Standing before the larger-than-life, hyper-detailed work of John Frank Sabado, one cannot help but wonder: Where lies the source of Sabado’s phantasmagoric imagery? The answer throbs quietly in the loving arms of this earth. The roots of Sabado’s work lie in the simple story of a boy growing up in a forest that shrank as the boy’s world expanded.
Sabado was born into the lifeworld of the Lepanto logging concession in Mankayan, Benguet. There his Ilocano parents worked to support and educate their children. As a boy he spent his days going to the river, fetching water, catching eels, hunting for mushrooms, gathering firewood. To him these chores were not work. They were no different than the mock wars that he and his playmates would wage in the forest. There were many dangers lying in wait for adventurous little boys living in a logging concession but no harm ever befell Sabado and his friends. This was deep play in the arms of Nature, whom Sabado describes with a wide grin as "the best nanny ever."
If he wasn’t playing in the forest or by the river with his friends, Sabado could be found among the grownups. There was one mambunong, or ritual priestess, Lola Aganis, who was particularly fond of him. She would take him under her wing at the cañaos or ritual celebrations, and often passed by his house to leave sweet potatoes just for him. To this day, Sabado misses her joyful smile and being enveloped in her embrace. He remembers the scent of burning pine wood and smoke from the hearth that lingered on her skin. Through the elders and his playmates, Sabado learned how to speak Kankana-ey and absorbed the Kankana-ey way of life.
This idyllic existence ended when he left to attend high school in Baguio City. Whenever he returned for visits in the summer holidays he saw how Mankayan was being transformed irrevocably. The realization struck him forcefully: the forest he loved was being steadily destroyed.
Sabado’s experience of the transformation of Mankayan is a microcosm of the history of the Philippine Cordilleran environment – indeed, it is roughly the history of the world. For centuries humans have tilled and toiled on this earth for the well-being of our societies and, in the recent history of our species, to feed the free market's insatiable appetite for economic gain. But in the visions of Sabado, this quest for wealth visits itself upon the earth as torture.
"Mother Nature is crying... But we can no longer return to the way things were. We can no longer go back to square one. A lot more will have to be sacrificed before healing can take place. The solution will be extreme, frightening. Imagine the peak of modernization exploding... I'm not rejecting modernization. We're just not using it the right way. We're losing the old ways. They're no longer embedded in our hearts. But this is it. This is our culture now... The aftermath, the healing, will take centuries. The least we can do is to begin an eco-revival so we can hold the destruction at bay for a little bit longer. It will help somehow... I want to be radical for Mother Nature."
In his late teenage years, Sabado stopped school and would disappear for weeks at a time into a cave in the hills above the La Trinidad valley. He called this cave his Sacred Place. He would bring food, books, paper, pens, and candles that he lit on a natural rock altar inside the cave. For him this was a period of self-discovery. Through sketching, writing notes, and keeping his solitude he searched deeply for himself and for his purpose. New routes and ideas opened up to him through his fellow artists and mentors and in his serendipitous encounters with Escher and Dali in books and magazines. In the precision and symmetry of Sabado’s work are shades of their influence as well as evidence of the artist’s own deep awareness of Nature’s sacred geometry.
Through the painstaking work that goes into each of his paintings, Sabado says he searches for a part of him that is still missing. He considers art -- indeed, the act of making art -- as the tool that continually shapes him into the person he is becoming. The process has been and will continue to be a long one. Sometimes Sabado crosses over into a space where no one can reach him. His peers have said that when this happens, it’s as though the John Frank they know is not there and in his place is some one – or some thing – forceful and hostile. When this happens he looks on the world with a hard glint in his eye. Sometimes he retreats into his work and out of a shame he says he inflicts upon himself, he will not see anyone or speak to anyone until he is satisfied with his painting.
In his dreams, Sabado can speak and understand all the languages of the Philippine Cordillera. He converses with the souls of the ancestors. Even Lola Aganis is there, still watching over him and teaching him things. In his waking hours he paints the messages and visions they give to him within the small available spaces of his home. His ability to turn out pieces that are larger than life from such a small working space must have some connection to the days he spent in the Sacred Place and expanded his spiritual horizons from within its womb.
The notes and drawings he made and the dreams he dreamt in the Sacred Place are only just beginning to appear in his new work. In one of his recurring dreams, Sabado is walking, following an Ecowarrior, a powerful being whose body incorporates cultural elements from all over the Philippine Cordillera, signifying for Sabado a need for unity among peoples. The mind of the Ecowarrior is speaking in the mind of Sabado. Sabado listens intently. They walk in silence like this for a long time and then the Ecowarrior suddenly disappears. Sabado searches for the warrior but he is nowhere to be seen. He looks down at his own body and realizes that he has become the Ecowarrior, wearing a gas mask – the universal symbol of our times for the threat of poison in the air.
Sabado calls on us to awaken the Ecowarriors within our selves. Now is the time to reclaim and harness the power of our homegrown cultures, to fight against the poisoning of Mother Nature, and to protect the well-being of humans on this one and only earth.