Month: February 2016

Tatay, part two

I am sad to report that Sotero Nieves, aka Tatay, died last night at the age of 107 and 10 months. He was two years and two months shy of his goal. While I am sad, I am also happy. Happy that I knew him, happy that I learned from him and happy to be a part of his large, loud, funny, multi-generational family. I am an honorary Philippino (yes, I have actually eaten bagoong, the traditional fish paste). I will share more snippets of memories in the next post. For now, allow me to tell you a story.

(FYI, Tatay was married to Nanay for over 70 years. For a while she lived with one of their sons very close to where we lived.)

The day was a stressful one from the moment I woke up. I was super worried about a family member, had several errands to run including a dentist appointment, and then had to be in downtown Baltimore for a meeting in the afternoon. I was driving home from the dentist, and needed to stop at the food store for a couple of things. As I approached the entrance to the market, I came up behind the local county bus dropping off some passengers. I waited patiently until it was finished, then realized that two of the passengers were Tatay and Nanay. I honked my horn and waved, then prepared to continue driving to the store. The next thing I knew, Tatay was walking over to the car and getting into the front seat. I hastily moved stuff out of his way (I have a tendency to live in my car). Nanay, paused outside the car, not quite knowing what to do at this point. I turned and moved stuff off of the back seat so she could have a place to sit as well.

All this while, there was a running commentary going through my head…”Damn, I didn’t mean that I would give him a ride, I have so much to do. I can’t tell him to get out though, he’s 90 for God’s sake, how rude would that be? Will I go to hell if I just drive away really quickly before he gets into the car?”

Needless to say, I acted with grace and poise.

“Tatay, I need to stop at the store before I take you guys home.”

Yes, I was hoping he would say that he couldn’t wait…no luck…

“Oh good,” he said, “I have a prescription that I need filled.”

It seems that I had been trumped. But I tried again.

“I can’t sit around and wait for it, I don’t have time”.

Nope…that didn’t work either.

“It’s okay, you can just give it to the pharmacy, I will have my son pick it up later.”

I was truly defeated. I went into the market, leaving them in my car, then drove them to their respective homes.

I learned two things that day. One is that the culture in the Philippines is a much more welcoming one. Families are connected to each other like a spider’s web. If you aren’t related, you are friends with the relations. People give each other rides without thinking twice. Tatay had no idea that it was considered rude to just get into someone’s car without being invited, in his mind it was an unstated invitation the minute that I honked and waved.

The other thing I learned was that Tatay could be extremely manipulative to get what he needed. And what he needed most was wheels. He needed to get out of the house, to feel a part of society. All his family worked during the day and for a few years he relied on taxis, public transportation and the goodwill of friends to get him around to his various commitments. After his granddaughters got old enough to drive, they became his personal taxi to doctor’s appointments and errands. He was never shy about asking for a ride.

Epilogue to Part 2.

This story has prompted gales of laughter from his family for many years. I have told the story many times, and each time it has been as funny as the first. So, when I saw him a couple of days ago, I asked if he wanted to go for a ride to the store and, despite having one foot firmly across the threshold between life and death, he nodded. His family members who were present, erupted into laughter. It was a fitting way to say good bye to him.


Here is a picture of Tatay at my open studio in 2006, just after I finished the lion sculpture. He was 97. He was one of my biggest fans.



Tatay, part one

This is the first in a three part series, a series of snapshots of a man that has been an influence in my life. A magical man, someone I have been honored to call Tatay. In the Philippines, Tatay means grandfather and is a title of honor, of love. I met him when he came to visit, and later live with, my neighbor Fé, his daughter. He was already in his late eighties when he came here.

Snapshot #1

“Come with me to the Howard County Arts Guild meeting on Thursday night.”

I inwardly sighed and bowed to the inevitable. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with Tatay, it’s just that I was (am) an art snob. I knew that the Guild was filled with retired people who were happily finding their inner artist. I was in my thirties, and working as an artist/craftsperson full time, reaching for the higher echelons of the craft world.

“Okay, Tatay, come over and I will drive us.”

At the time, Tatay hadn’t quite turned 90. He had come from the Philippines to live with his daughter, my neighbor, a couple of years before. He was still painting with oils, still playing the violin in the “Goldenaires”, a band of retired and aging amateur musicians. He was frustrated by not being able to drive, by being alone all day, by being old in a country that despised the old.

Except he wasn’t old. Not really. All I had to do was look at my parents to see old. And they were 10/15 years younger than he was. Tatay’s inner spirit kept him young. I had a lot to learn from this man.

At the appropriate time, Tatay walked over to my house and we got in my car and drove to the Arts Center. My memory of the meeting is a little fuzzy, I think there was a talk given by one of the members, there may have been a show of works and then it was time to sign up for a membership. Quite frankly, I am not a joiner, I don’t often become a member of organizations.

But Tatay had other plans.

“I will pay for your membership for the year”.

I felt humbled and awkward. I couldn’t say no, it would hurt his feelings. And looking back, I realized that Tatay wanted to reach out to me, to him I was a fellow artist, to him I was family. There was no agenda (beyond the fact that he would have a ride to the meetings, but that’s another story), he was merely doing what he would have done for anyone in his family. And I was honored and embarrassed and I accepted.

I honestly don’t remember the details of the meetings we went to. I got very little out of them. But I watched him with the other artists, it was obvious that I was not the only person who admired him, who fell under his spell. Everyone wanted to say hello to him, and he thrived on the attention.

I don’t think about this time very much, but when I do, I see him walking across the divider between the two houses right on time, happy to see me and happy to be going off to be with his friends. And I know that while my driving him to the monthly meetings was a gift, it was by no means a one way street.


Epilogue to Part One.

A year later, Tatay gave me a Christmas present. This was our house during the snow the previous winter. He had gone out and taken a photo one day and painted this from the photo. Normally, his paintings are bright with saturated colors, the colors of the Philippines. But he toned down his palette a bit in order to capture the “gloaming” of the winter evening.



I have been told by my doctor to baby my wrist, it seems I have developed a sprain of sorts. An X-ray ruled out a break but I nearly fell off the examining table in pain when she had me try to push against her hand. So, five pound hammer and steel garlic are put on hold while I let the wrist heal a little bit.

I admit I am a bit whiny but the good news is that there is so much to do in the studio that does not require heavy lifting or bashing metal. Yup, you guessed it, it’s experimenting time! I am currently working with steel dust/rust and fabric. It has come to my attention that the amount of moisture and the length of drying time really changes the outcome of the staining process on paper so I have been working with those factors with the fabric as well. The nice thing about the fabric is that it is not as fragile as the paper. I can scrunch it up, crease it, poke holes in it, sew things onto it…the list is endless. It is also more durable for displaying. I just have to figure out how to do that…but that will come with time.

I, needless to say, am having a blast.


In other news, I had a commission for one of my rust paintings recently. A customer wanted a triptych for her long dining room wall. She liked the triptych in the studio but it was too big and the interesting stuff would be hidden by her dining room chairs. I said I could make a smaller “upside-down” version and that I would install it for her.

I generally dislike commissions, I feel a lot of pressure to get it just right which then makes the whole process less enjoyable. It took me a couple of tries (and this is where I learned about the time/moisture quotient to the staining process) but I ended up creating a really nice triptych. I have installed it in the customer’s house and I am happy to report that she is THRILLED. It wasn’t such a bad gig, she fed me chicken soup and chocolate cake…I think I made out on the deal. Maybe this commission thing ain’t so bad after all! (hint hint…)


in situ in the dining room

News from around the house:

Because of the recent house painting we had done, the curtains were down in the guest room. Otherwise I might not have seen this guy eating the holly berries…



Have a great weekend everyone!

from the studio

Wow, the studio has been humming lately. I am full swing into experimentation, creation and mentoring.

First, I brought out some old cotton napkins that were slightly stained from all of the abuse they received over the years. Experimenting with the rust as paint and adding some ink as “writing” I started to go in yet another direction with my work. It is still not fully developed, but I am super excited about it. I have a feeling that all these ways of working with the rust are going to come together some day and make a FABULOUS piece…I just need more time…




In addition, the work on the garlic is coming along nicely, in fact I am almost done with it. I am not quite sure how I will finish it, there has to be some element of surprise at the end…creation gets so boring when I always know exactly what I am doing. If you don’t remember why I am making a garlic, it is to cover an ugly well head in my front yard. It will make more sense when I install it…once the snow goes away.




And finally, I am currently mentoring an intern from the Maryland Institute College of Art! Julia is a second year student at MICA and is interested in fiber art and metal art. A couple of weeks ago, her aunt brought her to see my studio and by the end of her time here, I asked if she wanted to be my intern…it seems like a perfect fit. Of course it is a responsibility to have an intern. In some ways I have to work harder in order to come up with things that she can do for me. And since I am so used to doing everything myself, I have to revise my thinking big time. However, I see the potential for a lot of work to be done during this semester…stay tuned…