"You two guys should meet," Chamie chirped enthusiastically about this artist she kept on talking to me about more than a year ago, "I felt a sudden liking for Dan the same way when you and I first met. And I do think he's the brother of that college friend of yours who died of rabies."
... and today, Sunday, I did get to meet Danilo Arriola - brother of Maya whose life, struggle and story left me with a sense of awe.
"Are you Daniel?" asked a woman in yellow with white hair and glasses, while Marga and I were peeking at a black gate we thought was the one that led to Dan's house.
"Yes, Ma'm," I replied.
"I remember you. You were here when Maya was buried. You were as big when you last came here 12 years ago," she said as we followed her to another black gate beyond the one we were about to knock at. “I am Dan’s mother,” she said as she saw the blank stare I had on my face.
“Oh! A thousand apologies Ma’m. It took me some time to recognize you,” I said flushed with embarrassment. She smiled back at me as she led us into her house.
She ushered us into a small bedroom with grayish blue colored walls with blotches of white, perhaps to cover some ancient graffiti or to hide cracks in the paint. On the ceiling was a curtain track that circled the grey steel bed. “I was intending to hang a curtain around my bed like those in the hospitals. You know, to easily capture the cold air from the a.c. and make my space cool faster. But somehow I haven’t gotten around to doing it,” Dan later on told us while Marga and I stared at the ceiling.
He was lying on his back on the bed at the farthest end of his room as we came in bearing a box of chocolate cake. I spotted a wheelchair in another corner and a white Philippe Starck “Lord Yo” chair beside it. He would later admit that the Starck chair and an assortment of other toys hidden in a box were remnants of his “retail therapy” in a past life as architect.
“Hi there Dan. We finally meet,” Dan said in a weak and shy boy-like voice as he slowly raised his hand to wave at us. I approached him, stood by his bed and fought the urge to shake it vigorously like I always do when acknowledging a handshake. Instead I gently brushed his palm with mine and gave him a wide silly smile.
“Yeah, finally,” I said.
“If you’re going to list all the food a person can have, you might as well cross out 98 percent of it. It’s the 2% that I am able to eat,” he told us as he spied the cake box I had in my hands. Immediately a wave of guilt flowed through my mind. (I was unsure if Marga thought so too.) Perhaps we should have brought fruits or flowers or something organic as a token of our first meeting. But bringing those felt too much like it’s either we’re visiting an old nun in the hospital on Christmas or we’re going to a funeral.
“Well, we can eat the cake for you,” Marga giggled good-naturedly as I handed the box to his mother and chirped, “It’s for your family then.”
“The nice thing about being a person with heft is if ever there’s going to be some kind of mass starvation here in Manila, people like Marga and I will be able to survive it. We have more to burn in our bodies. We’d be calling it forced dieting instead,” I dryly told Dan. He tightly cupped his hand on his mouth with a small face towel and grimaced.
After a few seconds he lifted his cupped hands and admitted, “It is difficult for me to do simple things like to laugh or cough. I feel a very sharp and shooting pain from my hip area each time I do so. A few days ago, I had to concentrate so hard to hold a sneeze. The pain’s so deep.” Hearing those words, I felt doubly guilty for the comment I made about my heft.
“It’s a genetic disease that somehow is passed on to the male child of the mother that bore that gene. The bones in my spine grow abnormally fast that they tend to fuse together. It is so rare that only four has been recorded in our country,” he then added.
“Is it life threatening?” I asked.
“To a degree… yes. It is the complications that it brings along which is the difficult part. Right now, a portion of my pelvic bone is growing and pressing on my sciatic nerve that gives me that shooting pain,” he added.
I knotted my forehead, puckered my lips and my nostrils flared at the thought of the pain and could only remark, “Oh.”
And he cupped his hand with the towel on his face and grimaced.
“But you worked in Singapore as an architect, right? How come you gave it all up and studied drawing in Italy? It seems that you are already doing well when you were designing,” Marga finally asked the question that has been burning in our minds for the past couple of hours we’ve been talking with him.
“Yes I was doing well there but there comes a point in one’s life that he has to answer a growing need inside him that if he doesn’t, it will just eat him up,” he confessed. “Everything you see here in my bedroom - the designer chairs, the toys, all these material stuff from my “retail therapy” that I gathered when I had a good paying job in Singapore… none of them can even compare to what I have in my studio in the other room. The paintings and the drawings I did, I can never exchange those for the past I once had. It gives me pleasure to paint or draw more than anything else.”
His words echoed through my head as I stared at one of his finished works - a small oil painting of a pineapple I pulled out from its wrapping and mounted on an easel. Done in the manner of the old Renaissance masters, I couldn’t help but admire the intricacy and subtleties of his strokes. The way he used the oranges and the yellows on the pineapple’s skin made it seem as if it was “ablaze” and gleamed from the dark background. Now that I am here talking to him and learning of the extreme difficulties he had to surmount from having a weak body, I was able to see what I was trying to define while I was staring at this particular piece. Then it dawned on me what it was.
It is his strong, unwavering desire and strength that he has in him as he painted this singular fruit. The rough skin, he defined meticulously with each stroke of color, not forcing it but slowly and painfully, deliberately building up each color. Each “eye” of the pineapple was not the same as the other, not just because of the difference in strokes but of the way he manipulated his color to add depth, heat or cold and character. It’s like staring at a crowd with high powered lens – you zoom in and you see each person is different from the other and bearing his or her own story on his face, clothes and body language; and when you zoom out to view the crowd as a whole (in this case like this fruit) it has a strange and strong unison making it as one whole being. It is that wholeness that “sang” of the song of someone who fights a good fight.
At that moment, while Dan was sharing with Marga his story, his struggles in Italy as a student having to depend on a meager allowance, braving the cold of a sharp winter and the biting pain of his illness… I was listening to the echoes of the bravery of his work.
At that moment, I felt awed with the singular courage of his struggle to paint and that deep hunger showed through in that magnificent piece – that pineapple.
At that moment, I was silenced.
Danilo Arriola is a young realist painter who did an intensive study in drawing and painting in the classical style in Italy. I only came to know of him again through another friend – Chamie. It is sometimes interesting how the world comes to a full circle. Little did I know that I would meet through another person the brother of a good friend who died years ago.
He lives in Pasig City with his parents and family.