Passing through Barangay Culiat, along Tandang Sora Avenue, Quezon City, travelers may spy at the corner of their eye what seems to be a demon with bat wings, rising above the tree-line. This is not a paranormal vision, rather it is one of the many sculptures found at the studio-home of the National Artist for Sculpture, Napoleón Abueva. In a 2000 square meter plot of land inside the Tierra Verde residential subdivision, Abueva was able to build his home, sculpture studio and foundry, and even a Gothic inspired temple and 10 ton swinging house. Although not technically considered public art, aspects of Abueva’s creations can be seen from both Tandang Sora and Congressional avenues, leaving travelers baffled of what they are seeing.
Napoleón Isabelo “Billy” Veloso Abueva (1930-2018) studied at the U.P. School of Fine Arts, under National Artist, Guillermo Estrella Tolentino (1890-1976), who was then the director of the school. Although trained in the classical style of sculpting, Abueva broke from its mold and began experimenting on modernist styles and techniques. Soon he became known as and Godfather of Philippine Modern Sculpture. Aside from the many historical monuments that are found all over the Philippines, Abueva has also been commissioned to create sculptures around the world. In his youth, he was awarded the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines (TOYM) award; which would herald more awards and distinctions in his life. He was proclaimed National Artist for Sculpture in 1976, making him the youngest recipient of this distinction. And just like his mentor, Abueva also served as dean of the U.P. College of Fine Arts.
Entering the Tierra Verde Subdivision, Abueva’s works can be immediately seen at the San Lorenzo Ruiz Parish, which is literally next door to the Abueva home, and the artist had generously created and donated many pieces of sculpture to the church. Then passing the church, visitors will notice the sculptor’s massive studio, with artworks on display on the walls and sidewalk.
At one of the entrances of Abueva’s studio, his sculpture “The Bridge of Love” acts as an archway towards the building. This playfully and naughty piece was once openly on display at the University of the Philippines (U.P.) Diliman campus, when Abueva had a studio and foundry within the campus. On the studio’s wall, there are several relief sculptures of the Filipino family and sports, which were to be used on the façade of a government building.
Entering the Abueva compound, visitors will notice the Templo at the northern side of the compound. A work in progress, which Abueva started the construction of his temple in the late 1990s, inspired by the high ceilings, vaulting and intersecting arches of Gothic cathedral architecture, mixed with the chaos that only an artist can conceive.
The Templo is wide a spacious, with many welded steel chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Despite the wide open spaces (now filled with many of the artist’s unfinished projects), visitors can get a clear sense of direction due to the many winding stairways and walkways, which lead to different levels of varying heights that one cannot consider this a building’s “storey”.
At the center stair way of the ground floor, there the images of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary, peering at the side of a column. Since the couple have their donkey with them, one may assume that this scene may their search for a room in Bethlehem or the Flight to Egypt, to avoid the soldier of King Herod. However, if you follow the gaze of Mary, it will lead to a set of sculpture of the young Jesus speaking to the Elders at the Temple of Jerusalem. This is the scene “The Finding of the Young Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:41-52), when the child Jesus was separated from his family during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and was found three days later discussing scripture with the elders of the temple.
Looking at this cluster of statues may lead the viewer to think that this Templo may be Abueva’s version of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, however at the northeast ground floor stairway, there is the sculptural set of “Abraham sacrificing His Son, Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-19). In this story, God tests Abraham’s faith by demanding that he sacrifice his son, Isaac. When Abraham was about to kill his son, an angel stopped him, and told him that God was pleased with his faith. In the place of his son, Abraham would sacrifice a ram, which he saw in a thicket behind him.
With this Old Testament story, then Abueva’s Templo does not try to emulate the Temple of Jerusalem. And this can be proven by the third sculptural cluster, at the ground floor’s southwestern end. In between two pillars is the scene of “Saint John baptizing Jesus at the River Jordan” (Matthew 3:13–17), where Jesus asked to be baptized by St. John the Baptist.
On the succeeding interior levels of the Templo, there are no other sculptures, with the exception of the roof deck. Amidst the orchids of Dr. Cherry, Abueva’s wife, there is the sculpture set of “The Temptation of Christ in the Desert” (Matthew 4:1–11). In this Biblical scene, Jesus is at the end of his 40 days of fasting, when Lucifer appears and attempts to test Jesus. Despite his weakness, Jesus was able to rebuke Satan, often citing verses from the Old Testament. After the devil leaves, angels come to administer to Jesus. The statue of Lucifer once had larger wings and would flap in the wind; however, Abueva had to reduce the size of the wings to avoid damage during storms.
Going through the four sculpture sets in Abueva’s Templo, one begins to understand the principles that the artist wishes to share with the viewer, as they go through a “pilgrimage” in the structure. The “Sacrifice of Abraham” speaks of unwavering faith of Abraham, the “Baptism of Jesus” shows us of the humility of Jesus, the “Finding at the Temple” is an example of the knowledge of Jesus, and finally the “Temptation of Christ” relates of Jesus’ fortitude in the face of weakness and temptation. And to add to the story of Abueva, there are several copies of the artist’s version of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s (1475-1564) “La Pieta”, and its power message of acceptance of one’s fate. Over the years, Abueva has made several copies of this sculpture and donated them to various churches; such as the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice in the University of the Philippines, the San Lorenzo Parish in Culiat, and the Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in the Far Eastern University.
Exiting the Templo, visitors move towards the northwest end of the compound, to view Abueva’s “Swinging House” or “House Boat”. In the late 1990s, Abueva built the 10 ton structure, as a play set for his youngest son and grandchildren, with the main “house” suspended with the chairs of a ship’s anchor. The house can sway side-to-side, as the children can imagine that they are steering a ship, with a ship’s helm (steering wheel) fixed at the top of the house. Unfortunately, by the time Abueva complete this piece, the children were too old to enjoy playing in it.
The stairs running up to the entrance of the house have a cascading waterfall, running down the side. In each level of the waterfall, Abueva placed a figure of a buxom nymph bathing in the waters. The sound of the running water was to enhance the imagination of the visitor, as they would pretend that the house was truly floating on water.
While Abueva was still active, he would jump from one project to another, while his workers scrambled to pick up with the pace of his creative fury. This would leave the whole compound littered with different sculptures, with commissioned works and personal projects piling up. After his first stroke, all activities ground to a halt. And now with his passing, these artworks stand as ghosts of the creative genius of Napoleon Abueva.
One of the notable pieces piling dust, and exposed to the elements, is the bust of what seems to be Purita Kalaw Ledesma (1914-2005), Abueva’s first patron. Considered the “Mother of Philippine Modern Art”, her statue watches silently over her ward’s creations, while the two sit together in the afterlife, chatting of the days past, and how they changed the face of Philippine art.