Ryan Cayabyab rekindles his old love for painting with first exhibit

‘What I like about painting is the quiet, the solitude,’ Maestro Ryan Cayabyab says.

Remember the thrill of your first love—the butterflies, the giddy feeling, the sheer joy of being in that person’s presence? How about your first paycheck, your first taste of the beach, your first roller-coaster ride?

There’s something about firsts that leaves such a lasting impression that we sometimes find ourselves yearning to go back to those first experiences again—at least the good ones. For National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, revisiting an old love has led him to experience a new first—and it has nothing to do with music.

Ryan Cayabyab art Red
Fueled by the sudden quiet brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ryan’s dormant skill in painting inched its way out to his consciousness. Banner photo from Ryan Cayabyab’s Facebook page.

While music has always been a staple in his life, the past three years have been a journey of rediscovery for the Maestro, fueled by the sudden quiet brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. A dormant skill slowly inched its way out to his consciousness, resurfacing little by little until it finally came out in the form of wild, vivid colors on paper and canvas. When he reunited with painting—an old love—he never wanted to stop.

“What I like about painting is the quiet, the solitude,” Cayabyab said. “When you compose a song, it’s always a team effort: you have to work with a lot of people—the arranger, the musicians, the singer—to make it happen. With painting, you’re alone—alone with your thoughts and ideas. And that is what I like about it.”

In fact, his painting time is his quiet time. He doesn’t talk to anyone, and he doesn’t even listen to music. The brush strokes do all the talking. This is probably why, in his own words, his artworks are “fun, joyful, exuberant”—a reflection of his “spontaneous, careless, and loud” personality.

Ryan Cayabyab’s first pencil sketch

Ryan Cayabyab pencil sketch
In 1968, Cayabyab made his first pencil sketch: that of his UP High School schoolmate Laskhmi Gonzales-Yokohama, daughter of National Artist for Literature NVM Gonzales.

Unknown to many, he has been sketching, doodling, and painting since his teen years. One of his biggest achievements back then was placing third at the YMCA National Painting Contest in 1968.

With his P50 cash prize, he bought two cans each of corned beef and Vienna sausage, some underwear, and some art materials. The rest of the cash prize he gave to his father. He didn’t join another such contest again, but did continue dabbling in the visual arts in a more casual manner.

At around the same year as the painting competition, Cayabyab made his first pencil sketch: that of his University of the Philippines High School schoolmate Laskhmi Gonzales-Yokohama, who happened to be the daughter of National Artist for Literature NVM Gonzales. They were also neighbors in what is known as Area 1 inside UP Diliman.

Ryan Cayabyab art on Furniture

Fun fact about that neighborhood inside the UP Diliman campus, according to Cayabyab: Within a 1-kilometer radius of the UP Infirmary lived a number of National Artists, including Jose Maceda, Jovita Fuentes, and Ramon Santos for Music, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero for Theater, and NVM Gonzales and Gemino Abad for Literature.

Cayabyab would go on to produce watercolor paintings, sketches, and doodles of people he worked with over the years, including Basil Valdez and Jim Paredes, as well as fellow coaches and mentors in various songwriting camps.

The casual doodling later evolved into long hours of painting, where he fully immersed himself while on pandemic-forced hiatus as a musician. He got reacquainted with painting when he got curious about the use of acrylic as a medium. A night owl by nature, he found himself painting well into the wee hours, literally losing track of time. He stopped only either when his work was finished or when his hands grew too tired to properly control his brush.

The first sale and the power of Facebook

Ryan Cayabyab art first sold
“I want to show that at any age, we can still pursue a passion, or whatever moves you to create,” said the 69-year-old music legend.

Cayabyab started posting his works on his Facebook wall, starting with some simple pieces painted on paper. One of those pieces was an untitled work that looked like a bright pink flame, which three of his Facebook friends commented “mine” on—or dibs, in online live selling parlance.

“Instead of giving it to one person, I photographed it, printed three copies, framed them, and gave each person a framed print,” he related.

One of those archival prints, beautifully framed and bearing the Maestro’s signature, was given to me. Cayabyab didn’t want to send it via courier or other delivery services, so we picked it up from his home. That was the first time we saw each other in the flesh since the pandemic lockdowns were enforced in March 2020.

Ryan Cayabyab art at his exhibit
Ryan said his exhibit is “purely a result of self-expression.”

He continued to post his artworks on Facebook, which many of his friends appreciated and even encouraged. He recalled thinking that his friends were only being nice when they gave praises for his paintings. However, when some of them started offering him money for his art pieces, he began to realize that maybe there really was more to what he was doing than he thought.

“I was so surprised when one of my friends made a serious offer to buy one of the paintings. I had to ask him why he wanted to pay me for my work. I was really that surprised,” he recalled. “I couldn’t even give him a price, so I just asked him to name his price.”

Ryan Cayabyab art donated
The art pieces he completed during the pandemic were made with materials “donated” by friends.

His sister-in-law was another one of his enablers, giving him three unused canvases (that had already begun to yellow with age, he said with a laugh) and some unfinished tubes of acrylic paint. The art pieces he completed with the use of those “donated” materials were later on bought by friends. That same sister-in-law also bought his first big canvas – sized 36×36 inches – and paid good money for it.

Aside from offering to buy his paintings and commenting “mine” on some of his works, many of his friends encouraged him to mount an exhibit when he had already posted a good number of paintings. The thought excited him, he said, but he knew it would be different when his paintings go beyond his circle of friends.

The first public exhibit

Ryan Cayabyab art exhibit at Power Plant Mall
Ryan’s ongoing exhibit at Power Plant Mall features 53 art pieces, headlined by 16 “eyefies,” a translation into canvas of past selfies that shows just part of his face—usually one of his eyes.

Despite his initial apprehensions, at the young age of 69, Cayabyab decided that he would heed his friends’ call and actually mount an exhibit. Aptly titled Tunay na Ligaya, hIs first solo exhibit runs from October 21 to November 5 at the Power Plant Mall in Makati,which was kicked off by a private viewing and by-invitation-only formal opening. This will be followed by another run, this time at Estancia Mall, from November 10 to 26.

The exhibit features 53 art pieces, headlined by 16 “eyefies,” a translation into canvas of past selfies with friends that shows just part of his face—usually one of his eyes—thus the term “eyefie.” The 16 eyefie paintings are collectively named One, after his 1981 album that featured 16 voices of the Maestro.

Of the exhibit, he said: “I don’t know if it is an objective, but I think I want to show that at any age, we can still pursue a passion, or whatever moves you to create. In my case, it is revisiting a past interest in the visual arts, so this activity is purely a result of self-expression. But it helps that my friends and family have inspired me, goaded me to continue this other type of creative expression.”

The new lifestyle.