Multi-awarded painter Norberto Carating on art, anxiety, and growing up at the National Bilibid Prison Reservation
With reports from Devi de Veyra
If life were a Norberto Carating painting, it would be just as it is—full of bold colors, vibrant textures, and strong, visceral emotions.
The artist majored in advertising at the UP School of Fine Arts, but he also auditioned for—and received—a scholarship at the Music Promotion Foundation of the Philippines, under the wings of legendary Filipino soprano Jovita Fuentes. He didn’t finish his course, but Carating studied music for seven years at the University of the East while performing professionally as an opera singer.
Through it all, he never took time off from painting. “Pinagbigyan ko lang yung kagustuhan kong mag-perform (I just wanted to give myself the chance to perform). At age 37, I decided to focus on my art,” he says. “My last performance was in 1987, a baritone role for the opera La Loba Negra at the CCP Main Theater. That was the venue for my debut as well, in a production of La Boheme with the Metropolitan Opera of NY. Irma Potenciano played Mimi, while the male lead was Harry Theyard, whose wife was Filipina Maureen Tiongco, famous on Broadway for a role in The Flower Drum Song.”
“A terribly shy person,” Carating had been drawn as much to painting as to the performing arts since childhood. “Ang mga kinakanta ko noon mga Mario Lanza,” he says of the Italian-American tenor and Hollywood film star, whom he idolized when he was seven years old.
“Lahat ng phobia meron ako (I have all sorts of phobia),” Carating confesses. Although he kept this reason to himself until this conversation, it was why other than aptitude and passion he pursued the arts. “Ngayon ko lang brino-broadcast ‘to (Only now am I revealing this). I don’t care. I’m okay now. I know what’s bugging me.”
The first phase of his panic attacks was when he was given the music scholarship in 1973. “In 1973, it just happened. I would call my parents because I was having chills, sweating profusely… I was anxious. After dark, like when I was at a mall, I had to hurry home—claustrophobia,” Carating recalls.
He got over this first episode without having to consult a psychiatrist. But in 2009, when his mother was seriously ill, it recurred. “I stayed with my mother for seven months, just me,” says Carating, who adds that he would calm his nerves with cigarettes and coffee.
He found himself in what he considers the third period of grave anxiety when the pandemic struck last year. But no longer smoking and drinking coffee, he struggled looking for new ways to cope. “Kailangan makalabas ako ng bahay every day, kahit two blocks away ang mall, iikot lang ako (I just needed to get out of the house every day, even just around the mall two blocks away),” he says.
Carating was born at the New Bilibid Prison Reservation in Muntinlupa, where his father worked as assistant director. There, the ninth of 12 children, he was raised not only by his parents but also by live-out prisoners from the Correctional Institute. “Tine-train silato live with employee families in preparation for outside living,” he says. “Naka-hiwalay naman bahay namin. Pero matatakot ka pag nagwawala na ang mga preso. Kasunod na yung mga sirens. Tapos riot (Our house was outside of prison grounds, but it could be very scary when the prisoners were out of control, the siren would go off, and there would be a riot).”
Growing up in this milieu has had a long-term impact on Carating. He met many high-profile prisoners like Hadji Kamlon, the Tausug who fought during World War II and staged uprisings against former Presidents Elpidio Quirino and Ramon Magsaysay, and the convicted rapists of actress and beauty queen Maggie dela Riva. He also met Benjamin Mendoza, the Bolivian artist who tried to assassinate Pope Paul VI.“ Magaling siya (He was good)! He encouraged me to be a good artist. ‘Work, work, work,” payo niya (was his advice),” says Carating.
‘We all need money. I invest my money in art materials. At any given time, I have half a million worth of paint in my studio.’
“What I saw affected me, but not so much during my childhood because I wasn’t mature enough,” confesses the artist. “Madami akong nakitang executions. May seremonyas yan… magsasalita muna tatay ko (I witnessed a lot of executions. There was a ritual to it. My father would say a few words)—‘Bring in the condemned man.’ There would be three executioners, so we never really knew who among them killed the prisoner. No guilt. Before that, they would order food for the condemned prisoner. Yung iba may huling bilin, tulad ni Basilio Pineda. Sabi niya, ‘Director, ikaw na bahala sa pamilya ko.’ (Some would have some last wishes like the rapist Basilio Pineda who asked my father to take care of his family).”
Carating’s memories of the executions were not for the faint of heart—the condemned inmates barefoot on wet stone, their heads strapped in a gear lined with wet cotton, leather straps crumbling away from pressure as high as 3,300 volts, and the confined space smelling of burning flesh after the procedure. “Nakatakip yung mata at ilong, pero makikita mo yung bibig. Mag-cle-clench yung teeth, tapos lalabas na laway at dugo (The eyes and nose would be covered but you could see the mouth, teeth clenching, out of the mouth would spill spittle and blood),” he recounts.
Carating also cites influences, like Constancio Bernardo, best known for some of the earliest modern geometric abstract paintings in Southeast Asia. He was Carating’s professor in portraiture at UP. “Ang daming ginawang National Artist, pero siya hindi. ‘Yan ang hero ko. He didn’t care for publicity and all that,” says Carating of Bernardo. “I don’t care if I am underreported, underrated, as long as I am painting.”
And yet Carating believes that an artist needs to draw some income from his work. “Yung mga nagsasabi na ayaw nila gumawa ng commercial art, malaking kalokohan (Those who say they don’t want to do commercial art, that’s a lot of bull),” he says, Along with his “Anilao” series, which he describes as interior designer-friendly, he admits that his moon series and his grid-like structures are some of the works he does “for economic reasons.” “A lot of people want that kind of painting,” he says. “You have to survive, ang daming kong inaalagan, tatlong pamilya, yung mga pamangkin and mga apo ko (I have so many people under my care, three families, my nieces and nephews and grandchildren).” Back in college, National Artist Jose Joya also made him and the rest of his class realize that art should be economically viable. “Si Joya, tinuruan kami na ‘kailangan niyo ng publicity (Joya taught us that we needed publicity),’” he says.
To Carating, influences are a part of an artist’s development. “That’s how art grows,” he says. “And you transcend influences, by being aware of your own influences to develop your own style.”
In his most recent exhibition “Vivace” at Salcedo Private View, most of his works on display were a burst of colors, but his melancholy, as we know now from this interview, was ever-present in every canvas. “Those colors and strokes mask my depression,” Carating muses. “Yeah, it worked for a while. During the painting process, I felt happy and so free. But then I’d sleep it off, due to exhaustion, and then I’m depressed again. Ngayon, siguro dahil matanda na ako, nauubusan na nang serotonin (But now that I’m older, maybe I’m running out of serotonin).”
“Do I consider myself an expressionist?” Carating says. “Yeah. But other works are more impressionist, in the sense that I paint about time, I paint about the weather, the time of day… There are some paintings I do for myself, like the ones in black and silver. Some appear very calm and vibrant, but the dark colors, if you peel layer after layer, are underneath. The dark works, they’re also me. The artist’s art springs from his inner soul. ‘Yon ang aking pagka-split personality (That’s my split personality)!”
Yet, yes, even in the darkest works of Carating, there is the silver lining of acceptance, the understanding that life is what it is for every one of us. “Do I consider myself lucky?” he sighs. “I think so. I’ve had many blessings.”