Manicure, Pedicure, Rebond – Artist Jeffrey Guanlao Beyond the Gallery
February 5, 2018
The clouds were reflected in every puddle I looked at on my way to meet Jeffrey Guanlao at his home in Brgy. Santa Cruz. What synchronicity. I usually see clouds in his paintings – they evoke this distant melancholia; this sense of sonder that hurts a bit. This ache of nostalgia that bends and melts.
Guanlao’s life has never been an easy journey. In some way, this is how we crossed paths.
He and I bonded on anxiety and panic attack narratives – being sufferers of the shadows of the mind. On the other hand, we would laugh with each other on recollected comic moments of survival. I believe some people see through us because of our brilliance, and some are given the rare chance to look beneath our wounds and see the real source of light.
“Siguro kung wala ko naninguha sa salon, nagbaligya man ko tani siguro droga.”
(Perhaps if I did not strive in a beauty salon, I may have ended up peddling illegal drugs too.)
Unknown to many he spent most years of his working life as a beautician and hairstylist. When people see him for the first time, they’d always assume that he is a toughie who’d break bones to gather macho points. The second option would be an angry artist who hates sunlight.
“Tanan halos bal-an ko: mang gunting buhok, manicure, pedicure, kolong, rebond…bisan pa gani mag make-up!”
(I am skilled at almost everything: haircut, manicure, pedicure, cold wave, rebonding…even applying make-up!)
Guanlao does not shy away from his salon experience. With warm fondness, he shared how he has learned so much from his work that he takes pride in it. Through those days, he could provide for himself with dignity. In the long run, when artist Gina Apostol invited him to join one of the local art exhibits, his work provided for all the materials he needed. Endless hours of prettifying others made him learn how to really be with people – no matter what walk in life they are taking. Cutting their hair, giving them pedicure, touching them a bit softer on the nape, made him discover the depths of the human plight. His whole experience also taught him how to unlock an individual’s keyhole of joy just by listening intently.
Born naturally shy and aloof, Jeff would sometimes put his hand on his toe and squeeze it hard as he told me stories. I knew what that meant.
Still, generously, he bared his heart.
“Bata pa lang ako mahilig na ako mag-drawing. Kung akon paminsaron, siguro nakuha ko man sa akon ginikanan. Pareho sila may skill. Pero wala giid ko nila gin-encourage nga mangin full- time artist. Nagmatu-mato lang ako.”
(I always liked drawing even since I was a young boy. If I think about it, I can say that I got it from both my parents. They had the skill, but they never encouraged me to become a full-time artist. I just dared on my own.)
“Kung ma obserbar mo, permi may mga matag-as nga balay ang akon mga painting. Tungod ina kay sang bata pa ako, permi lang kami gasaylo-saylo.”
(As you can observe, my paintings always have tall-looking houses in them. It’s because we moved a lot from one place to another when I was young.)
Maybe this constant movement made him flexible and resilient. Though talented in music and skin art, he still decided to take the path uncommon for most of us – there, where he’d sometimes pretend as someone super feminine just for laughs. There, where he’d one day meet his future life partner and best friend, Iris.
“Permi man gaguwa ang presensya ni Iris sa akon mga artworks. Siya ang babaye.”
(Iris’s presence is always reflected in my artworks. She is the woman.)
The more I listened to Guanlao, the more I see this amalgam of chaos and calm in his life. The more I gazed at the details of his hands, the more I understand his hard work – his defiance. And when I looked closely to the lives inside their home, the many dogs, cats, and other animals they rescue and care for, the more I am humbled by the artist in him. The artist beyond the surrealist masterpieces.
“Nagsige-sige lang ako kay ginapati ko lang ang akon nabatyag. Wala ako gawa ga-idolize sa mga nauna sa akon ukon gasunod sunod lang sa obra sang iban kay ginatuman ko lang ang akon matuod nga panan-aw sa kalibutan kag sa kabuhi.”
(I keep on moving forward and creating by following my own feelings. I don’t idolize those who have come before me nor I imitate the works and styles of others because I just flow with the authenticity of my vision about the world and life.)
As he opened his mouth to tell me these words, I felt a great moment of connection and I was reminded of my favorite Rainier Maria Rilke’s words to a younger poet in his letter for him hundreds of years ago:
“Works of art are of infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch them, and hold them, and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations…if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights.”
Before I left, I mentioned about the clouds.
“Halin sang bata ako sa mga panganod na ako nagakadto kung nasubuan ako ukon nagamohan. Gaka-kalma ako samtang gatukib sang mga porma nila. Asta subong, kung medyo mabulubug-at ang nabatyag, galakat lakat ako, gapondo, kag magtangla.”
(Since I was a child, I’d run to seek solace from the clouds. I feel calmer when I discover their shapes and forms. Until now, when I feel heavy in the heart, I walk, take a pause, and gaze above.)