Elmer Borlongan is a name that brings much recall here and abroad. His pieces are coveted by collectors (the ealier Borlongan, the better), his shows attract the luminaries in the arts and society. As a young man, he happened upon one of Fernando Sena’s art classes. He was very quiet in class, and did not mingle much with peers. He could not afford oil paint refills, so the young painter would pick up tubes left on the floor by more well-off classmates.
As the art teacher Sena observed all these, he saw potential in the future social realist. Eventually, the quiet lad would flood his teacher with many questions on technique, style, and even art history. Suffice to say, Borlongan owes the beginning of his career to Sena, a man who has remained low-key over the years.
Sena is dubbed by the press as the “Father of the Philippine Art Workshop.” He devotes more time to training young artists than to staging his own exhibitions. “There is money in painting," he says. "And an artist who knows their talent can get rich if all they did was paint. But artists have a social role, too, to teach. I don’t hold secrets. I don’t hold back on teaching painting techniques.”
Videos of his lectures are available on YouTube. Most of the press coverage of his workshops peaked in the 90s, with the news clippings framed around the Buenas Artes Art Facility, the current headquarters of his works and workshops.
Still life; still, life
For his own paintings, the teacher's choice of subject is as humble as his persona: the pan de sal. Pan de sal on their own, solo. Pan de sal as a bunch, on a plate. Pan de sal gathered on the foot of a ketchup bottle, like angels gathered around the Virgin Mary, complete with the lighting techniques used by religious painters.
Sena frequently paints the bread as “a leveler of society,” served as it is in humble homes and five-star hotels alike, served at breakfast or eaten as an afternoon snack. He has been painting these over the decades. One of his more recent portraits depicts a pan de sal by a desktop PC.
The shantytown is another Sena subject. In his younger days, the color palette was darker, grittier. Depicting these subjects today, the tones are strikingly similar to what he uses in his still life paintings of flowers, another of his favorite subjects: bright, effervescent, suggesting joviality.
For Sena, beauty can be found in places where one least expects it, and that life in the shantytowns can have joys not found elsewhere.
Sena relates to Borlongan’s background, growing up in Tondo, Manila. As a boy, he would work in the morning before afternoon classes. The school would also hire him to paint murals of national heroes. At the cemetery, he would do the lettering of the gravestones. His little legs would carry him from Ongpin street to the Manila Cathedral, selling newspapers and komiks, hawking candies, and shining shoes.
Sena developed a love for drawing, watching his father recreate movie posters and panels from the komiks which were popular then.
“I used tinting color, a cheaper substitute for oil paint rarely mentioned in art books. When I got more jobs, I began buying oil paint.” For canvases, he would use discarded flour sacks from a nearby bakery: “All you had to do was stretch the sack on plywood and fill-in the holes with starch paste and you had a canvas for painting.”
The sights and sounds of pre-martial law Manila, emerging from the devastation of World War 2, heavily influenced Sena's subject matter. These would leave lasting impressions that would mature with the artist: the grit, grime, and glory of a city and its people in the process of rebirth. “I had to do all these odd jobs so I could continue painting, so I could spare money for the materials.”
Sena almost didn’t graduate from high school since the family couldn’t afford the ceremonial barong Tagalog and dress shoes. Only when money arrived from relatives abroad could they buy these luxuries, and only the secondhand variety.
Sena has always seen himself as a teacher. During his younger days, he was aiming for three professions: priest, painter, and comedian. In teaching painting, he is able to act on all three, with his pun-infused lectures, constant education in the practice of painting, and most importantly, helping people believe in “their God-given creativity.”
The main reason he learned the whole range of painting techniques and mediums was so he could teach better.
His workshop HQ is a space for artists to help their colleagues. His students stay at the studio to volunteer, welcoming newcomers, organizing workshops, and handling the administrative work of the Buenas Artes Art Facility, funded by former students from all backgrounds. Mothers, former inmates, corporate executives; all joined forces to give Sena a space to exhibit his own works while continuing the workshops.
Still, the mentor in Sena prevails as the facility is known for hosting the works of up-and-coming artists who’d otherwise remain in obscurity if they relied on major galleries and mall exhibitions.
Sena’s classes – often free of charge – are his way of paying forward, and expression of gratitude for all the help he received from the Children’s Museum and Library, Inc., which sponsored most of his fine arts scholarship in the University of the East. Upon graduating, Sena began volunteering at the nonprofit to help them conduct art classes.
He recently completed a book on the basics of painting techniques: what he envisions as his enduring contribution to local art education, intended for use by teachers outside Metro Manila.
For updates on events, exhibits, and workshops, visit https://fbsenabuenasartes.com/