Culture Art

Elmer Borlongan swept floors and erased blackboards to earn the privilege of learning under a master

The artist, who now commands six figure sums, walked into the class of Father of the Philippine Art Workshop Fernando Sena four decades ago, ready to do anything to learn and succeed. Grateful for the privilege and his 40 year old friendship under the elder artist, he organized a show with his fellow mentees in Cubao.
Nana Nadal | Apr 04 2019

“Elmer Borlongan, I believe will someday become a national artist,” declares Fernando Sena in front of the crowd at the Children’s Museum and Library, Inc. (CMLI) Reunion Show reception. The event featuring his former students and spearheaded by Borlongan, also marked Sena’s 71st birthday.

It’s been more than four decades since Borlongan started under Sena’s tutelage but the teacher’s admiration for his student has not waned. Speaking mostly in the vernacular, Sena, also known as the Father of the Philippine Art Workshop remembers being impressed by the 11-year old Borlongan on the first day of classes. “I immediately saw that he had talent.”

Fernando Sena and Elmer Borlongan during the exhibit reception of “Noon at Ngayon” The CMLI Reunion Show is his former students’ tribute to him so it was scheduled on his 71st birthday.

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The young Borlongan religiously attended Sena’s workshops. “I witnessed his progress, how he improved over time,” says Sena. “He was hardworking, kind, creative, and determined. He told me he wanted to become a great artist, so I guided him.” 

“Mr. Sena was encouraging. He would never make you feel like you’re doing something wrong. He would be all-praises. So when I was in his class, I had no inhibitions and no thoughts of whether my work was good or bad, I just enjoyed the process,” recalls Borlongan who conversed in Filipino.

Much gratitude was directed towards Elmer Borlongan for making the reunion show possible. His other philanthropic acts were also mentioned. He credits his mentor, Fernando Sena for teaching him to give back. In the photo are his pieces, “Bata at Unggoy”, oil pastel on paper (1978), drawn on the back side of a poster. And “Rematch”, acrylic on canvas (2019).

He would come to class without materials and Sena provided everything—the pastels, pencils, watercolor. “I didn’t even have a sketch pad, instead I used the backside of posters that Mr. Sena would collect from the CMLI office.”

The workshops covered all medium. “Mr. Sena was generous, he taught us everything from the proper way of holding a pencil, to shadings, techniques, and drawings. He never held back anything and whenever I had questions about my work, he would always be willing to lend me a hand, especially when it came to coloring,” says Borlongan, a multi-awarded artist whose works are much sought-after here and abroad.

Fernando Sena told his audience that in his life, he aimed to be three things – a painter, a comedian, and a priest. He is able to combine the three when he teaches art. He makes his students laugh so they don’t get bored and he incorporates good values into the lessons.

Sena puts emphasis on “sharing of colors.” For Borlongan, this took meaning beyond the canvas. “Mr. Sena would always tell me that someday, I should share with others what I learn from him. That really left a mark on me.” The 52-year-old mentee also says that the septuagenarian also mentored other artists even outside of CMLI, including multi-awarded Tarlac painter Ferdie Montemayor and figurative expressionist Joy Mallari.


Student becomes teacher

In exchange for free tuition at Sena’s CMLI classes, Borlongan became Sena’s assistant—erasing blackboards, sweeping the floor, and tagging along when Sena would go around depressed areas to educate the indigents on art. They would go to Antipolo, Tondo, Sapang Palay, Novaliches. “He taught everyone, and despite the flooding in Malabon, he would still go there to teach. I saw his dedication and he really became a role model to me,” the student raves about his teacher.

Elmer Borlongan has staged numerous exhibitions in the Philippines and abroad. He received the prestigious CCP Thirteen Artists Award in 1994. He won the Metrobank Foundation Award for Continuing Excellence and Services in 2004. His works are part of the public collections of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, the Singapore Art Museum, Pinto Art Museum, and BenCan Museum.

Borlongan was so inspired that, at 12 years old, he conducted his own art classes in his community, for children who could not afford to travel to Sena’s class. “I would memorize Mr. Sena’s lessons on Saturday then the following day, I would gather five of our neighbors in a small room in our house. I would set up visual aids, a blackboard, and still life and imitate how Mr. Sena teaches. I also allowed them to use my extra art materials,” he relates. Borlongan accompanied his students to art competitions. “I felt so happy when they would win,” And then he started to understand why Mr. Sena did what he did. 

"Portrait of A Chinese Woman”, oil on canvas (1967) and “Pandesal sa Cabinet”, acrylic on canvas (2019) by Fernando Sena, also known as the Father of the Philippine Art Workshop.

Borlongan eventually took up Fine Arts major in Painting at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. Sena was instrumental in this move. “I was thinking of taking up Architecture. When I consulted Mr. Sena, he said he spent years teaching me how to draw freehand then I will go to college to use a ruler and T-square?,” he laughs.

“The teacher is not always a teacher,” acknowledges Sena. “I also picked up a lot from Elmer. I only provided him the foundation, his basic training. I don’t keep secrets from my students because when they grow I also learn from them. Their success becomes my driving force to paint more. And when they become famous, I feel I’m a shadow that’s still part of who they are.”

Click on the arrows for slideshow

“Si Lola, ang Organista ng Quiapo Church”, oil pastel (1980s) by Mitzi Aguilar-Reyes. 

“Sa Kusina”, graphite and charcoal on ingres paper (1980) by Texas-based Cecille Solidum Lelina, who was a student of Fernando Sena in 1978 and continues to incorporate arts in all aspects of her life. She loves details in nature and draws inspiration from her garden and her travels. 

Si Lola, ang Organista ng Quiapo Church”, oil pastel (1980s) and “Evening to Dawn in Winter”, mixed media (2018) by Mitzi Aguilar-Reyes, a professor at the Department of Visual Communications, College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines. 

“Kulay ng Nakaraan”, acrylic on canvas, (2018) by Ferdinand Doctolero. 

“Unang Oleo”, oil on canvas (1978) by Ferdinand Doctolero who has been showcasing his art since 1978. His works are exhibited as permanent collections of banks and museums. He also designs and illustrates children’s books. 

“Nude”, 6b pencil (1982) by Andy Abu Urag, , a multi-awarded artist who is a member of “AKWARELISTA”, Art Wednesday, Tuesday Group, Art Association of the Philippines, and IWS Philippines. 

Harbor Light”, acrylic on canvas (2018) by Andy Abu Urag. 

Bayanihan”, acrylic on canvas (2019) by Jun Rocha, a recipient of the Outstanding Community Artist Award from the Mayor of the City of Chicago in 2001. 

“Three Graces”, acrylic on canvas (2018) by Joy Ann Cabanos. She teaches watercolor, drawing, mixed media and origami, and is a regular visual arts critique for various annual Teen Arts Festivals in New Jersey. 

“Rest House”, oil pastel on paper (1980) and “Siesta” 01, acrylic on canvas (2019) by Rolly Acuña, art group Salingpusa’s founder and leader during its formative years in the mid 1980s. 

Despite their busy schedules, they have kept in touch through the years. Occasionally, Borlongan would still assist in Sena’s classes like the one conducted for juvenile delinquents at the Bacoor municipal jail. And instead of bonding over pancit luglug in Quiapo like they used to, they get together for breakfast to catch up these days.

“Elmer is like family to me. He still calls me for advice, I see to it that I am always supportive of him. He helped put my kids through school and reiterates to my children that he is ready to provide assistance because I helped him with his art many years ago. Maybe that’s why the lord has placed him where he is now because he is loving to his parents, has faith in God, and is humble. He is like a tree bent to the ground, reaching out to the soil that nourished him,” describes Sena.


“Noon at Ngayon: CMLI Reunion Show” features a collection of past and present paintings by Fernando Sena’s former CMLI students. Aside from Borlongan and Sena, the other participating artists are Rolly Acuña, Joy Ann Cabanos, Ferdinand Doctolero, Cecille Solidum Lelina, Pol Mesina, Jr., Mitzi Aguilar-Reyes, Jun Rocha, and Andy Abu Urag. The exhibit runs until April 17 at Sining Kamalig in Ali Mall, Cubao.