Junyee: The Artist-in-Residence of UPLB
Written by: Kist Ong
That Saturday morning, as I anticipated my meeting with Mr. Luis “Yunyee” Yee Jr. at his home within the UPLB campus, I prepared my questions, tape recorder, and a bag of fruits repeatedly, making sure that I would not leave anything behind.
The fixed time to start the interview was three o’clock in the afternoon but I went there 15 minutes earlier to make sure that I was not going to get lost or be late. Two cars parked outside left only a narrow pathway towards the house’s entrance. Climbing up the stairs, I saw a screened door that I had already seen before. As I knocked, peeked, and asked if anyone was in the house, a dog came barking violently at me. Rose, the Yee’s house helper, tried to appease the stout dog named Tungaw. With a failed attempted to do so, the master of the house came down, dealt with Tungaw and opened the screened door. “Hello dear, please come inside.” He told me smilingly.
The 66 year old Junyee was wearing a dark green cotton shirt with a pair of shorts and slippers as he welcomed me into the living room. He let me sit in one of his artworks that served as a sofa and as an exercise bed for his wife, Dr. Maritess Yee, who is a professor in the university. After offering him the fruits I bought for him, which he refused to accept at first, we sat down on the wooden art piece under the big ceiling fan. The living room was wooden all over. The shiny timber floor took me back to my province in Leyte which made me reminisce more because of his distinct Visayan accent.
There were so many artworks, such as a poem written on a painting hanged on the wall, a rain-maker as tall as the ceiling, and another that looked like a big wooden mouse trap that once held a structure with rivets metrically bolted away from each other giving a medieval look, showcased across the living room. One object particularly stuck out through. It was an old barber’s chair, with yellowish white cushions embraced by metal, rusty and old. “I just wanted one. My friend’s barbershop had gone bankrupt so he was selling his equipment so I bought the chair,” he said enthusiastically while looking at it.
The house’s interior was renovated by Junyee; he took out the dividers of the bungalow house and added extensions to enlarge the rooms, installed stairs going down to the kitchen and to its right, a special working area. “My house is like me. You won’t be able to notice me if you just look at the outside.” He continued saying that people who came in would be in awe after seeing the interior of the house. An ABS-CBN production team even tried to rent his house for Php 35,000 per month for Judy Ann Santos’ soap opera. His disapproval led them to rent the house near his instead.
Being the first and only artist-in-residence of UPLB since 1985 carried a lot of work. “Busy in the sense that they have to consult me on so many things not just in the culture, but also in the beautification of the campus, or projects,” he said while looking at the distant window. Receiving the Artist-in-Residence Award for UPLB given by the UP Board of Regents would make me think that the perks would be overflowing, but in reality, he said that the only perk he gets was just the honor of being the one and only. Among the other awards he received was the Most Outstanding Citizen of Los Baños Award (ART), the first and only one given in the town’s history in 1999. “For me I feel great because I’m not from this place but they still gave me the award so I feel so proud.”
After he was given the Artist-in-Residence Award, he was able to establish the Sining Makiling Gallery and his proposal got approved for a College of Fine Arts and College of Medicine to be put up here in UPLB. “I feel that a university should be a complete one.” With that said, he strongly believed that UPLB should also have a strong cultural element. People outside the university should not think that UPLB is associated only with agriculture.
And now, living for almost 34 years in UPLB, he has learned to call it home. It was also where he met his wife though they do not have any children. It was love at first for him when he decided to help deliver copies of the Philippine Collegian to UPLB. It reminded him of his province in Agusan del Norte. “This is really home for me.” He said surely.
Ever since he was a child, he knew he had the artist’s blood flowing in him. “One time, I tried to remember my earliest memory as a child. I go as far as four years old then my memory is that I’m holding a pencil and I’m making drawings.” Eager to hear him narrate his story, I asked, “Scribbles?” “Not really. Strangely enough I did not pass through the childlike drawings like most children.” “Ah, like those stick drawings?” I engagingly asked him another question. He said that he jumped into something more defined. “It has always been there since so I have no doubt.” But unfortunately, his father, a Chinese businessman, wanted him to pursue a course in business. While his mother, a devout Catholic, wanted him to be a priest. He left his family in Agusan to study in UP Diliman because it was there that had a College of Fine Arts. He had to do different part-time jobs just to support himself everyday because his father would not. It was a good thing though that he truly had the skills of a great artist that enabled him to win various competitions and achieve awards and thus, survive.
Rose came in with a tray on top of which are a glass of water and a glass of RC. “Rose, this is Kath. She is a student here.” Junyee said to the house helper. We said our greetings then Junyee narrated his preference over Coke. A country’s economic situation does affect everyone.
Schools can be training grounds where one’s talents, skills, and technical knowledge can be honed and nurtured to its best. But the school can never teach you to have a talent. “You were born with it,” he said. And sometimes if you do have talent, it’s just not enough. Inspiration is also being considered to fuel one’s creative output and with all the competitions that he had joined, acquiring inspiration for some artists may be a long and difficult wait, but for Junyee, it came quite easy for him to design. “Inspiration is comparable to taking a pee. You just go with the flow,” he said as I laughed and then continued with his analogy. According to him, he had a good relationship with his brain for ideas which he was thankful for. Making an artwork for the public-sculpture competition, with the grand prize-winning entry to be installed at the Holocaust Memorial Park in the Municipality of Rishon Lezion, Israel is something that other artists would usually concentrate on for days or even weeks.
The entries had to convey the Philippines’ kindness in accepting Jewish refugees from Nazi tyranny in Europe. He would not even know about it if it was not for his friend who asked if he already passed his entry. “What entry?” Junyee recalled laughingly. So for only three days, he was able to think of the specific materials to be used like metal sheets and how it will be done then submitted his entry one hour before the deadline. He later emerged as the victor. The mock-up monument that he passed had three open doors ascending in height creating a triangle which is the triangle of the Philippine flag. “The doors also symbolize Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The doors open inwards and ‘meet’ in the middle of the triangle, where a light feature that represents the sun in our flag will be switched on every night.” This was proof of his ability to not reply on just pure inspiration. I praised him and he said, “hindi ko masasabing magaling ako pero magaling kasi yung gift na binigay sa akin, (I would not say I’m great but rather, the gift given to me was great)” while looking at me with a hearty smile.
As an all around artist, who paints, sculpts, does architecture, and writes poems, one writer said that Junyee is also acknowledged as the pioneer of installation art in the country in the 1980s. Installation art is a new art expression using indigenous materials and elements put together in a wide space to come up with a cohesive idea or image. But when asked what installation art is to him, he honestly pointed out that it was a difficult question. “But it’s really creating a new environment,” he said. His audience not only comes from the Philippines but also from other countries such as Japan, France, Cuba, Hong Kong, Australia, and a lot more. For him, his art is avant-garde.
Junyee is not a conservative type of artist and does not do what other artists have already done. He himself barely replicated or uses similar techniques on his work. He loves to explore other arts and doesn’t box himself with just one for a lifetime. “I think it’s a waste of time,” Junyee said. And when asked what separated him from other artists he said, “I’m original. I don’t copy other artists.” He also thinks that art should not be a business. “I always considered art making not as an enterprise, not a livelihood.” According to him, other artists repeat something which have clicked to the masses and start a business with it. But he’s not like that as his clothes and house showed. But because of that, he related the difficulty that he and his wife had during the early stages of their marriage for installation art could not be sold. But then, he now says that they are doing well.
I barely noticed the time when it has already come to ask my last question. “If wood is to art, then Junyee is to what and why?” “Humanity, Kath,” he said promptly after which he explained. Being an artist may not be a practical way of living since some would think that jobs with big salaries are better in order to be successful in like. But it’s different with Junyee. He knew he wanted to give something back or contribute to humanity. And when he came to realize that he first needed to start with himself, he put into flame all of his valuables such as his cedula, certificates and awards, diplomas, books, and art materials. He even recalled burning love letters he had received. He showed that he did not need material possessions and wanted to start all over again. He only left three pairs of pants. “It was the happiest moment in my life,” he shared. I asked him if he ever regretting burning all those things. He happily said that he didn’t but he did share that he encountered a problem when he had to go to another country and couldn’t leave because he burned his cedula. (My teacher inserted a comment that we don’t need cedulas to go to another country. Obviously I didn’t know that. hihi) Our laughter filled the room. Until today, he hopes to change the world through his art, little by little, in due time.
The living room soon seemed alive as he explained some of the displays. His character and originality present among his pieces were truly a sight for the eyes. Tungaw had then already fallen asleep near my feet while the glass of RC served to us by Rose has become warmer. I was now realizing the giant that my interviewee was. And being one of the few senior artists in the country, it’s sad that the younger artists of today are not aware of him. “It’s a long journey, the artist never retires.” An advice he had for them.
I turned the recorder off and out it inside my bag then stood up. It was then that I noticed he did not have any white hair as I was looking at him while he reads a text message from his cell phone. I wonder why?
I left the wooden house of artworks, with all smiles, as Junyee led me out and then closed the screened door only to find out that the tape had ran out of recording space.
*****I wrote this interview last September 5, 2008 as a major requirement for my ENG-5 subject in UPLB. This is my ONLY paper that got such an impressive score from my teacher, Ma’am Beng Espinosa (where are you ma’am? XD). She even told me to submit it to the university newspaper. It’s “publish” material kuno. 😀 zzzzoooo flattered teh.
I hope this reaches young artists in the Philippines. I hope it inspires you and helps you see the real purpose of being an artist here in our country.
Here are some other articles featuring Mr. Junyee and his creations.
Junyee currently has an exhibit entitled DARK MATTER at Galleria Duemila until 28 July 2012, 210 Loring Street, Pasay City, Philippines. If you need more details regarding the exhibit, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website or call (632) 831 9990 / (632) 833 9815.