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Junyee ponders the universe

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Text and photos by Elizabeth Lolarga,VERA Files

When one reaches the seventh decade, there is much to look back on but visual artist Junyee would rather look forward and beyond.

Born Luis E. Yee Jr. and raised in Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte, he found himself at Grade One with several "Junior" namesakes so to make him stand out from the others, a classmate contracted his nickname to Junyee, and it stuck.

Before he entered school, he was drawing figures on paper. His father owned a general merchandise store where reams of paper were available for making brown bags. The boy was allowed first pick. His father indulged him by buying him Marvel and other color comics.

He honed his craft by copying different comic styles and models. In Grade Three, he won first prize in a school-wide drawing contest. In Grade Four, he was doing portraits, a skill that sustained him as a fine arts student at the University of the Philippines Diliman where his portrait "racket" in pencil, ink or pastel earned him P50-100. This supplemented his Napoleon Abueva scholarship.

His latest show "Dark Matter" at Galleria Duemila (210 Loring street, Pasay City) is dedicated to Abueva whom he considers a second father. He said, "I owe him a lot. I learned so much from him, his mind that couldn't keep still. From him I explored and acquired a passion for sculpture. With him I was able to focus on sculpture."

As his student, they ate together, went to school together. Junyee felt that he was treated not only as a privileged apprentice but like a son. "I dedicated my show to him. I kissed his hand (at the opening), he cried, I cried. The audience became silent. It was an emotional moment."

The show is a rarity in Junyee's career, his first after a lull of four years. He said, "I don't like exhibitions, the pressures and deadlines they cause. I've realized that some artists have regular shows for the purpose of exposure so they can market their works. That's not in my system to this day."

He'd rather do installations which galleries used to shun. Today, galleries have opened space for installations or non-commercial shows. He earns from doing functional art (furniture), designing houses and chapels in collaboration with an architect and doing the landscape afterwards.

It's like what he has done to his home at the UP Los Baños campus--transforming a rundown faculty house into something else, mainly from found materials. The trunk of a molave tree saved from a typhoon saw new life as a house post. Broken tiles were arranged into a wall piece.

The University tapped him to turn 3,000 square meters of land on campus into a sculpture garden. He has put up three orange benches inspired and shaped like an earthworm. His target is 15 sculptures spread over the land. Afterwards, UP will maintain the garden.

Simultaneous with this is the first Artists Village in Baler, Aurora, which had a soft opening in June. A project of the Juan Angara Foundation, it is on 250 hectare of forest land and has a main house where there will be space for theaters, workshops, artist residencies from different disciplines, festivals, exchange of artists between the Philippines and Spain.

He insisted on the use of indigenous materials which are plentiful in the province and which can be picked up from the forest without cutting down trees. The village will be unique for being made of found objects and retrieved wood materials.

He is also part of two ongoing group shows, one in Lipa, Batangas, to expose people there in contemporary art, and the other, "Recollection 1081," an exhibition of protest art at the Cultural Center Main Gallery done during martial law. His contribution to the latter, "Mate in Four," are anti-martial law cartoons done while he was Philippine Collegian art editor.

He is thankful for those Diliman years for opening his eyes and mind to the artist he wanted to be. It was good timing because during those years, the debate was on the question "What is Filipino art?"

This encouraged him to research on traditional images, practices and materials. He said, "If there was a time machine that would let me see what life was like in the pre-Hispanic period, I'd  take a ride in it. It makes me think what kind of art we would have developed without our colonizers."

In a corner of his house is a powerful telescope that enables him to look at the stars. Junyee said, "I spend more time pondering the workings of the universe than making art. My wife likes to tease me that if I'd just work fulltime, I'd be rich."

But at 70, he knows where the real riches lie.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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