Sunday, September 25, 2011

Environment and Art: Nature in Murals at SPUQC

Environment and Art:  Nature in Murals at SPUQC
By Abe V Rotor

Tropical Rain Forest

Watershed, Wall Mural, St Paul University QC, AVR 2001.
The murals has suffered rapid deterioration due to direct
exposure and neglect.

Nature represents the idea of the entire universe in a state of perfection. Nature is one: it unites heaven and earth, connecting human beings with the stars and bringing them all together into a single family. Nature is beautiful; it is ordered. A divine law determines its arrangement, namely the subordination of the means to the end, and the parts to the whole.

After putting down my brush, I took a view of the mural from a distance. The scene – unspoiled nature – one spared from the hands of man and typified by the tropical rainforest, flowed out from a wall that was previously white and empty.

In the course of painting the mural, which took all of seven days and in the days following its unveiling, I took notice of the reactions of viewers. It must be the stillness of the scene, freshness of its atmosphere, and its apparent eccentricity that attract passersby as if in search of something therapeutic. It seems to slow down busy feet, soothing tired nerves. There is something I thought was mysterious beyond the levels of aesthetics. For the huge scene is a drama of life completely different from city living. It is respite. It is transformation from concrete to greenery, from cityscape to landscape.

Yet, I found it difficult to give it a title and an explanation that captures both its essence and message. This time many ideas crowded my mind. At the start of my painting labors, the challenge was how and where to start painting. Now that it is completed, what else is there to say after one has “said” it all in colors and lines, hues and shadows, perspective and design? What more is there to declare for after the last page of a book? For a painting, it is the same.

Relaxation did not come easy for me after many hours of concentrating on my subject, dealing with a fast-drying medium of acrylic. What made it more challenging was the unending attempt to capture those fleeting impressions and recollections that pervaded my mind as I painted. I then took a pen and slowly wrote my thoughts. From the mural, I saw the scenery of my childhood on the farm, views of my travels here and abroad, imagery from my readings, and views drawn out like a thread from the mass of a golf ball. It was imagery and memory working jointly.

Tropical Rainforest Model

I chose the tropical rainforest scenery since it is the richest of all ecosystems in the world. The Philippines, being one of the countries endowed with this natural wealth is a treasure, indeed. For this reason, I believe that, the tropical rainforest closely resembles the description of the biblical paradise. It is not only a living bank of biological diversity; it is the most important sanctuary of living matters on earth.

To paint such a big wall is no easy task. It is not unusual to face a blank wall, literally speaking, and not knowing what to do first even with all the colors and tools on hand – and a predetermined topic in mind. Shall I start at the center and move outward, or from both sides slowly progressing inward? Or do I divide the wall into parts, working on them one by one, then unifying them at the end?

…and Heaven and Nature Sing

Christmas was already in the air and the Siberian winds were bringing in the chills. Carol music was now being played in malls, schools and homes. I was engrossed in my work when some students, watching me paint, sang a familiar song. On this particular occasion, something about the song chimed inside me, directing me towards the central theme of my mural.

“…and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.”

- Joy to the World

What does this mean? Is it the idea of nature representing the entire universe in a state of perfection? Or is it nature as one? Does it unite heaven and earth? Does it connect human beings and the galaxies as one family?

Little did I know of my ecology. As a subject I teach in college and in the graduate school I depend much on formulas and equations, principles and case studies. My knowledge about the environment is structured and formal. I use module maps or course syllabi based on accepted teaching techniques and references. My approach was comparative analysis. I was a judge of the beautiful and ugly, the do’s and don’ts. At times I am a Utopian; at others, conformist.

Little did I realize that the order of Nature is not merely determined by natural laws applied as ecological tenets, but as a divine law which determines its arrangement, the subordination of the means to the end, and which the assimilation of the parts to the whole. Many of us are ignorant of this law, or if we know it, seem to forget or disregard it as we relentlessly work to exploit the earth.

In our apparent failure to preserve nature, perhaps it is time to look at ecology with the essence of this popular Christmas song – a song that makes everyday of the year, Christmas. Ecology is “heaven and nature singing together.” Only then can we truly understand the term, balance of nature – a kind of dynamic equilibrium that leads to homeostasis where there is stability among interdependent groups that characterize natural processes, and the period in which they take place. The ultimate conclusion is always a balanced system. We have to look beyond books to understand biological diversity, and its application in nature, to find the common phrase: In diversity there is unity. The general rule is that the wider the diversity is in terms of number of living species, and in terms of the number of natural species and their habitats, the more closely knit the biosphere becomes, resulting in a richer, more stable environment. Undoubtedly, all this is part of a grand design inspired divinely.

A Hole in the Sky

Looking at the mural from a distance one notices a darkened part of the sky, apparently a hole (though this is not the ozone layer pierced by CFC pollution). It gives one a feeling that it is a tunnel to infinity as if to link both earth and heaven. Through this hole, one envisions a Higher Principle. From the foreground, which is the placid stream of a downward meandering river, its tributaries and banks lined with trees and thickets, the eye soon reaches the forested hills and mountains shrouded by clouds.

But it does not end there. Here the cloud is a curtain laden with the radiance of the sun, and the life-giving provenance of rain, useless each without the other for life on earth to exist. This is the crossroad. The cloud opens with a backdrop of infinity. The universe, whose limit is unknown, bursts open a foreground that reveals a whole drama of life on earth. After that, the eye repeats the journey. In the process, the viewer becomes sensitive to the details of the painting. He searches for things familiar, or situations that later become a new experience.

Creatures in the Forest

Creatures in general are not as visible as they appear in books and on the screen. They blend with their surroundings mainly for predatory anticipation and protective camouflage. But there are other reasons too, that are not well understood. Take the case of the butterflies. Their beauty is extravagant for their basic function as pollinators. Fish jump for mere pleasure, dragonflies have wings that split light into prisms. Birds stay in the sky longer for the sheer joy of flying, and not just to cruise in search of a prey.

Among the animals suggested to me while painting the mural are flying lemur, Philippine monkey, heron, monitor lizard, boa constrictor and hornbill. I painted these - and many more, the way I imagined them in their natural habitat. I put a touch of Noah’s Ark, painting them in pairs. For the rodents, ducks and doves I made them in amiable groupings that exude a familial atmosphere.

Whenever I see viewers seriously searching for these creatures with walking fingers, I am tempted to add to the collection of creatures, making them even more difficult to find. But that might change the ambiance to fun and puzzle solving, rather than of meditation and recollection.

People in the Mural

The trees and the massiveness of the scenery dwarf the characters in the mural. They appear mindless of events and time. They care not for the chores of the day. Those who are engrossed fishing with a simple hook-and-line do not show excitement even as they land their catch. Others patiently wait for a bite. There is a sense of tranquility and peace to all characters, whether they are promenading or just passing the time away. Their faces show only the slightest hint of anger or sadness.

I noticed viewers trying to identify themselves with the characters of the mural. Some construction workers envision themselves fishing. High school students are drawn by the promenades. But there are those who simply imagine themselves part of the scene. “This place is familiar to me,” one would say, apparently recalling provincial life. “We have flying lemurs in Davao,” says another.

Where does the water flow, and what does the mural mean to us? Water is everywhere. It is free to flow. Tributaries abound as if there were no limit. Trees are everywhere and far into the backdrop is a vast virgin forest. There is no sign of man’s destructive hand. At the foreground is a placid pond where Nymphaea and lotus grow. It is in contrast to the lively pulse of the river. This is a corner where life is peaceful and serene. It is here that we draw strength in facing the river and beyond.

What really is the message of the mural to us?

Quite often, images of nature enrapture us. These are reminiscences of childhood, a re-creation of a favorite spot we may have visited or seen, or products of the imagination greatly influenced by the society we live in.

These images reflect a deep seated biological longing to be part of nature. Putting it in the biblical sense, it is a natural searching for the lost paradise. They are a refuge from city living, a respite, and an escape from the daily grind.

But these images do not only tell us of what we are missing. Rather, it reminds us what we are going to miss, perhaps forever, if we do not heed nature’s signal towards a fast declining ecosystem. If we do not change our way of life from too much dependence on consumerism, to one more closely linked to conservation of nature, we may end up building memories and future archives of a lost world.

The warning is clear. The painting challenges everyone to do his part to save Mother Earth so that her beauty is not only kept in the form of images, but a scenery of real life enjoyed by us and future generations. ~

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