tour of woodcarving, sculpture, or furniture stores all over Metro Manila
and in the whole mainland Luzon would reveal an interesting fact --- most of
them are owned by families from Pampanga, in particular, from the town of
Indeed, the name Betis
has become synonymous to sculpture and woodcarving. It has not always been
this way. In fact, it is a recent phenomenon, one which started only in this
century, a couple of decades before the Second World War. And this is the
legacy of an unassuming, modest but brilliant and amazing man: Juan C.
Flores, recognized in the art world as the Maestro, or Apung Juan.
One of the ironies of
life is that often times of a great man's contributions to society and his
nobility towards his fellowmen are often not recognized until he is gone.
Juan C. Flores, or Apung Juan, as he was known to artist and art patrons,
and especially to his friends and "kabalens" (the Kapampangan word for "town
mates") was one such man. Five years after his demise, he is hailed as a
master of sculpture, and a towering legend in his field.
Throughout his life,
though idolized by fellow sculptors and appreciated by the members of the
local art community, he remained a stranger to the public at large. He was
never as well known to the public as other artists, many of whom are started
as his students. This could be attributed to his preference for the simple,
quiet life, single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in his
Juan C. Flores was
born on June 24, 1900 in Sta. Ursula, Betis, a sleepy fishing village in
Pampanga during the dawn of the American regime in the country.
Betis then, like most of rural Philippines, offered few opportunities in
livelihood for its youth aside from the traditional farming and fishing.
"I found fishing a
dull, boring occupation, albeit a very respectable was to earn a living,"
Apung Juan would later reminisce.
Not wanting to be a
fisherman or farmer, he decided to embark on an adventure in search of
youthful drama. Bitten by wanderlust and against the wishes of his family,
he sailed across Manila Bay to the city itself.
In the country's
capital, fate brought him to R. Hidalgo Street which has then the Mecca for
the nation's avant-garde artists.
The eager probinsyano,
after trying his hand at several menial jobs, eventually befriended a local
woodcarver who taught him figure making. This chance meeting changed the
life of the young man, and consequently made an impact on far-away Betis in
Later, Juan became the
apprentice of the famous "santo" carver, Maximo Vicente. It was at this time
that his inborn skill in fashioning inanimate objects into works of beauty
was realized. He earned the praise of Vicente, and admiration from the
locals in the neighborhood.
As his talent for
sculpture emerge, his reputation outgrew the small streets of Hidalgo. His
fame reached a point where he soon found himself shuttling between the "talleres"
of Maximo Vicente and other artist like Garcia and Tampingco.
He was now on his way
to being recognized in the field of art, and had he decided to remain in
Manila, he might have achieved national prominence much earlier.
He never explained it
fully - maybe it was loneliness, or desire to re-establish roots, or a wish
to be with family and loved ones, or simply a desire to help his
comprovincianos (province mates), but just as he was finally making a name
for himself in the country's capital, he decided to go back to his hometown.
Life is full of
mystery, puzzling us mere observers with its might-have-beens. Had Apung
Juan stayed in Manila, how would his art developed? Definitely, his life
would have made an impact on Philippine art in an entirely different way.
Without his homecoming, Betis would certainly have been poorer; on the other
hand, would his stay in Manila have catapulted him to national fame smoothly
It was in 1922 that he
returned to Sta. Ursula, Betis, with the primary mission of teaching his
province mates his acquired skills. It also felt it was time for him to
start his own "taller". He decided to hire local artisans and taught them
the finer points of woodcarving and sculpture. His "kababayans" gave him a
warm welcome, befitting a local boy who return from Manila with some degree
For decades, he
labored as a teacher to generations of young carver in Betis. Later, as his
generosity and skill spread by word of mouth, he likewise become a mentor to
aspiring artist from Pampanga and other provinces in Luzon.
It was said then that
it was Apung Juan's "stick-to-it-iveness which impressed the people of Betis
in particular and the citizens of Pampanga in general. Every trainee who
passed Apung Juan's exacting standards was given assistance in putting up
his own shop and in promoting his products. This way, Juan had helped
hundreds of struggling artisans."
Among his more
prominent students were Antonio Galleron, who would later become a
well-respected craftsman based in Tondo; the National Artist Vicente
Manansala, who made his mark not as a sculptor but as a painter; Antonio
Dumlao; Berbabe Flores; Ronnie Cruz; Leopoldo Lugine: Alfredo Santos; and
Allan Cosio, who remembers that "His apprentices came from as far as
It was because of
Apung Juan's efforts that the sleepy fishing town turned into a lucrative
center for woodcarving.Betis today is the furniture-making and woodcarving
capital of Pampanga, and in fact, of the whole Luzon. A stroll through the
town - especially before the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions - would reveal the
extent of Apung Juan's legacy. Furniture, carvings, and religious images
often spill out into the backyards from homes that double as small
woodworking shops. One sees sculptors and carvers busy at work all over the
town throughout the day.
The best furniture
shops in Metro Manila, San Fernando, Olongapo, Baguio, and other urban
centers are owned by families from Betis. With the introduction of the
crafts of woodcarving and furniture-making , many Betis families have
achieved affluence. Apung Jaun, instrumental in this wonderful change, had
single-handedly created a tradition previously unknown to his hometown.
And while performing
the difficult task of training and undertaking technology transfer, Apung
Juan did not receive any salary or remuneration for his effort, time and
expertise. He had never shown selfishness in any form. It was he, in fact,
who encouraged the more adventurous Betis families to move on to more
lucrative locales such as Olongapo, Angeles, Lucena and Metro Manila.
slowly to Apung Juan. Throughout the years, the unassuming and shy Maestro
had received numerous distinctions, plaques and awards.
In 1971, he was chosen by the Philippine government as the country's
representative in a three-day competition held among in Washington, D.C. He
was chosen from among all the sculptors in the archipelago. The contest was
to create a bust of the United States President Richard Nixon. He won the
first prize, besting competitors from all over the world, and amazing the
judges and critics with a truly life-like bust of Nixon.
The critics attribute
his victory to two factors. First, there was his almost perfect rendering of
Nixon's nose. The second factor was that he was the only one who worked in
wood, a difficult material for a sculptor to work with.
In 1977, the Grand Old
Man attained the Panday Pira Award at the age of 77. Weary and in the
twilight of his life, he was finally given the recognition that should have
been accorded to him decades earlier.
In 1979, years after
hard work had taken its toll, the old craftsman was crippled by a stroke. It
hampered his creative work, and was a sad loss to Philippine art, as the
paralyzed Apo could no longer create his masterpieces.
In 1982, another
milestone in his life was reached. It brought special joy to the old man for
he was accorded an award by the people he had love and serve so well all his
life. He was chosen as one of the "Most Distinguished Sons of Pampanga", and
was honored in a ceremony graced by officials.
The last year of Apung
Juan's Life were spent mostly in a chair or bed. He had grown physically
unable to continue his work as a sculptor. Yes he expressed happiness and
contentment as he saw his numerous protégés make name for themselves, and
the families of Betis improve their economic standards.
Apung Juan's long, but
colorful and productive journey ended on September 14, 1992. He was buried
in his beloved Betis.
Art and Legacy
Dr. Rod Para-Perez,
art historian and critic, has expressed appreciation of the works of Apung
Juan. Such is the Apung's contribution to the Philippine sculpture that even
before his demise, the lack of an heir apparent made Perez sadly ask: "who
will succeed Apung Juan?"
Apung Juan was
influenced greatly by his favorite Italian artist, Bernini, who sculpted the
fountains of Rome and the saints' images in St. Peter's Basilica. His local
idol is his own teacher, the Maestro Graciano T. Nepumuceno who, together
with Maximo Vicente, taught him the craft.
A writer had once
describe the Apung's style as marked with a love for detail to the point of
being called rococo. The writer hypothesized that the adoption of his
particular style was because most if his models for his religious imagery
were based from religious pictures and icons from Europe's post baroque
period. There was also the native sensibility at work with the Filipino's
tendency for expression in a florid manner.
Aside from making
forms with religious themes, Apung Juan also did historical ones in the
large frieze-type work dramatizing Douglas MacArthur's landing in Leyte.
Art historians say
that the art of the santo or the "imagen" began to lose its vigor before the
turn of the century with the advent of the secular spirit. But Apung Juan
continued this art from through his carvings and sculptures right up to his
death in 1992.
Apung Juan became one
of the Filipino art masters to achieve a high level of excellence in the use
of wood as a medium sculpture. Wood is one of the most difficult materials
for sculptor to mold. It is considered more difficult and challenging than,
for example, plastic, resin, clay, marble, chip, or esayola. Yet wood,
especially the "batikuling" he favored, became Apung Juan's forte.
He was deeply
religious man, who instilled Christian values in his children and tried to
follow these same value sin his own life. It is now surprising then that the
Apung's art was strongly religious in nature.
A masterpiece and
legacy is the Mural which he did for the Catholic Churches in Antipolo. He
also did numerous religious sculptures for churches, including San Sebastian
One of his more
impressive works is that of "St. Michael Versus The Devil", depicting the
fabled archangel overpowering the prince of darkness represented as a
dragon-like beast. A critic said that viewing the masterpiece, one
immediately sense that "this no mere artisan's handiwork; that craft and art
have one living flame in the genius of Flores. "Another artwork which caught
the eye of critics is titled "St. Jude With the Seven Dragons".
The Maestro was a
meticulous worker, a perfectionist with a distinctive style. Though he did
not sign many of his works, collectors know an "Apung Juan" sculpture
because of his characteristic style.
In the final analysis,
Apung Juan's legacy lives not only in this greatness as a creative and
talented artist, but also as a warm and loving soul. He was a giving man who
generously shared his skill, knowledge and experience with his fellowmen.
Like all men of talent, he was an example of humility who concentrated on
imparting what he knew to his students rather than using his prestige for
was responsible for a renaissance of the art of woodcarving in Betis.
Indeed, Betis would not be the sculpture, woodcarving and furniture-making
capital of Luzon without Apung Juan.
He had a deep aversion
to the limelight, a factor which hindered his commercial appeal when he was
still alive. He concentrated on his craft, refusing to advertise himself.
Apung Juan was an
original. Sadly, with his death, our nation lost an institution and a
national treasure. He lives on, however, trough his works, now considered
classics and priceless treasure. Perhaps, more importantly, he lives on
through the work and art of his students.
Unassuming, shy and
self-effecting, he was not only a great artist but a wonderful human being
who left not only his art but wonderful memories to those fortunate enough
to have him. He lead an exemplary life full of positive values for our youth
63 x 43 x 2 1/2 inches
of a child
22 1/2 x 6 x 7 1/7 inches
24 1/2 x 14 x 9 inches
15 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches
32 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 2 inches
60 x 37 x 5 1/2 inches
30 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 5 inches
41 1/2 x 33 x 5 3/4 inches
29 x 21 x 2 1/2 inches
42 x 40 x 4 inches
36 x 12 x 12 inches
30 x 12 x 14 inches
George w/ Seven
62 x 26 inches
Michael & the Devil
31 x 11 1/2 x 9 inches
48 x 27 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches
48 x 42 x 4 inches
Mrs. Rita W. Cruz collection
Children of Eden
1977 Baticuling 36 x 39 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches
1949 Narra (solid piece)
52 x 115 x 7 inches Mr. Daniel R. Flores collection
32 x 46 x 5 inches Dr. Paulo Campos, Sr. collection