To his colleagues and friends in the industry, he is known as the “Maestro” (master). Having spent most of his life painting, his mastery of the art is, indeed, unquestionable.
Romeo Mananquil, also known as Romi, discovered his passion for the arts early in life. In fact, he learned how to draw before he learned how to write. The discovery of a world-class talent came when he found his father’s old painting of the Caloocan town hall and some old copies of “Liwayway” magazine—one of the oldest magazines published in the Philippines—with Fernando Amorsolo’s artwork on the cover in his aunt’s old “baul” (chest).
When he opened the old chest, it seemed like a whole new world had opened for him as well. He was fascinated by what he saw. Using the little money he had, he immediately bought paper and excitedly copied the paintings and the comic series in the magazine using a pencil. “Right there, I made up my mind that I would be an artist,” he said.
From then on, he never stopped creating art.
Painting a colorful beginning
He was just 10 years old when he got his first art commission for a school project. “I was ecstatic. It was a big job… a colored map of the Philippines in paper mache on a whole plywood. I labored on it for days, but I felt so fulfilled when I finished it and my customer was very happy with it. I got paid seven pesos (less than a quarter in CAD), which to me was a big, big amount,” said Romi.
He was, then, just a boy who was happy with seven pesos; a boy who did not know yet that one Mananquil painting would cost much more in the future.
Publicity came right away for Romi. His work was first published in The Torres Torch, the official publication of Torres High School in Tondo, Manila. Eventually, he became the paper’s chief artist. But young Romi did not just excel in the arts and extra-curricular activities. He also excelled in academics.
Because he was the best student in his class and graduated with honors, he didn’t have a hard time getting admitted to the prestigious University of the Philippines (U.P.). He was one of the first to major in Illustration in U.P.’s School of Design, alongside other notable artists like Daniel H. Dizon, Ruben Nicdao, and National Artist Benedicto “Bencab” Cabrera.
During his university studies, he also met the person who would become his mentor—Professor Jose Joya, one of his teachers. As Joya’s protégé, Romi assisted in many of his teacher’s artistic projects, like painting the backdrops for the ballet presentation “Giselle” at the Rizal Theatre and a mural at the new mansion of big-time punter Felipe Ysmael. “I was his first choice (among his students that included Bencab) as student assistant for bigger commissions. Once, he gave me a job he couldn’t do and asked Bencab to be my assistant.”
To Romi, Jose Joya was the most encouraging teacher. The professor knew that his student’s talent had no limit and that he would go far. Despite that, he taught Romi one important thing: “[He told me], ‘do not overwork, you should know when to stop.’”
Becoming the ‘master of art’
Because his talent was ready for the world to see, “Liwayway,” the same magazine that first introduced him to the world of the arts many years ago, hired him to do illustrations before he even finished school. After graduating with Latin honors from U.P., he continued working for the magazine and became one of the country’s most illustrious artists. Romi also became a respected teacher at U.P.’s Fine Arts College.
In the 80’s, Filipinos across the country would see his work. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) hired him to design the 1985 flora and fauna series of banknotes and coins together with two other artists. He was the artist behind the first two-peso Bonifacio decagonal coin, the Balagtas 10-centavo coin, the one-peso tamaraw coin and the Tandang Sora five-centavo coin. He also designed the now discontinued green five-peso Aguinaldo bank note, the tri-hero 1000-peso bank note, and a 500 pesos Marcos bill that never circulated.
He also became famous for using the dry brush technique when illustrating for magazines back in the day. Many artists who were his seniors and were more famous than him even copied his style.
Starting with a blank canvas again
At the height of the Marcos movement and also his career, Romi decided to leave the Philippines with his family. “I thought I have to do something for my family in that kind of situation,” he said. He had the opportunity to meet the Canadian Consul General at the time, and he and the Consul General immediately became good friends. He used his newfound friendship to be able to bring his family to Canada. “I was able to get immigrant visas for all of us in 3 months.”
Starting a new life in a foreign land is never easy for many, and Romi couldn’t agree more. “For the first time, I experienced job hunting, applying, and getting rejected for the strange reason of being ‘overqualified’ and not having ‘Canadian experience.’ I finally got hired as an artist in a flag factory when I cut down my education to ‘high school graduate,’” says the Maestro.
Having taught art courses back home, Romi eventually got hired as an art instructor at the Hilltop Community School for Continuing Education in Etobicoke, Ontario, and also conducted workshops in oil painting for Etobicoke School of the Arts. In 1989, he also got a job as a graphic artist at the Yellow Pages Group.
Looking into new horizons
It was his feature in Filipino newspapers as the artist behind the flora and fauna Philippine banknote collection that led him to meet and be recognized by other artists in Canada. “That signaled the need for binding together,” Romi said. Together with his new friends, he joined Pilipino Artists in North America (PANA).
In 1988, he reorganized PANA and renamed it as the Philippine Artists Group (PAG), which later became the Philippine Artists Group of Canada. He became the organization’s first president and served for 14 long years.
Art was the only thing that connected Romi to his life back home and he wanted to share that connection with other Filipinos in Canada. “The PAG was organized to unite Filipino artists practicing their art [and] to primarily promote and showcase Philippine visual arts in this part of the world,” he explained.
No matter how prestigious it may sound to be a president of an organization, Romi admitted that becoming the leader of a struggling group was a daunting task. “As president of a new struggling group composed of ultra sensitive members, I had to swallow my pride many times just to keep the group alive. To top it all, nobody wanted the job, and so for its first 14 years I was at the front line, doing most of what was to be done and getting most of the heat,” he said.
Despite all the challenges, Romi remained strong for the group and said he would not have traded the experience for anything else. “Now I feel fulfilled seeing the PAG as a robust and respected group in the community, especially now that more and more Filipinos are starting to patronize Philippine art through the PAG,” he added.
Romi’s hard work in promoting Filipino visual arts in Canada was recognized when he received a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal, which is a commemorative medal awarded to Canadians who made significant contributions to their community. In addition, the PAG now has more than 20 members, including young Filipino artists, and holds shows and exhibitions all throughout the year.
Appreciating the greatest art of all
After years of service to the PAG, he decided to hand over the reins to another person. “I felt that somebody had to take over, so the PAG could shift gears and freshen up,” he said. However, he still wanted to continue looking after the group. Today, he still serves as an advisor to the organization.
Romi also decided to leave his career at the Yellow Pages Group to retire. But even though he is retired, he still has lots to do. “I just retired from my regular job. There is no retirement [when it comes to] being an artist, a househusband, a father, a grandfather and a family man.”
He spends most of his time now conducting workshops in his basement studio, supporting the new PAG officers, and enjoying every moment in life with his family. He is happy that he now gets to spend more time with his loving wife Necie, who has been at his side for almost four decades. Romi said that even though he looks up to artists like Juan Luna, Fernando Amorsolo, Botong Franciso, John Singer Sargent, Nicolai Fechin, Carolyn Anderson, Robert Coombs and Richard Schmid for inspiration, his greatest influence and inspiration is his wife.
“When I was pursuing her, I used to include her in my illustrations for Liwayway, whenever I can,” he fondly recalled. “Her likeness is always there when I paint Philippine women… There is something of her in practically all of my paintings,” he added.
When asked about his plans for the future, Romi Mananquil, the master of art, said he would place everything at the hands of the true Master. “Whatever is next, God will guide me.” Following his mentor’s advice to know when to stop, the master of art is putting down his brush to finally appreciate the greatest art he created—his life and his wonderful journey in it.