Fil-Am warrior-artist pushes advocacy in Virginia art scene

By Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

FAIRFAX, Va. –  Gabriel Riego de Dios and art have had a lifelong romance, each drawing the other under the most implausible situations – a soldier swapping his rifle for a brush; later, laid off from a Silicon Valley job, he somehow finds work in a Bay Area art shop where shortly after, he decides to become a professional artist.

He was influenced by his “lola” and parents who loved to dabble in the arts. Still, he pursued a profession that seemed distant from his passions; he was commissioned as an army lieutenant after graduating from the Philippine Military Academy – the country’s equivalent of West Point – in 1981.

As he led patrols in the hinterlands, he told his soldiers that if ever he’s wounded in battle, they should make sure they tend first to the camera and watercolor set he always carried in his backpack. But by 1990, as social injustice continued to fester and after several failed mutinies split the military, he became disillusioned. “I hated politics,” he told the Manila Mail, “it was the same old faces, same old problems; there was no real change.”

He resigned from the Philippine Army and settled in California’s Bay Area, thanks to his mother who is a US citizen. He worked with a Silicon Valley firm but a recession in the late 90s left him jobless. When the manager of an art supply store he frequented offered him a job, he took it even if the pay was just a fraction of his old wages. He finally became immersed in his “first love” and by the year 2000 he decided he would be a full-time, committed artist.

“I have always been in search of a distinct identity in the use of the brush,” he said, “Whether it be a landscape, a figure or an abstract, it has always been such a struggle.”

He absorbed the San Francisco art scene, attending workshops by master portraitist Bob Gerbracht and colorist Michael Linstrom who’ve influenced his impressionist style, using broad strokes and robust colors.

“After what seemed to be a lifetime search for my true self, I have finally realized my life’s passion,” he enthused, “I am now blissfully happy and totally at peace with a brush in hand, a color palette by my side and a blank canvas to work on.” He signs his works “Gabriego”.

He moved to Virginia in 2007. Some of his works hang inside the Sweet City Desserts pastry shop in Vienna, Va. owned by Fil-Am realtor and entrepreneur Manny Tagle.

Gaby, as friends call him, has mounted an advocacy to promote Philippine culture, born partly out of a chance encounter with a Fil-Am mother.

He recounted that during one his shows, he overheard the mother struggling to explain his painting of a woman using a woven basket to separate rice husks. “I had to explain to both of them what the woman (in the painting) was doing,” he said amusedly. Though the mother and child were part Filipino, it was apparently their first introduction to the basket, a common sight especially in the Philippine countryside.

“I want to create awareness through painting Filipiniana,” he declared. He has reached out to students at George Mason University, offering to conduct art workshops on the Filipiniana theme. In December he will be the featured artist at the Vienna Arts Society gallery.

In 2001, he painted “Strongheart” for his alma mater, symbolizing continuity in the cadet corps (his classmate and Herndon, Va. resident Harold Ochoco stood as the model), and now hangs in  Longayban Hall, where the Academy welcomes VIP guests. When they hold one of their frequent PMA alumni get-togethers, he ribs Ochoco about the painting, “They won’t forget us for a long time.”

Today, he aims to build another legacy, the warrior-artist proudly spreading his Filipino heritage in this corner of the world.

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