Another Kind Of Valentine: The Works Of Luis Ac-ac
When I was a kid, my mom used to take annual trips to a town that sounded foreign and familiar at the same time. It was called Paete, a lush inland town in Laguna, situated along the scenic Laguna de Bay. Paete was a Tagalog word, I was sure, but my shameful vocabulary translated it to bitter, a cutting English word. More than its lore, or its art, what first drew me to the town was an unfortunate—though intriguing— translation of its name. My mom would leave early in the morning and arrive at nightfall with a wood carving that depicted a typical rural scene: sometimes it was a slab of wood with a farmer etched into the grain; other times it was a religious figure—typically Mother Mary with a doll’s eyelashes, sad eyes, and a rosary entwined around her praying hands. Sometimes it was varnished, sometimes it was raw, but the wood was always a distinct ochre shade—a color so singular, I still remember it from my childhood days.
Paete takes its name from paet: the Tagalog name for chisel, which gives away its artisanal heritage. It’s a town of craftsmen and carvers, and has been for hundreds of years. Carvers from these parts have won major international competitions and, in some cases, have trained with some of our national artists. The typical Paete town hero isn’t a revolutionary or a sportsman, he’s a carver.
Master craftsman Luis Ac-ac comes from this tradition. Mr. Ac-ac is the town’s proudest product and its modern-day hero. His art and legacy have been immortalized in two compelling platforms—a coffee table book entitled The Life and Works of Luis Ac-ac by Celestino Palma III (arguably the seminal text on the subject), and the Museo Ac-ac, which was just inaugurated on January 31, 2018. Both commemorate the life and times of the craftsman, and trace his “sculptural tree” or artistic lineage to the late 1770’s, which was when Paete came into history as a carvers’ town.
Mr. Ac-ac renders the same traditional scenes as his forebears: folk tales, biblical tableaus, and rural backdrops—all the big, sweeping themes. But Ac-ac is also master of the small scene: haranas, oracions and elopements. He’s the maestro of the tender local portrait: the fish and lambanog vendor, the young family stowed on a tiny warp of a boat, and children at play. Wherever there’s an Ac-ac, you can also be sure there are lovers: whether caught in the throes, or just about to kiss. In all cases, the woodwork is evocative, nuanced, and true to the moment.
When asked what distinguishes Mr. Ac-Ac from those who came before him, town Mayor Rojilyn “Mutuk” Bagabaldo says that he makes the wood dance. His aren’t stiff tableaus, they’re moving stories. This could owe to the fact that Mr. Ac-ac was a former komiks illustrator, and that his first art was illustration. In his early years, he preferred drawing over sculpture since it was easier, less time-consuming, and cheaper. An apprentice of stalwarts Ramon Caguin and Berting Baldemor, as well as National Artist Napoleon Abueva, Mr. Ac-ac was also a Norman Rockwell fan and spent his adult life illustrating for various presses and an advertising agency.
It was only in the 80’s that Mr. Ac-ac returned to his true calling: wood carving. He means to return younger craftsmen to their traditional Paete ties—to the figurative and not the abstract, the traditional and not the Western. Widely-lauded and awarded for his superior craftsmanship, Ac-ac could very well be a future national artist.
February is the month of love for every kind of consumer, but Mr. Ac-ac’s work makes the case that it can also be the month of love for the artist—not just for his depictions of romantic love, but also his depictions of its many other forms: motherly love as seen in his soft, breastfeeding mothers; fatherly love as depicted by his young padre de familia keeping his family aloft on a moving carabao, or even a young boy’s love as he keeps time with his parents during an oracion. Above all, his is the love story between an artisan and his craft: the curve of his chisel and the thud of his mallet pounding shapeless wood into a tender masterpiece.