A Filipino Discovery

PI-Valley-Forge1I know just the perfect place where I can get myself enmeshed in culture, art, antiques and history of the Art and Culture of South East Asia. It is at the warehouse of the Richard Gervais Collection on Custer Avenue off Third Street in San Francisco.

Enjoying its environs has always been a conspiracy of my pocketbook, my sweeping and discerning artistic eye, and my persistence to finding the historical value of common and high culture artifacts. And of course, at Richard Gervais Collection warehouse, I can submerge myself in the historical moment of Asian Art. He has got items upon items of precious art pieces stacked up to the ceiling, onto rafters, and spilling out into the yard.

I came in and had an eye for a kind of gouache painting hanging up on the walls. I had always looked at it from afar every time I come. I was attracted to the sedate smile, lugubrious eyes, thin lips, and sartorial elegance of the portrait of a man.  Who was he?  How did his picture portrait get into Richard's warehouse? I had to see this portrait at closer range, so my Richard, ever the gentleman and great connoisseur of Art in Asia, took the item down.

PI-Valley-Forge6thWhat met my eye was an incredible find! When the frame was dusted off, an Art-Deco beautiful hand carved Narra wood frame emerged from the shadows of such exceptional workmanship! Every corner of the frame had a different design.  The wood frame showed various carved surfaces and no two surfaces are the same. What a treasure! Richard said he was attracted to the frame

However, for me, I wanted to know the subject. The portrait is heavily waterlogged, but the painter's brush strokes can still be seen. Is it oil? Watercolor? Gouache? I could see it was not painted on canvas, but I can be mistaken. It was signed in 1930, by a C. Rivera, but the mat and frame said 1932. Richard said, he'd research it further.

My mind went clicking fast forward and back. What historical event happened in 1930 that precipitated this subject to sit for a formal portrait? Was he a man of means?  Was he a part of the newly formed Philippine government that appointed Filipinos in higher offices?  That was at the height of the Philippine Commonwealth period under the US administration. Or, was he perhaps a wastrel who traveled to California, spent his father's money, dressed in a fancy tuxedo and sat for a starving artist friend from San Francisco?  My aim is to seek for historical answers in selected art pieces. This is what makes this place so appealing and compelling. I could write pages and pages of historical fiction just from Richard's fabulous collection of items.

I was offered a glass of red wine while tarried long in Richard Gervais Collection warehouse the whole afternoon of Saturday until it was time to close shop. I am really enamored of this place. If you have the opportunity to visit, you'll not be disappointed.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D.
Artist and Historian
Docent - Asian Art Museum
Professor of Education (Emeritus)
San Francisco State University

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Vietnamese Water Puppets

The magic of fancifully decorated water puppets dates back to antiquity in Vietnamese culture. These works of performance art, so indigenous to rural festivals and theatre were almost all lost during the communist occupation and subsequent American liberation effort there.

vwp03Lacquered and designed to dance on water in village rice paddies or portable tanks built for traveling performers, the puppets were often accompanied by musicians, colorful flags and audience participation. The crowds would yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or a word of encouragement to a puppet in need as the impresario controlled the complex action with a long pole and strings beneath the water surface. The designs of the underwater mechanisms remain a closely guarded secret. But the beauty of the puppets and the 'reality' of their personalities transcend make-believe.

VWP01The theme of the skits concentrates on the real and imagined life of the villagers or on the folk tales told by grandparents as well as stories of fishing, harvest and rituals. Each performance and every puppet is meant to capture the essence of an insight into life and its meaning. And the puppets themselves are the symbols of myth and dramatic experience.

Today about a dozen water puppet troupes are currently performing, the water serving as not only the stage but also a character in the dramas from the tranquil lily pond to the violent waves of the ocean. The puppets rise from the deep or skim the surface of the water stages, their opulent beauty astounding the audience..

vwp02These puppets are hand crafted, exquisitely painted wood sculptures by artists who have attained their skills from generations of artisans and from ancient cultural traditions.

Believing that spirits controlled all aspects of their lives, the rural Vietnamese devised water puppetry as a way to satisfy the gods as well as a means of entertainment, education and cultural identification. Thus the puppets became an artistic expression of legend, their characters imbedded in the history of the land.

An inscription on a stone stage in Doi pagoda in the year 1121 relates in words the story of a water-puppet show. Described in ancient times as an age old traditional art, born from the rice fields, puppetry purported to explain agricultural civilization and the psyche of the Vietnamese peasants from that time to this.

Santos in Asia

IMG_1521It is not too difficult to see why Santos are sought after by the faithful and collectors alike. On one level, they serve to inspire and impress upon the believer, the timeless human conditions of suffering, love, faith, compassion, and sacrifice, attributed to the represented Santo. Made from natural and, sometimes, rich materials that may include ivory, gold, and other fineries, they can also be appreciated as objects of art and beauty. Even with a range in style and craftsmanship that may go from high art to completely lacking in refinement, they all seem to project a strength of spirit and character that hold a universal appeal.

Joseph Williams, a collector of religious art in Oakland, California, recalls he was not yet a Christian when he was first moved by the active and open gestures of the Santos.  In contrast to the more passive and introspective demeanor of the Buddhist figures of his early upbringing, Santos appeared much more inviting and seemed to radiate a true holiness. “Wow! Here are these are earthly things that just exude divinity,” he affirms.

If that were not enough, Santos also coveted for their historic value or as fine antiques. Indeed, Santos bring a quiet dignity and nobility to some of the most sophisticated interiors, no matter what the style.

IMG_1527Strictly speaking, the word Santo, plural Santos, is a Spanish word, meaning saint. In the present context, the term Santos is taken from the phrase Santos de bulto (Saint Sculptures), and serves to differentiate three dimensional sculptures from other religious representations such as painting, and other two-dimensional imagery. Though by now, in the antiques market, Santos is a blanket term used to describe a number of plaster, carved stone, wood or ivory figures of heavenly personages, including relief wooden sculptures, and other forms.

In the United States, the collecting trend for Santos is well established. Collectors have, for some time, become acquainted with Spanish colonial works from the Americas, particularly those from Mexico, Guatemala, and even New Mexico, and many are familiar with the Santos of Puerto Rico, Peru, and Brazil.

The Richard Gervais Collection, with its unique emphasis on Asia, features unexpected finds from various countries, including, Vietnam, Philippines, and India. To the uninitiated, it may be initially surprising to stand face-to-face with Asian Santos. We have been taught to think of Christianity from a purely western perspective, a predisposition that dates back to the Great schism of the 11th century. Yet, curiously enough, Bethlehem and Golgotha are in Asia and thus, an Asian connection remains.

IMG_1525Evangelization into Asia began as early as the 1st century, shortly after the crucifixion. Tradition tells of a reluctant Thomas the Apostle, being charged with the task of bringing the Christian teachings to India and Iran—a belief that is still a source of pride among Indian Christians. By the 7th century, Nestorians had converted the Mongols in China, and other efforts by Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans followed over time. The Portuguese expansion introduced Christianity to Indonesia, Malaysia, Siam, Burma, and neighboring countries by 1511, followed by the French, the Dutch, and the Spanish in other regions.

Friars often taught the newly converted with printed imagery, and, as churches were built, they commissioned religious art from Europe. Thereafter, this responsibility fell on the adept and skilled Asian artisans, who stepped in to fill a new demand for Santos for church and personal use, and in the case of ivory, for international trade.  Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine carvers supplied precious Christian ivory carvings as far as Europe and Mexico in the New World.

IMG_1532A typical Santo was carved in wood, and then finished with gesso (a mixture of gypsum and hide glue) and paint. There are countless variations and techniques, depending on its final use and production value. The finest examples may receive glass eyes, an estofado or gold leaf finish, and ivory faces and hands that achieved a refined and other-worldly flesh quality. In other instances, figures had an armature or bastidor for a body, which would be covered by fine robes or vestments that may be decorated with gold thread, silver, pearls, and precious or semi-precious stones.

Ted Cohen, another Bay Area avid collector of folk art from around the globe, is less concerned with the perceived or real monetary value of the Santos in his collection. In his eyes, the appeal of a Santo emerges rather in the unadorned frankness of the piece. “My Santos can be almost crude… primitive, but they seem to carry a more personal meaning,” he says, referring to that fact that many of the Santos in his collection were probably made for worship in home altars. “I love the patina on the old ones,” he noted.

Dong Son Ceremonial "Rain Drum"

rain-drum-1The rain drum gets it's name from the beautiful sounds it makes when being struck by the heavy monsoon rains of Southeast Asia. These drums are made of bronze and cast using an ancient lost-wax technique that allowed them to be sculpted with very great detail.


Depending on where they are made, they go by different names. In Vietnam, they are called Dong Son Rain Drum after the the dynasty and location from which they were first found. In Thailand they are called Thai Bronze Rain Drum and in Laos they are called Laos Style Rain Drum.


The oldest rain drums discovered were in the Vinh Phuc Province in Vietnam. These ancient rain drums have been dated from 1,500 B.C. It is also widely acknowledged that this form of art originated from China in the Yunnan Province up to 1,000 years earlier than the drums discovered in Vinh Phuc.


bil0902008344d-150All of the rain drums feature detailed motifs which symbolize lucky spirits.They often depict frogs, buffalo, elephants, the sun, palms, turtles, fish and many other natural forms. It was believed that these lucky spirits would ensure a healthy rain, and so a good harvest in the coming year. The frog is a common theme with rain drums, it was believed that the Thunder God was afraid of the frog that would pacify the cacophonous thunder. The frog is also associated with the spring rains, when they croak loudly in April it is a time of happiness.




ceremonialdrum16x22cThe remarkable details and beautiful bronze patina make the  rain drum a popular item for the garden or inside the home. They can be fitted with a glass top and used as a table or simply placed in the garden to wait for the rain to tap on them and make a beautiful sound.


The Richard Gervais Collection has a diverse selection of rain drums. To see them all, browse the Articfacts section or click HERE.