, she had met a civil engineering student Jose “Totoy” Dans, whose bride she became in 1950 (it was a busy year). Ten children came one after the other — artists, writers, an impresario, and a famous physician.

Keeping her children busy and entertained, she filled cartons with paper, seashells, other curiosities, from which articles they expressed their own creativity. Going to school entailed loading them as well as a few neighborhood children into a van, the girls off to Maryknoll and the boys to next-door Ateneo. Four boys got tuition discounts because their mother taught Art and formed the grade school’s Art Department. The experience led her to organize the Philippine Art Educators Association, working with teachers in both private and public schools all over the country. Going the distance, she developed a television series of art education shows for grade school children.

Her husband held his own, building homes including their own large Japanese-style abode. As kind of a joke, Totoy Dans and his pals named the company they formed Erectors, Inc., where he was president, and his wife, whom he re-nicknamed Cheloy to rhyme with Totoy (her former nickname was Celi), was treasurer.

Many group shows succeeded her first solo exhibit in 1960, but in 1986, she broke through with a solo exhibit at the Museum of Philippine Art, half comprising her finely limned portraits, and the other half, calados inspired by “the nationalist in me,” and by 19th century painters Damian Domingo and Simon Flores, among several other Filipino painters of that era. A book written by Sylvia Mendez Ventura, Leonor Orosa Goquingco, and her daughter Maria Araceli Dans Lee, describing depictions of the textiles’ “luminous beauty,” wrote that “Araceli Dans and calado became twin sisters, just as Picasso and cubism were twin brothers.”

Two years before her calado epiphany, in 1984, her husband completed the Light Rail Transit (LRT) running from the South to the North across Manila from Baclaran to Caloocan-Monumento, where Tolentino’s fervor-stirring The Cry of Balintawak stands about three or four storeys high. The LRT is now 34 years old with nary a breakdown, unlike its more modern MRT counterpart. He was Minister of Transportation and Communications, the durable LRT his own monument.

High society and members of nobility may have come out of curiosity to her one-woman exhibit of 47 Flowers and Lace paintings in 1994 at the Ville Musée Fragonard in Grasse, the home of France’s perfume industry. But they certainly left in awe — admiration for work from a far country’s art and artist.

One of France’s largest newspapers, the Nice-Matin wrote of Dans’s “embroidered paintings”:

“They are beautiful. They are not ordinary. The watercolor paintings of Araceli Dans, who is from the Philippines, will leave even the insensitive with nostalgic thoughts of romance and love for beautiful things.

“The new exhibit at the Ville Fragonard is an outstanding hymn to nature against a unique background: the traditional lace embroidery from her Southeast Asian country, woven from pineapple fibers. The fine texture from the tip of her paint brush combines with flowers, trees, sea shells. Inseparable from her femininity… the lace is sometimes tissue like, often soft, always transparent, always evoking light and purity.”

Viewers there were disappointed that none of the paintings which had so impressed them were for sale. But on her return, she was proud to tell a reporter that others from elsewhere now realize that “we Filipinos have our own high form of art, that we certainly have our own culture, and that we can hold our own vis-à-vis other international artists.” Moreover, the exhibit helped to underscore the fact that Filipinos are not meant to only be domestic helpers and caregivers.

She regards it as odious that Victorio Edades is compared to Gauguin, our artists’ work ranged against foreign artists’ famous paintings, citing Amorsolo’s farmers, women bathing, and washing laundry at the river. Botong Francisco used Filipino models. All have been proclaimed National Artists for their outstanding works.

Interspersed with painting and exhibiting them, Araceli Dans took voice lessons and appeared in several plays, an activity curtailed by her husband who didn’t cotton to the idea of seeing his wife in another man’s arms. Some years after he passed away in 1998, she was back on stage, performing as actress and singer in a Nestor Torre-directed play. She also drew all the art work for a children’s book by Torre. The collaborators are close friends.

In the many other chapters of her life, all through the years, the educator in her has helped young and not-so-young artists and even sculptors, come into their own. She does not seek them out — they come knocking, she welcomes them, honing them into fine artists, spending time with them, critiquing and mentoring. Much laughter intersperses the learning sessions.

In her large Baguio split-level home, they paint, pig out, talk into the night, guffaw, sing. During turtle-hatching season, they paint the wee ones crawling out to sea at Montemar in Bagac, Bataan.

During the Christmas season, it’s her family’s turn, when all 50 or more, whoever can make it, make a pilgrimage to a faraway Philippine resort.

The mammoth retrospective exhibit of her works in 2011 filled several floors at the Ayala Museum, with 185 paintings — portraits galore which had to be borrowed from their owners, calados and other still life paintings, drawings, prints, as well as works in various media from the family collection, several private collections, and from Philippine Women’s University and Ateneo de Manila University.

Describing the creative process, the born artist-teacher says:

“Artists must demonstrate sensitivity — the ability to absorb their environment; flexibility — to adjust to new situations; fluency — producing ideas quickly; originality — seeing things in a new light; the ability to abstract — putting things together in a more meaningful way. ”

What happens to you personally when you are creating? “You undergo a metamorphosis of ideas which become sharper over the years.

“When you’re painting, you go into very deep reflection, rationalizing your life as you paint, sometimes even meditating through it. First, an artist is subjective, then objective, subjective again, and finally, objective. This process allows for a lot of flexibility.”

The discipline she imposed on herself at an early age is with her still. She rises at seven or so, has breakfast, showers, and by a little after eight in the morning, she is at her easel in her studio beside her bedroom, surrounded by glass panels that let in the light, offering a lovely view of flowers in the garden and her for-fun living room annex.

Awards galore crown her career including the 1999 Centennial Awards of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. As National Artist for Dance Leonor Orosa-Goquingco wrote, “Her paintings, and the painter as well, are destined for immortality.”