Portrait Of A Nationalistic Artist
By Maria Concepcion Panlilio
Esteban has painted many portraits of prominent people in the Philippines throughout his illustrious art career spanning over forty prolific years. But since he immigrated to America, this nationalistic artist, whose heart remains devoted to his native land, has lost his inspiration to paint.
The man who once executed in oils thirty huge commissioned portrait paintings of Philippine Bishops in less than three months, now struggles to paint. His heart is no longer in his art, for twelve thousand miles from his birthplace, he does not see nor hear the sights and sounds that he loves about the Philippines--the very things that put the art in his heart.
Esteban longs to embrace the spectacular vision of Mount Arayat looming over his hometown Angeles City--the way he used to do while he painted under the canopy of a protective tree. He misses waking up to the sound of the crowing cocks at the break of dawn--the alarm clock of Filipino farmers planting or harvesting rice from sunup to dusk. On the canvas of his imagination he watches ordinary country folks doing their simple chores: women bartering at the public market, men on carabao backs; the silhouetted backdrop of fishermen against a bleeding sunset; and children playing sipa on the street. Ahh . . . just the simple things that can heal the aching heart.
"I sat for a long time expecting Msgr. Pedro P. Santos to speak from the painting," so begins a 1961 letter from Rev. Robert A. Rice, S.J. Ateneo de Naga, Naga City, to Esteban. "It is such a living creation," he continues. "When Msgr. Santos unveiled the painting, the expression on his face is one that I wish could be recorded for you. I can assure you that it brought to His Excellency great joy and happiness."
The Archbishop of Caceres was so impressed with the stunning life-like character of his canvas cloth version that he immediately commissioned Esteban to paint the portraits of the past thirty Bishops of Naga. The young painter was greatly challenged, not by the magnanimity of the commission, but by the extremely poor quality of the photographic source of the first Bishops to guide him in executing the paintings. "They were faded and very obscure," Esteban remembers. "Imagine, these are men who lived during the Spanish times--as early as the late 1500's." But Esteban's incredible optical perception and sheer genius and confidence in rendering true-to-life facsimile of his subjects in oils prevailed. In an unbelievable fashion, he delivered to Msgr. Santos the impressive portrait paintings of the thirty bishops in just a little over two months. The paintings now hang on the walls of the Archbishop's palace.
Inevitably, his reputation as a great portrait artist spread like wild fire in the art community. What followed was a succession of art commissions for prominent figures of families throughout the country, which included: Maj. Gen. Thomas Moorman of the U.S. Thirteenth Air Force, Congresswoman Juanita L. Nepomuceno, and the portrait of Pope John XXIII, which was hand-carried by Bishop Emilio Chinese to the Vatican and presented to the Pope.
Another gift in 1961, an oil painting of President John F. Kennedy, was sent to Washington. In a letter to Esteban, Evelyn Lincoln, personal secretary to President John F. Kennedy, states in part: "The very fine portrait that you did of the President has been received and he asked me to send you this note of thanks."
In 1963, the JAYCEES of Angeles City nominated Esteban for the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) of the Philippines for his contributions in the field of Art.
Esteban's early successes in the Philippines include the ownership of an art gallery in Balibago for ten years before winning a bid to establish an art gallery inside the U.S. Clark Air Force Base (the largest U.S. Air Force Base in Asia destroyed by Mount Pinatubo's eruption in 1991 that led to its permanent closure) For fifteen years, he maintained a monopoly of the highly successful gallery at Clark. Thereafter, he started a trucking business with a misguided thought that it would allow him to paint more. Subsequently, he and his wife, Millet, moved to the United States in 1995. Sadly, leaving the Philippines was like leaving his muse behind, and his art began to suffer.
Esteban was born on September 11, 1939, in San Fernando, Pampanga, but lived most of his life in Angeles City. Born with the gift of the creative imagination and talent, his first brush with the artistic fame began when high school students at the Holy Angel Academy (now Holy Angel University) commissioned him for a portrait painting of the private school's founder, owner and president, Don Juan Nepomuceno (the first of Esteban's several paintings of the Nepomuceno family). The late Don Juan Nepomuceno--a name that is synonymous to philanthropy, politics, religion, power and influence, was stunned by the breathing quality of Esteban's portrait painting of him that he took the young genius under his wings.
"He came to visit me at home almost everyday for two to three years," Esteban said. "Most of the time, we just talked--not necessarily about art. For some reason, he felt comfortable talking to me. Imagine the spectacle whenever my neighbors saw Don Juan's limo parked outside our modest house. He also frequently invited me to his social gatherings and introduced me to his family and friends."
We all know that an artist's genius with the brush is not enough to achieve success in the art world. The Philippines is endowed with many gifted artists whose works can rival those of the masters', but they can only dream of acquiring such a famed benefactor to provide the needed exposure. If it had not been for the Ayala family in the Philippines, where would the late Fernando Amorsolo's (Philippines' National Artist) place in the art world be? Perhaps in the same well-deserved and rightful spot, or perhaps not. But one thing's sure: having a benefactor is a gift (just like the God-given talent) of which every artist can only fantasize.
After graduating from High School in 1958, Esteban considered taking Architecture or Fine Arts, but changed his mind. Instead, he invested in oil paints and brushes and started painting professionally. Another rich philanthropist offered to send Esteban abroad on a scholarship, which he declined because of his ailing mother, and the discouragement from Don Nepomuceno. "He told me that my talent was a gift from God and if I tried to learn and be influenced by other artists' methods, I might lose my own unique style."