ARTSPEAK: Justin Nuyda (1944-2022)

Published July 5, 2022, 10:38 AM

by Ramon E.S. Lerma

Mindscapes of memories and meaning

Ramon E.S. Lerma

As he made his way around the gallery the day before the opening of his last one-man exhibition, “Chrysalis,” Justin Nuyda stopped in front of one of his canvases and noticed a white spot so minute that no one would have ever caught it. “I will bring paint tomorrow,” he quickly announced to the group. “It bothers me.”

And so, he did. Brush in hand an hour prior to the vernissage, the late master, arguably one of the last modernist pillars of abstract expressionist Philippine art, filled in with a flourish that minuscule gap in one of his “Mindscapes,” pushing it closer toward his definition of aesthetic perfection.

It is that same serious resolve coupled with utter humanness that sticks in my own mindscape of memories of Tiny–an ironic nickname, truly, for a giant in his field.

I, like many of his friends and admirers, had hoped for that same spirited determination to power him through his daunting health challenge; and for over two years, in what could truly be seen as a test case of “mind over body,” it seemed that he was succeeding.

Nuyda at work

Many others would curl up, shy away from contact, or sink into depression upon receiving a diagnosis of stage four cancer. But not Tiny, who instead decided to “pay it forward” to paint more works, the auction sale proceeds of which he would donate in its entirety to the Kythe Foundation, to help younger patients with the same condition as he gained for them psychosocial support to help face their illnesses and improve their quality of life. In filling the gaps in the lives of others and facing his own reckoning of mortality, Tiny found that very rare and sublime confluence of art and meaning.

At the same juncture, Tiny also opened the doors to his studio when my then 16-year-old son Joaquin started his social enterprise “Bid for the Future,” seeing how their shared aims of working out challenges by harnessing the power of art was not merely a lot of palaver, but was in fact wholly realizable. He made a young man’s dream a reality while redefining his own legacy, and for that I am supremely grateful to him and to his beloved daughter, Ayni.

Much has already been written about the storied life and career of Justino Suntay Nuyda, whom many referred to as Tiny. His first solo exhibition was held at La Solidaridad Gallery in 1967 on the invitation of his friend and fellow artist, Alfredo Roces. He had in fact been invited by Arturo Luz, later National Artist, for an exhibit at his eponymous gallery but, gentleman that he was, he had already accepted Roces’ invitation and so had to gracefully turn down the offer to show at the more prestigious space. Part of that vaunted first batch of CCP Thirteen Artists Awards recipients, Tiny would of course be accorded an invitation to exhibit at the Luz on future occasions.

If there is anything that clues us into the essence of Tiny, it is to understand his appreciation of butterflies. He had begun going on butterfly-hunting trips around the Philippines at the age of seven–-this fact alone providing insight into his background and upbringing. Later in his career, the lepidopterist would go on to pioneer butterfly studies in the country, having newly discovered species named in his honor, and assembling a collection that has been recognized by some of the world’s most well-known natural history museums, such as the Smithsonian.

Justin and Joaquin

It takes a high degree of passion to study the insect, let alone an almost obsessive compulsion to gather such a trove. Researching the invertebrate’s minutiae, right down to the microcosm of scales that make up the butterfly’s wing surface, Tiny loved to enthuse how these combined to create jewel hues and tones that, had it not been for nature showing these possible, the human mind would never have imagined them.

Tracing the butterfly’s wings in the air at that penultimate vernissage, his arm’s movement paralleling the creature’s characteristic flutter and lift, I still remember my epiphany as I gazed at the gorgeous surrealist landscapes that he had conjured, the undulating layers of oil sheer painting alchemy, and saw how his strokes mimicked the flight of the butterfly—gossamer light, fluid, effervescent, soaring. In my head, Tiny’s art had come full circle, and in that moment of sheer inspiration, he was that same butterfly, emerging from the chrysalis of his condition, transfiguring into an uplifting vision.

As we bid farewell to Tiny, we take comfort in the knowledge that his search for meaning—our search—has not come to an end. It continues to take wing, soaring in our mindscapes today, and I am quite certain, in those of generations to come.

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