Jo Florendo’s 99 Koi

Jo Florendo and His 99 Koi Painting. (Photo by: Noel Sales Barcelona)

TANAY, Rizal—The smell of drying grass under the summer sun greeted us when entered his small nook in Tanay, Rizal. 

It was humid and hot as the temperature in the province had reached 36° Celsius.

However, Angelito “Jo” Florendo’s huge painting of 99 Koi swimming toward the lotus flowers floating in the serene and clear waters, has given us a fresher feeling as it serves a gentle reminder that life and art, just like the fish and water in the huge canvas of Florendo, are connected and are one.

The colored carp in the life of Jo: swimming against and with the current of art and life

For the Japanese, the Koi is not a simple fish that decorates their ponds. They represent a deeper meaning.

The school of nishikigoi (the Nihongo term for colored carp) that playfully swim in the serene waters of the lotus ponds in the immaculate white canvases of Florendo are indeed the icons of the struggles of the young boy who wanted to become an artist.

old work“I was in elementary when I started drawing,” he shared with this writer that humid afternoon of April 25th. The colors had fascinated him.

In small papers, the size of 5R and 3R photos, he began to spin, using watercolor, colors and transformed it into different images of the things that you would see in the countryside: the small hut, the small earthen jars, anything that caught his vivid imagination.

“My drawings sell P25 each,” he shared with this author, with a good laugh. That time, he said, he felt that he is truly an artist.

That patron, he failed to name, comes weekly to Florendo to buy his drawings.

However, his 25-peso artworks can’t earn him a living. The grinding poverty (Florendo came from a family of farmers), has temporarily stopped him to pursue his dream as a painter.

He became a helper and a caretaker in a farm in Quezon province for a year.

“I was unhappy,” he said.

However, his dreams like the kerosene lamp that will help him create works that will soon wow the world, did not die.

“Someone had given me an attache case, and told me to put my art tools in it,” he shared with this writer.

He also added that wherever he goes, that attache case was with him. It seems that the attache case had become his silent companion, a friend during the times that like the Japanese Koi in his paintings, the streams of life seem taking him to nowhere.

Upon returning to Tanay, he didn’t pursue his dream yet. The need to earn a little money for his family came first.

For eight  years, he was on the streets of that small municipality, around 57 kilometers from the city of Manila, with less than 100,000 in population, as a tricycle driver.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, the dream of becoming a real painter never left him. In between rides, during at night, he paints.

His first break was when he joined the municipal art exhibit in 2001.

One of the works of Florendo on display in his gallery-cafe in Tanay, Rizal. (Photo by Noel Sales Barcelona)
One of the works of Florendo on display in his gallery-cafe in Tanay, Rizal. (Photo by Noel Sales Barcelona)

“I’ve created 14, 5”x7” paintings, as entries for the said exhibit. 12 out of 14 were sold,” he said. The buyer even asked Florendo’s whereabouts to commission him for more artworks.

Because of that incident, he had decided to pursue painting as his full-time career. The money which he had from the sales of his painting went on buying more art materials so that he could produce more artworks.

But Florendo’s artistic career was never a serene pond where pink and white lotuses are floating, with beautiful red, white, gold, and black Koi are swimming on its sides. Just like a small Koi in the river trying to survive and grow into a majestic fish of different colors and hues and sizes, his career—just like any other budding artists—is faced with much difficulty.

“You know, there are times that I made no sale. There was a time that we went to the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs], carrying our rolled paintings, with just enough money for the fare. Our lunch was Juicy Fruit [gum]. That time, Juicy Fruit was very popular, now it’s V-Fresh (a brand of a mint gum). When it rains, we use our paintings as cover. Before we go upstairs, at the DFA, to meet whoever ambassador we have an appointment with, we just shake our paintings to get rid of the water, we dry them up, and then present it to the client,” he said.

When he and his colleagues finally made a sale of their paintings, they “treat” themselves by eating lunch twice and by watching the movies twice.

Flowers in the garden: the start of Jo Florendo’s blossoming art career

Finally, fate has been good to him when the great Manuel Duldulao visited Tanay and looking for artists to train under his wing. From 100 artists whom presented themselves, only six had been chosen and Florendo was one of them.

“Manny [Duldulao] asked me about my painting, the Mother and Child, which I brought for him to see [during the event]. He asked me where I sell my painting and I replied, in Alabang,” he said. The painting was 20” x 24”.

“How much do you sell that, Duldulao asked me, and I said, P2,500 (around US$56.54). He said to me, if I would buy that for P4,000 (US$90.47), will you give it to me?”

Florendo said, he was elated because the price was higher. It was Duldulao’s first lesson for Florendo—to value himself more and to value his works, more.

The good mentor-mentee relationship between Duldulao and Florendo has flourished, with the former challenged him to create more works that are “unusual.”

However, Florendo did not start with Koi and other nature paintings. He started with flowers.

His mentor, seems somehow dissatisfied with his choice of subject, and that Duldula had wanted to know what makes his flower stand out against the works of great artists like Juvenal Sanso, Araceli Limcaco, the wife of his mentor, Teresita Sarmiento Duldulao, Mona Reyes Santos, and many others who had had flowers as subject in their paintings—and did great in presenting flowers on their canvases.

Florendo shared, that he was even told by Duldulao to go out in his garden and tell the latter, what he sees out there: of course, beautiful bunch of flowers. Perhaps there are colorful lilies there, different species of precious orchids, or daisies perhaps. Florendo failed to tell this writer what kinds of flora he saw in Duldulao’s garden at his Brookside home in Cainta, another town in Rizal.

But Duldulao told Florendo, as the latter relays to this writer, to find what is the most unusual among the bunch. And there it was, the wild flower, whose beauty doesn’t stand out, but if someone puts it on canvas, its beauty would be appreciated and its value would raise just like the bunch of roses and lilies and tulips being sold in flower shops, alluring the buyers to have them and give them as gifts to their beloved.

At long last, the door of the art scene had opened for Florendo, and his first solo exhibit was entitled “Flowers in a box,” in Heritage Art Center in Mega Mall, in 2008. And the list of his exhibits here and abroad, goes on and on and on. 

The Koi in the “pond” in Florendo’s artistic “paradise” 

Another Koi painting of Florendo. (Photo by Noel Sales Barcelona)
Another Koi painting of Florendo. (Photo by Noel Sales Barcelona)

Perhaps the yamabuki or the gold Koi did the trick in Florendo’s life. For the Japanese, the golden Koi brings in wealth, prosperity, and abundance to anyone who has it.

Or the Ogon (platinum-colored Koi), has done its magic as Florendo has become, not only a successful artist but now a businessman. He owns the first art gallery cum café in Tanay, the J. OF’s Art Gallery Café, in-front of the beautiful Tanay Plaza.

Maybe, the Kohoku, one of his favorite species that adorn his paintings, encouraged him to push through, despite the difficulties of the art industry bring.

It is not a mystery for those who are familiar with the art scene, power struggles and influence peddling are rampant, despite the fact that within the art circle, serenity and beauty should—and must—prevail for the muses of the arts, as far as this writer is concerned, do not struggle for recognition.

This writer has been compelled to issue such statement because, one time or another, Florendo has been a victim of what is called “professional jealousy.” Twice he was given a recognition for his craftsmanship and contribution the artistic development of the town he now calls home. But those awards, had been brought home by Florendo not without people talking in his back, saying that he doesn’t deserve the awards since he is young and he has just started his art career 14 years ago.

Nevertheless, the majestic midnight black Koi, the Kumonryu (literally means the Black Dragon) mystically changed Florendo’s circumstances: from the farm where he used to be a caretaker and a guard, to the galleries in Metro Manila, in Rizal, in Caracas in Venezuela, in New York and elsewhere. Of course, within five years or more, he would also hang his works in galleries in mainland Asia and Europe, where the masters of art had lived and dwelt.

“The Japanese recognized these fish not just for their beauty, but for their ability to transform the observer into otherworldly states of perception. These altered states of perception ultimately lead to the attraction of high energy – and this manifests in the form of prosperity of all kinds in our lives,” writes symbologist Avia.

Perhaps the spirit of the Koi is intertwined with Florendo’s soul. The Koi, for those who do not know, are the most sociable among the species of fish. They are tame and can be fed by hand.

Florendo is now busy making the art scene vibrant in his town, not only he has put up a gallery but he is now teaching youngsters—street urchins, to be exact—how to paint.

In his Mabilog Na Bundok Art Workshop, where his commissioned painting of 99 Koi is temporarily located, he begins developing young artists, male and female.

“Just before my eyesight becomes blurred, I want to pass on to the future generation the art of painting,” he said.

He doesn’t believe that he must be a master.

“Nobody can be a master since there would be one person or two who would emerge, more artistic and more skillful than you, he told this writer during the interview for this feature.

In numerology, or the art and science of divining with numbers, 99 refers to endings and closures—in its most positive sense.

During his struggle as a budding artist, there had been a lot of endings and closures that needed to happen to be able for him to achieve his current state: a successful artist, with a number of exhibits and recognition under his belt.

As each episode of his life as an artist closes, another chapter will soon open:

A chapter which is full of surprises and wonders just like the feeling every time that you stare at the school of Koi swimming gently in his brook or pond or river or lake of his clear and amazing imagination.

[Note: This essay was the longer version of the article which will appear in a coffee table book.]

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