Artist Val Laigo ‘To paint involves a commitment’

Ken Mochizuki March 15, 1987 0

From the outside, Val Laigo’s house in south Beacon Hill looks like an artist’s home. It is painted in horizontal stripes of light tan, blue, red, maroon, green—“all the colors in the Sears catalog,” he said. A little Citroen sports car sits in the driveway, with an oxygen tank sitting upright in the backseat. A sign attached to the front door advises visitors that pure oxygen is being used inside.

Val Laigo looks thin and frail. Two years ago, his weight dropped from 140 pounds to 108—when a bacterium lodged in his brain that almost took his life. Since then, he’s only gained back two pounds.

But healthy enthusiasm still beams from his eyes as he talks about his life and art. He has been an ardent advocate for Northwest arts and artists, serving on the King county Arts Commission and Washington State Arts Commission. He angrily recalls an incident in the ‘50s, when one of the few showcases of local artists, Seattle Art Museum’s ‘Northwest Annual’ was terminated by a new museum director who called the exhibit “second-rate.” Laigo remembers him as “some east Coast guy—a jerk.”

I have always fought against these people who put Seattle down,” he said.

As for his own major works, Laigo mentions a painting, “Dilemma of the Atom,” that became the cover for an RCA record album. He also lists his mural that dominates the walls of Seattle University’s A.A. Lemieux Library and a sculpture at Jose Rizal park, titled “East is West.”

“East is West” is a three-paneled concrete and steel-reinforced artwork overlooking Elliott Bay and the Seattle skyline. The concrete slabs are covered with multi-colored tile and glass. Holes shaped into crescent moons, stars, and flowers look like they were created by the artist with a giant cookie cutter.

“You know the saying, ‘East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet?” Laigo asked. “The twain have met and they met in Seattle.”

Laigo’s home is his gallery and the collection of work seems endless. Just when a visitor might think there are no more rooms filled with paintings, Laigo proceeds further down the hall and shows more.

Anti-war themes figure strongly in his work. One piece features a toy Thompson submachine gun and vanity mirror glued to the canvas. Laigo explains that this was his statement against the Vietnam War.

“Look into the mirror,” he said. “We were all in that war.”

Laigo intended to draw a military tank as part of “The Flower.” When he started painting it, an exploded mass of blood and guts materialized instead.A young boy in a lower corner of the picture gazes longingly at a flower in an upper corner. The carnage lies in-between.

“Dilemma of the Atom” drawn in the early ‘50s, expresses his concern over the atomic age. One abstract rocket ship launches upward to explore, another plummets toward earth in destruction.

“I paint like I talk,” Laigo said. “It’s endless.”

His self-described endless talk is a deep and intricate treasure chest of information about Seattle during the 40s and 50s. And, after teaching at Seattle University for 20 years, he can also give ingratiating mini-lessons on the history of art. His old Japanese American childhood friends have Anglicized first names now, but he remembers them by their original Japanese names. At age 57, he can also recount exact dates, situations and places in his life, including the afternoon two years ago when he lay critically close to death in a hospital bed and the doctors told his wife to “call Bonney-Watson.”

Laigo was born at Naguilian, La Union in the Philippines with a congenital heart condition later diagnosed as Eisenmenger’s Complex—two holes in the ventricles of his heart that mixed the bad blood with the good, making him a “blue baby”. Laigo speculates that he might have received his heart condition because his mother was constantly sick on the long boat ride from America to the Philippines.

Doctors said he wouldn’t last past his 12th birthday. When he approached his 15th, doctors said he wouldn’t last past that age. Now, Laigo feels he must hold the record for a person with Eisenmenger’s Complex.

Laigo grew up in Seattle’s Central Area, around Jefferson and Madison Street. Recovering from an appendectomy when he was six, Laigo remembers “how sensuous it was to color with crayons.” Laigo was encouraged to continue developing his talent for drawing at Maryknoll School.

In the years preceeding World War II, Laigo remembers, the student body of Maryknoll was 98 percent Japanese and two percent Filipino. He remembers his Japanese friends saving foil gum wrappers, which they would send to Japan to contribute to the war effort against Manchuria. Meanwhile, Laigo worked at his aunt’s and uncle’s farms in Auburn and Kent. He also worked as a dishwasher, busboy and salad-maker at the exclusive Rainier Club.

With the onset of World War II, Laigo, 11, washed dishes and earned $64 a month. He was “so small, they had to put me on a stand,” he said. “Everybody else was off to war.”

In 1942, Laigo lost all his friends when the Japanese were evacuated from the West Coast. He recalls wearing a badge that read “I am Filipino.” After the evacuation depleted Maryknoll of most of its students, it closed down. Laigo was sent to Immaculate Conception where he felt he wasn’t welcome. He came from a school with mostly Japanese and Filipino students, then entered on that was practically all white. But he was still encouraged to draw and he possessed what he calls a photographic memory. While the class said prayers, Laigo would glance at a copy of a test lying on his desk and memorize it.

The nuns at Immaculate Conception said Laigo spoke with an accent. They made him read word by word. He struggled through high school, reading less than 250 words a minute.

Laigo always enjoyed athletics, but with his heart condition, he would breathe heavily, slow down, then have to stop. While attending O’Dea High School, he became a coach instead and led the Immaculate Conception Grade School Team to city championship.

In the mid 40s and 50s, Laigo attended school dances which featured a band with a young trumpet player named Quincy Jones. Laigo wanted to be a singer, but “in those days, a Filipino singer who couldn’t read music wasn’t gonna make it,” he said.

Laigo attended Seattle University, and later taught arts, crafts and history at Puget Sound Junior High School and Evergreen High School in the Highline School District. He claims to have been the first Filipino American school teacher in the state of Washington. During college, he discovered and cultivated his affinity for Mexican art.

The Philippines and Mexico were colonized by Spain, Laigo explained, which imposed its culture on both countries. There was a regular Spanish shipping route between Acapulco and Manila.

“Filipino art is similar to Mexican art,” Laigo said. “The food is also similar. Subconsciously and subliminally, I have picked up the rhythms and music of Spain. I loved Spanish art.

By 1951, Laigo admitted he was “hung up on art.” He displayed his paintings at the Seattle Art Museum through “Northwest Annual.” Zoe Dussane, an art dealer who also sold the works of Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Paul Horiuchi and Morris Graves, and whom Laigo credits for having introduced modern art to Seattle, remarked that the colors in Laigo’s paintings were ”very Spanish.”

Around this time, Laigo attended gatherings held by Artist’s Equity, an artist’s consortium that included Horiuchi and George Tsutakawa. He began a phase in which he became a young kid rebelling “against classicism,” he said. He also remembers his mother telling him that his painting was “getting worse and worse.”

“Dilemma of the Atom” was on display in New York City. Record executives at RCA saw the drawing and wanted it for the cover of an album by the Chicago Symphony and jazz artist Sauter Finnegean, called “Concerto for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz band.” Years later, Laigo recalls when he and his mother sat alone in his bedroom, listening to that record with his painting on the cover. His mother said to him, “This is the first time I ever understood your art.”

“My mother, not knowing why she liked it academically, intuitively thought it was valid,” said Laigo. He compares classical art to painting a still hand. Abstract art is painting and capturing the dynamics of the moving hand, he said.

“I used to think Picasso was lousy—the guy couldn’t draw,” he said. “But within two years, I was painting like him. My mother accepted it because she saw the color, balance of color, harmony and the abstract balance. She compared my drawing to music, which is a sound in a given span of time. You’re not listening for chickens and seagulls to tell you a story, you’re listening to music and not looking for an object. My mother accepted where I was going, even thought she could not see the sanity in it at the time. “

Interested in Mexican murals, Laigo left for Mexico in 1956 and enrolled in the master’s program at Mexico City College. There, he met his wife, Austreberta, married and honeymooned in Acapulco. That same summer, he staged a one-man show. His heart became lazy at sea level, he said. The schools was located on a mountain, 8,000 feet above sea level.

Laigo returned to school that fall and remembers one day when sat in his drawing class. Blood began seeping from his nose, then out of his mouth. He couldn’t stop the bleeding. A fellow student who owns a car drove him down to Mexico City. Doctors injected Laigo with Vitamin K to help coagulate the blood. “It burned like hell when they put it into your veins” he said.

Still unable to halt the bleeding, the doctors told his wife, “If you don’t get him out of here, he’s gonna die. Get him to sea level.” Laigo and his wife flew back to Seattle with only one painting out of his entire one-man show. After convalescing, Laigo entered the master’s program ‘at the University of Washington in 1958. His first son, Rene, was born that year. Just short of completing his master’s at Mexico City College, the university ruled that his credits were non-transferable, so he had to take the two-year program all over again. He landed a teaching position at the Creative Activities Center, a privately-funded arts school for children, and later, a friend got him a job as art director for the Boeing Scientific Research Laboralories.

In 1961, Laigo’s second son, Adrian, was born. In 1964, he finished his master’s thesis, which consisted of 35 paintings. That same year, he began teaching art at Seattle University and began work on the library mural at the same school.

In October, 1985, Laigo returned home from work to prepare his lunch. He passed out and woke up on the kitchen floor three hours later. Only thinking that he was late to pick up his wife, he got into his car and blacked out again while the car remained parked in the driveway. When he resumed consciousness, he realized he was riding in a Medic One ambulance with a medic slapping his face and asking, “What’s your name?”

Surgeons traced his blackouts to a circulatory malfunction somewhere in the brain. They injected Laigo with CAT scan dye to trace his blood flow by X-ray. His body reacted violently, leading to a complete collapse of his kidney and liver functions. The doctors advised his wife to consider funeral arrangements. But Laigo pulled through and later learned that a bacterium had entered into his brain and multiplied. The reason, physicians thought, was that germs had entered through his gums during dental work.

During the recovery phase, Laigo described himself as “a kid with no hangups,” where he would laugh and cry easily and speak about embarrassing subjects “without a conscience,” he said. His believes this was caused by an imbalance in his blood.

“I virtually died,” he said. “But I came out singing songs, saying things and was very lucid without realizing it. My mind was clearer than it ever was.”

But following his brush with death, his writing was like “chicken scratches.” “My mind and hand were not connected,” he said.

Now, Laigo is trying to paint again. “I have the desire to paint, but I lack mental strength,” he said. When he did a painting for his nephew, it took him two days to complete it. A project like that used to take two hours. Laigo has quit going to physical therapy, because, with his heart condition, physical exercise takes too much out of him. “But I’m not worried,” he said. “I can always paint smaller pictures.”

Laigo now realizes that his previously dark and moody paintings “began to show my illness,” he said, and he intends to refine those works. To begin painting again, he remembers the advice of his old friend and colleague, Paul Horiuchi.

“Art is very difftcult – you never know what to do next,” Horiuchi told him. “When I have a problem, I paint the problem, and paint and paint until I break through.”

Laigo claims that the advice has worked for him before, so it should work again.”To paint involves a commitment, and the rest of me was not committed,” he said. “But I can see light at the end of the tunnel and I’m looking forward to painting again.

“If nothing else, I want to polish up my act—find myself technically and artistically again. Maybe I’ll find out something else about myself:’

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