When I woke up to the sound of my wife Beng crying as she clutched her phone, I knew instantly what had happened in the night: “Riel is gone,” she said. “Riel” was Ronald Jaramillo Hilario, a sculptor and fellow alumnus of the UP College of Fine Arts.
No institution in this country has been spared by COVID — every school, office, factory, and hospital will have more than one sad story to tell of unexpected loss and bereavement, of someone who was there with them one minute, laughing and shooting off on the issues of the hour, and then gone seemingly in the blink of an eye.
For the UP College of Fine Arts, it has been an exceptionally terrible year. One after the other, it lost artists and faculty members such as Jak Pilar, Leo Abaya, Joey Tañedo, and Neil Doloricon, and alumni Virgie Garcia and Riel Hilario. The arts community was still reeling from the passing of Neil — one of the stalwarts of social realism in Philippine art — when news of Riel’s death came through, and as she had done much too often since the pandemic began, Beng wept again.
Oddly, neither Beng nor I had actually met Riel — he lived in Lucban with his muse Joyce Campomanes — but he had quite a large digital footprint, from which I gleaned enough, and Beng became a kind of tita figure to him, always ready to lend an ear, albeit online. He was one of those rare artists (Neil Doloricon was another one) who was extraordinarily articulate, and who didn’t hesitate to let the world know what he thought.
'Art is my religion, and I am a priest of that faith,' he asserted, and his life offered ample proof of that sacerdotal devotion to art.
“Art is my religion, and I am a priest of that faith,” he asserted, and his life offered ample proof of that sacerdotal devotion to art — to its creation, its study, and its promotion in a society threatened by destructive and diabolical forces.
Indeed he looked every inch the part of an avenging angel (and his name summons those winged, sword-bearing creatures), bearded and muscular, with piercing eyes that seemed like they could see right through falsehood and deception. (Lorenzo Gabutina described him as “warrior, sultan, larger-than-life… a Pinoy Thor.”)
His sense of mission, his critical intelligence, and his expressiveness may not have made him the easiest person in the room to sit with, but his seriousness was a reminder that art involves far more than decorating the homes of the rich, even as he created playful objects and rebultos that drew on native folklore and religion.
His formal résumé was more than sufficiently impressive. Coming out of the woodcarving tradition of Ilocos Sur, Riel went on to the Philippine High School for the Arts and UP, transitioning from painting to full-time sculpture in 2008. He undertook residencies and explorations in the US and Europe and served as curator for the Boston and Pinto art galleries.
He also co-founded Artinformal, an art-education collective. In 2012, he was the winner of the Ateneo Art Awards-Fernando Zóbel Prizes for Visual Art, and in the same year was named one of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists.
As brilliant and productive as his own art was, Riel was also appreciated by his fellow artists for his advocacy of artists’ rights and his generosity toward others.
Wood sculpture, he told Glenn Martinez, “served as my self-directed therapy following a debilitating episode of manic-depression in 2007. I had schizoid visions and dreams that were terrifying and disturbing. I felt the need to find an outlet that was more tactile than painting or writing.
"The following year I started carving wood sculptures based on the tradition of the rebulto, but following the urgings and suggestions of my visions. The practice had a cathartic effect and also helped me refocus my cultural work to do research on the craft.”
But as brilliant and productive as his own art was, Riel was also appreciated by his fellow artists for his advocacy of artists’ rights and his generosity toward others.
A Facebook page dedicated to his memory and maintained by his brother Paul, “The Feathered Angel: A Tribute to Riel Hilario (1969-2021),” is full of testimonials to that giving spirit.
Riel was on a mission to make sure his fellow artists were never taken advantage of by galleries and dealers, and for them to get their due recognition and respect. (In one recent episode, he recounted how he and Joyce had been turned down by a prominent bank’s branch in Lucban when they tried to open an account, allegedly because artists can’t show proof of regular income; outraged, he recalled how solicitous the teller was in New York when he presented a $50,000 check for deposit.)
He was still brimming with ideas and plans for the future — having taught at PHSA, he was thinking of teaching at UP — when both he and Joyce were stricken by the virus.
From Lucban came desperate calls for help — especially for oxygen — to friends like Glenn Martinez, Jason Moss, and Ricky Francisco. Glenn did what he could from Metro Manila to coordinate assistance, and Riel and Joyce were brought to a hospital in Lucena. But it was too full to accommodate them, and they were sent home.
Joyce survived; Riel did not. But as one of Riel’s favorite sayings (and mine, from Hippocrates) goes, “Ars longa, vita brevis” — art is long, art endures, as short as our lives may be.
Photos courtesy of Joyce Campomanes