Gold on junk wood
When my client, the owner of a soon-to-open downtown hotel that brands itself as both green and heritage conscious, told me that they needed something to decorate the big wall of the lobby but don’t have the budget, I suggested that we make art out of the junk that was all over the construction site.
And since there were all sorts of discarded wood littering the place, I told her we could turn them into two gigantic pieces of wood mosaics, a diptych or art that’s meant to be a pair. I thought of making a homage to the ordinary Cebuano working class and made a hurried sketch of a couple—a farmer-wife gathering corn (Cebu’s original staple food) and her fisherman-husband carrying a big tuna on his shoulders. This pencil sketch evolved into a more detailed study in acrylic on paper.
Since I did not really have much time, I figured I could just hand over the study to some foreman and let his workers blow up the drawing to fit the size of a whole plywood and then cut and glue the assorted wood shards selected according to the color guides in my study.
When I visited the site to check my artwork, I found that most of my specifications were not followed. So I ended up doing most of the work anyway, actually redoing it to make it easier for the workers assisting me to cut the wood without power tools.
Still, we had to use at least a jigsaw to cut the silhouettes of the figures on the plywood base. But most of the cutting was done with an ordinary saw. I had to do the finishing with a few chisels, chipping out layers of old plywood to reveal a more interesting rough texture or even a change of tone underneath.
Wood mosaic is challenging because you have to rely mostly on whatever material is available. Since the wood shards we had were limited in color, I ended up using wood stain to achieve certain tones. Unlike paints, which cover and destroy the natural texture and color of wood, wood stains simply enhance the natural tone of the wood without changing its grain or surface quality.
Still, I’d like to add some gloss or glitter to some parts to balance the predominantly rough surface of the materials. And since my client still had extra gold leaf that we had used in other projects in the hotel, I decided to use it to layer some parts of the mosaic.
Gold leaf is a very thin sheet of gold that is used to layer furniture or artwork. It is first glued to the surface using special adhesives and then burnished carefully with a cloth rag or even a sliced onion, as our master painter Kimsoy Yap told me.
In the Middle Ages, the artist monks that made the bibles before the introduction of the printing press in Europe used gold leaf on the little paintings or illustrations and on the other decorative elements of the beautifully hand-lettered pages. When hit by light, these pages glitter and shine literally, thus symbolizing the presence of the Divine Light or the Light of Wisdom. The books thus exude the light of the heavens and it is for this reason that those little paintings that came with the calligraphy were called “manuscript illuminations.”
The Medieval artists and craftsmen were so delighted by this power of the gold leaf to dazzle the viewer and induce mystical musings that they used it profusely in icon paintings and furniture of both Church and royalty.
I was excited at the thought of giving my rather plebeian subjects in the mosaic a kind of regal treatment by adding gold leaf on them. I imagined how that pair of mosaics, made mostly from discarded wood, would shine and glitter in the glow of the spotlights.
I like how the whole tradition of using gold leaf, as seen locally in Spanish-era liturgical art and aristocratic furniture, is now reversed to make ordinary folks look like royalty. When the Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted peasants and workers, he deliberately enlarged their arms and legs to suggest that political might remains latent in the working class.
“The masses are Messiah,” the Filipino guerrilla poet Eman Lacaba said. Indeed, God has promised to be always with the poor and oppressed. We just have to be alert for when the salt of the Earth glitters.
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