MANILA, Philippines - In his humble studio in Pasay City, with walls decorated by the colors of his paintings and philosophies, Rafael Cusi awakes with the sun. At the crack of dawn, he unleashes classical music from his stereo. Accompanied by the likes of Bach and Mozart, the premiere water colorist of the country floats into a trance being transformed by the harmony and allowing himself to be dominated by the brush as it becomes a conduit from his heart to the canvas. A process capped off by a game of billiards, another of the famed painter's passions, has become a daily routine for the artist, happy and peaceful in his craft. ''Nabuhay tayo dito hindi para parusahan,'' he says.
In Rafael Cusi, you see a free man. Currently being exhibited in London, Paris, Belgium and Vienna would arguably give you many opportunities, but such accomplishments are trivialities for a man, whose aim is to bring meaning into art, never settling for shallow images. Rafael Cusi is free in knowing his identity, free in a way that he doesn't need all the choices in the world, because he has come to an understanding of self, that his life is led by a few fundamental choices that make him the man that he is, a man with a stand as a Filipino and as an artist, a rare combination one might argue in an artistic landscape that is easily littered by fleeting passions.
''Malapit na yung sunog, nagpipinta pa ako sa taas. Yun yung mga moments na talagang yun yung call ng pagpipinta, '' says Cusi, recounting a memory of the Pasay haven he has called home since the '60s. ''Bakit ka nga ba nagiging artist? Just to fool people? Ang artist may moral responsibility sa sarili. Dapat ma-please ko sarili ko, bago iba.''
Born in the coastal towns of Oriental Mindoro, Rafael was the darling of his town as a young artistic prodigy. Influenced also by his father who enjoyed painting, his talent shone as he painted everything and anything that came his way, applying himself consistently. During the latter part of his high school years, his fame reached a peace corps artist who was commissioned to do a mural that he couldn't finish; he commissioned Rafael in seeing the young man's talent. The friendship that was struck between the two, led Rafael to Manila, where he eventually took up Painting in Philippines Women's University.
The artistic movement and social climate at the time, proved to be the perfect environment to hone the skill and mind of the fiery young artist, who struggled against all odds. The first three years, his college nights were spent sleepless as he worked after school for a dyeing company called Allied Thread, all the while attracting his professors and fellow classmates by painting plates. He soon began joining art competitions. Winning the Art Association of the Philippines with his work battling those of National Artists was just the beginning for the student who was destined to share his mind and work with the world. What followed was a career that marked many accomplishments spanning not only Asia but also the United States and Europe. ''I have nothing to prove,'' says the artist after having been sharpened by winning many competitions and awards during his time. And indeed one can see in his easy demeanor and steadfast opinions that he is a man that has settled into the pure joy of creation for no other reason except uninhibited personal expression.
Known as a watercolorist, he has managed to elevate the medium, by entering and exhibiting massively intricate watercolor artworks both here and abroad, going against the trend of oil and acrylic. Admitting that his medium is unforgiving, he has painted a series on underwater life, bringing out the vibrancy and delicacy of the water and sea life making the water come alive and move with a one brush stroke method, the translucent effect of which can only be done by the artist's expert movements. His love affair with watercolor however has not confined him to only that medium, experimenting and excelling in not only many mediums but also many subjects.
The philosophy of Rafael Cusi, is not only one of form or style, it extends to a manner of living in such a way that one is called to not only become an authentic artist, but also an authentic man. ''Sinisigaw mo magaganda, totoo ka ba? Naintindihan mo ba ang plight ng tao? Ang masakit dito ang mga ginawang subject matter mga mahirap, sana iniimbita mo din sila sa exhibit mo. I'm a social realist in real life, gusto ko sila kasama at gusto ko sila nakikita. Can I not do beautiful paintings while sending the same message? Bakit kinakailangan pinapakita ko sira? Eh, sirang sira na ang society natin. Why will I add more tears? Kung yan ang gusto niyong gawin it's ok (with) me. But, can't we enjoy the positive side? If you go for the dark side of it always, ibinabaon mo na pati mga bata eh. Pinagaaralan ko tao, I try to sense everything, di nila alam paguwi ko sa studio pinipinta ko sila.''
Rafael brings back the meaning of art as art, and not as a commodity, exchanged according to the fickle supply and demand of the market, and degraded to becoming a transaction. Admonishing the lack of what can really be called Filipino art, he challenges the artists to reflect. ''What are you trying to prove with your art? What are you trying to impart to the world? It's not only art, it's not only beauty o kapangitan. It's a stand, within the context na tinatayuan mo. Ang art walang price; it's not a question of the painting, it's a question of personality. It's not a question kung magaling ka o hindi eh; it's a question of society.''
His travels only served to widen his mind, not only in the beauty that the Philippines has to offer, both naturally and artistically but also in realizing all the more the need for an artist to truly see the differences and nuances in his surrounding to be a true painter, and for those that have relegated art in their short sightedness, he gives a reminder, ''Is painting doing an assignment? Paintings come from the heart. ''
For Rafael Cusi, his mind and his brush will remain an ever evolving entity, taking in the people and places around them, and rendering them in the most authentic and impressive work of art.