Look closely at the image below. What looks like a monochromatic oil painting is in fact an intricate collage made by carefully piecing together bits of dried leaves, corn husks, and garlic peels. No paint is used, just found foliage glued and lacquered onto a stiff board. This and 42 other mind-boggling examples shown at the Philippine Consulate in New York is the work of 72-year-old Filipino artist Fernando Manipon, who signs works with his sobriquet, “Pando.”
Inspiration first struck Pando 10 years ago, after being stranded in his apartment building during a super typhoon that left the capital city Manila, along with the surrounding northern regions in the Philippines, without electricity. It was during that long, listless week when Pando, a retired fashion designer, first saw the creative potential in the pile-up of leaves that had accumulated on his balcony.
Recalling a documentary about the Japanese leaf mosaic artist Kazuo Akasaki, he thought to use the technique to replicate an image of a church he saw on a postcard lying around in his room. “It was really just to pass the time during the blackout. But I was surprised how enjoyable it was. I became engrossed with figuring out how to work with natural colors of the leaves to create a realistic image. A month went by and I hadn’t left my apartment,” Pando recalled. “My friends were beginning to worry!”
A decade later, he is still at it, experimenting with themes, techniques, and materials. His best known work to date is a leaf collage of St. Peter’s Basilica on an ostrich egg, which was presented to Pope Francis during his visit to the predominantly Catholic nation in 2015.
Pando says he enjoys scavenging for interesting leaves around his neighborhood and has made friends with gardeners who give him bags of fallen leaves to take home. Every frond is a marvel, he says, but his favorite are the versatile “bird’s nest ferns” (“pakpak lawin” in Tagalog). Unlike his former ready-to-wear fashion business, this type of art resists mass production, Pando explains. He cherishes working on one canvas at a time, spending eight hours a days over the course of one to three months, depending on the complexity of the image.
His hands, agile from 30 years of wielding scissors to cut clothing patterns, remain steady for the intricate detail work. Habitual wrist exercises mitigates the pains from carpal tunnel syndrome on his right hand.
“The more challenging the details, the more thrilling for me,” he said, pointing to gradations of color on a particularly skillfully-collaged still life of baskets and rice grains.
For what started as—and is still very much—a retirement hobby, Pando says showing his work to the public still seems surreal at times. He doesn’t have a gallery, nor a PR rep, and insists on doing things himself. “I’m a one man band,” he joked.
For Pando, the act of turning brittle leaves into something beautiful has added symbolic weight at his late age. “In a way, I’m reincarnating dead leaves destined to be trashed, burned, or buried,” he said, smiling. “We all have our seasons of youthful glory and decay. I guess you can say I’m intervening in that process by making art, that will hopefully be immortalized.”