On this Day of the Dead, I do not want to be morbid, so I stay home and do some gardening as I watch over the welder I hired to create the wrought iron pot plant holders I intend to suspend from the windows of our house. My optimism plunged a bit after he turned down the welding goggles I offered him, insisting instead on working with a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses. The future’s not so bright for this man.
While most of the neighbors leave early in the morning for the cemeteries with their cars packed with camping tents, iceboxes, and bunches of flowers, I was excited to hang my own flowers from the windows of our house. They are flowers meant for the whole year round, not for the Necropolis but for those of us who are still living and trying to ease the gloom of the urban jungle.
I showed the welder photos from my phone of similar potted plant holders hanging from the windows of apartments in Paris. The Parisian residents unglamorously live in tiny pads that leave almost no room for greenery. And yet, they find a way to use every little space there is to fill, by doing vertical gardening, turning balconies into pocket forests, or using wrought iron plant holders suspended under the windows. When the flowers bloom, they turn the facades of buildings into lovely vertical gardens, adding to the peculiar beauty of the City of Lovers.
I try desperately to add that little Parisian touch to our typically kitschy Contemporary Asian-whatever inspired suburban townhouse. My wife asks whether we should plant flowers or herbs. Flowers, I said. She was a bit surprised and, perhaps for a second, wondered if I had not changed my sexual orientation.
“Artists need flowers,” I said, to which my own artist daughter agreed. I instantly remember my own mentor, the late Paquito Jumawan, a self-taught painter in Surigao City who maintained a flower garden right next to his studio. The flowers were not trimmed but were just allowed to run wild in the garden. They attracted butterflies, bees, and other insects.
Along with seashells that he collected, these flowers became his favorite subjects for still life painting, which he did in between more ambitious paintings, like political paintings that ranged from political assassinations that happened in our city during Martial Law to the EDSA Revolution.
As a young boy already obsessed with drawing, I would frequent Mano Paquit’s (as Surigaonon artists fondly called him) studio to observe him work and hear him talk about art and the crazy lives of artists. This we did over coffee or a shot of Kulafu (I had my initiation into the world of art with those first sips of caffeine and alcohol.) As we talked, we would listen to classical music, jazz, or old Spanish love songs next to the flower garden where my eyes would sometimes stray from viewing wall after wall of Mano Paquit’s paintings.
I visited Mano Paquit when he was already seriously ill. He had just given up painting which obviously made him depressed, although he tried to smile and occasionally crack a joke. We had our last conversation right next to his garden which had been overgrown with weeds and covered with mud from the flood caused by a typhoon.
He died about two years after and I was not able to attend the funeral. I wrote about him in this column and sent it to his family. His daughter married my uncle and thus became my aunt. That was the closest connection we had, although as artists we had that common bond that was stronger.
It was a friendship based on shared love for great things like art, democracy, nationalism and little things like coffee, tribal masks, seashells, and flowers. For most men, flowers belong only to women, the sick or the dead. But for artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, or my friend and mentor Mano Paquit, flowers symbolize life.
In Paquit’s wild garden, flowers pop up from the mess and filth to offer us beauty. Desperate to restore a sense of order and beauty in the chaos that is their own lives, artists can only try to paint flowers and hope that through them they could exude that sense of delight and joy to others.
Thus, I celebrate this morbid day by planting flowers.
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