Thursday, February 04, 2010

Two Portraits of Tan Esther Taitano Underwood

For the first time ever in my life, I have a real job. I make not just some money, but enough money to pay my bills and to live somewhat comfortably. Its a weird feeling. Fihu chatguahu yu' put este. I'm still technically a student, since I have yet to submit the final draft of my dissertation to my graduate, but the social web around me, the way people talk about me, talk to me, expect things from me has all drastically shifted. Gi i hinasson i meggaina na taotao, esta to'a yu'. Esta gaiidat yu' sa' hokkok i umestudiante-ku.

I am a molder of young minds, or a poisoner of young minds depending on your perspective. I'm someone who has students that I advise on their work and I'm even serving on graduate student committees now. I am a father, a chaos father as I like to refer to myself. I am now an adult grandchild, so since my grandfather has become ill recently, I'm elevated to the status of being someone who attends doctor's appointments with him and rotates shifts watching him and helping take care of him everyday.

But two things snag my mind, and keep me from feeling that I've really moved on or that I've really advanced to a different stage in my life. Estague i masokka-hu. The first, as I've mentioned is that I still haven't technically finished my dissertation. People call me doctor sometimes, and I always flinch because I'm not quite there yet. I already defended, but the revisions have taken far longer than I hoped they would.

The second, is frankly salape' issues, or money issues. Even though I have a decent job now, I also have a Marianas Trench-load of debt. This debt includes both credit card and student loan, and combined it adds up to six times my annual salary as a professor at the University of Guam.

Now that I'm working I get alot of pressure from family and friends, to start buying things which mark my entrance into decent wages and middle class life. I should get a new car, I should start building a house, or start investing and saving up, or try to buy a cheap condo, house or apartment. Whenever I hear things like this, I always get scared, and worried. I start to wonder how is it that everyone around me can afford these things on less money or as much money as I get, yet when I make a budget, I can't afford any of them?

When I returned to Guam after spending the summer in the states, my family threw a party for me to celebrate my finishing my dissertation and graduating, even though, as I've said several times already, ti mismo munhayan yu'. Despite being fun and bringing together so many people that I hadn't seen in a long time or had lost touch with, the event was still very stressful. Even though family members contributed some money to help pay for the costs, I still ended up putting myself just a little bit more in debt to hold the party.

As an artist though, my mind is always filled with a thousand creative, but not practical or not effective ways of making some money or helping get myself out of debt. So for instance, while planning the party, I decided that one thing I might want to include in the schedule was a silent auction with different pieces of art that I've made over the year up for grabs.

Over the past ten years on Guam, I've contributed to dozens of silent art auctions and helped organize half a dozen, and they tend not to do very well. Guam has different types of art crowds, but no real art buying crowds, which is essential in the absence of formal patrons in terms of supporting artists and giving the means to keep producing. When I say there's no real art buying crown, I mean there's no scene where rich people, educated people, or even poor people attempt to purchase the best new thing, the hottest new artist. Guam has what you would call a tourist art market, even amongst people who live here. This means, people who buy art are looking for incredibly shallow things. They want paintings which are very simple, very cheap and with a dull sort of spice of culture.

So when I proposed to myself putting together a silent art auction, in my mind I was convincing myself that I would make some money off this, but in some more realistic corner of my mind, I knew that it was a foolish thing to do. In terms of sharing my work with family and friends, it was a good idea, but actually making any money off of it was a joke. Nonetheless I started going through all my storage on Guam, looking for paintings or prints that reflected different points in my artist careers. Abstracts, portraits, figurative/expressive figures, sunsets, famalao'an. I even found some t-shirts and posters from some of my old shows. A copy of the books Sumahi the Blacksmith and Sumahi the Storyteller. I even put out some political buttons that I had purchased while I was in Denver last year at the Democratic National Convention.

The day of my party, my nephew Dylan and I paintined a big canvas banner to be hung over the auction area. The banner read: " SILENT ART AUCTION: Guam Economic Recovery Act for Student Loan Relief and General Art Opportunity Increase." The title was meant to reflect the awkward nature of the titles of Congressional bills, but also meant to reflect my desire to somehow magically receive some of that infamous stimulus money that everyone is always talking about. In addition to this title, we added a Guam seal, a flying proa and a sunset.

Of the twenty items that I put out for auction, 2/3 of them were bid on. Of that 2/3 that were bid on, about half actually ended up picking up their artwork and paying for it. I raised about two hundred from the event, which was a nice touch, although as a poor artist, who has become more used to people not buying my stuff than ever buying it, I was just glad that the paintings had left the boxes or the closets they were stored in, and hopefully would end up on peoples' walls.

A few weeks after the party, when I had already started working at the University of Guam, I received an email from my uncle, my hero and my boss at the University of Guam, former Guam Congressman, current UOG president Robert Underwood. Congressman Underwood had been at my party, and had even written me a touching, but truthful message to me on a large board upon which people could write their wishes or wisdom or congratulations to me. He had written "Bunito i che'cho'-mu, lao guaha mas." As I said, touching, but truthful. For Robert Underwood, someone whose work I have admired so much, and without which, the things I would say would still considered to be insane or too radical, to see that "my work (or what I've done) is beautiful" is in some ways a dream come true. Its very similar to the moment where Chamorro singer Johnny Sablan, came up to me and thanked me for a blog post that I had written about his version of the song An Gumupu Si Paluma. Here was Johnny Sablan, someone whose songs had such a big impact on me, my acquiring and loving the Chamorro language, thanking and complimenting me!

But, the truthful aspect of his message, was the sobering second half, "lao guaha mas." A reminder, that even if what I have done is excellent or important, there is always more to do. Gi este na tinige'-na ha na'hahasso yu' put i na'an este na blog, "No Rest for the Awake."

Back to the email I received from Underwood. It referenced the student loan debt that I had frequently mentioned at my party and also the hopes that I could sell some of my art in order to retire it. Underwood asked me to paint a picture of his mother, my grandmother's first cousin, Tan Esther Taitano Underwood, and offered to help me and the alleviating of my student loan debt, by paying me for the painting. School, dissertation writing, parenting, a sick grandfather and the usual spate of activist activities all helped contribute to several months passing before I eventually finished the painting. Or actually, in truth, I should say that several months passed before I finished the two paintings.

Robert Underwood gave me some photos of his mother to scan, from different points in her life. I also did some research at the Guam Public Library, and looked up her file in the Guam Educators Hall of Fame. I decided upon two pictures, one when Tan Stet was in her eighties, with those large biha glasses, pure white hair and a priceless smile. The other picture was of a more restrained smile, when Tan Stet was several decades younger, when she was on vacation with family in Mexico. With these two pictures I decided to paint two different portraits, and then let Underwood choose which one he preferred. Both of them represent different approaches and styles, neither of which are my usual instincts when painting, but when given the opportunity to create something to important for Underwood, I could not pass up the chance.

Below are pictures of the two portraits. Which one do you prefer? Which one do you think Underwood would want to keep?

1 comment:

Gerard Aflague said...

Hi Mike. I enjoyed reading this post. I read with enjoyment your perspective on how most Chamorros are not art savvy in the sense that you described. I don't know if I agree with you totally. With respect to which piece seems more likely to be bought by Dr. Underwood, I'd guess that the first would be requested. However, my last guess is that he bought both.


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