Painting to Live: The Remarkable Story of 90-Year-Old Filipina Artist Araceli Dans - Arts & Culture

Fernando Amorsolo accepted Araceli Dans in the College of Fine Arts while she was still a high school senior and allowed her to graduate in three years so she could pursue her painting career which now spans 80 years

Despite pushing 90, Araceli Limcaco Dans continues to paint with vibrancy and enthusiasm. “Imagination ko ‘yan lahat (That’s all my imagination),” she says, referring to her masterfully rendered scenarios of women in traditional Filipiniana.

“I started when I was eight years old,” she recounts. “I was drawing; I did not paint yet then. As a painter, I started by playing.” When asked about her earliest influences, she replies, “Mickey Mouse.”

Filipina artist Araceli Dans is pushing 90 but continues to paint
Filipina artist Araceli Dans is pushing 90 but continues to paint

Art as Necessity

Her sense of humor and humility belie the difficulties she experienced early in life. War, parental separation, and assuming the role of breadwinner were part of her growing years.

Her talents, however, served her well. She possessed skills well beyond her years, and was enrolled as the only child in a program full of adults under Angela Fernandez at Santa Rosa College. She made the most out of her circumstances by drawing propaganda comics during the Japanese occupation. As a senior high school student at the Philippine Women’s University, she made ends meet by drawing commissioned portraits of American soldiers.

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Araceli Dans, Ani (mixed media) 58x48 2008
Araceli Dans, Ani (mixed media) 58×48 2008

College in Three Years

She also created oil portraits of her dormmates for twenty pesos each, an unfathomable price for a Dans painting today. Cheloy, as she is known to family and friends, recalls, “I was the only one earning money from the paintings I made. I paid for the rent, I paid for my schooling, and I paid for the schooling of my two sisters. I had to work hard not just because I loved what I’m doing, but because I also needed to earn money.”

While she was still a high school senior, Fernando Amorsolo allowed her to enroll at the School of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. The National Artist, then the school’s director, took the precocious Cheloy under his tutelage, letting her graduate in three years instead of the usual four. “He did that so I could work straightaway. Sabi niya, ‘Hindi na kita papahirapin (He said he wouldn’t make it hard for me). You were advanced when you came in.’ When I was a freshman, he put me in senior classes.”

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Araceli Dans, 2003
Araceli Dans, 2003

Painting Laceworks

Cheloy’s talent and hard work have paid off exponentially: she is an artistic treasure who has been considered for National Artist herself numerous times, having reaped awards throughout the span of her career, including the CCP’s Centennial Awards, Citizen’s Award for Television, and the Mariang Maya Award.

After well over 100 group and solo exhibitions both here and abroad, the life and works of Cheloy have been compiled in a coffee table book and in a retrospective exhibit at the Ayala Museum.

Perhaps her most iconic works are her masterful depictions of calados, intricate white patterned embroidery on pineapple fiber, often associated with 19th century Filipina sophisticates.

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Araceli Dans, Looking In 1 and 2
Araceli Dans, Looking In 1 and 2

Art in Trash

The artist is not afraid of pushing boundaries; she dabbled in different media, from oil to watercolor, and even paper pulp. Her home and studio are filled with her artistic ventures into different styles, such as modern art and bas-relief. Of her 1994 Flowers and Lace exhibit at the Ville Musée Fragonard in Grasse, southeastern France, she says that she chose watercolor as her medium to showcase something that “even the French, with their Louvre, are not as comfortable with.”

She sees art in everything. A work entitled Dakilang Basura is a realistic watercolor painting of a crumpled piece of cardboard on the ground. Cheloy is able to breathe life even into this mundane subject. “Pati sa basura, meron din namang istorya. Favorite ‘to ni BenCab (Even garbage has a story. That’s Bencab’s favorite).”

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A vintage photograph of Araceli Dans doing what she does best
A vintage photograph of Araceli Dans doing what she does best

Mother of Ten

Cheloy found love at UP Diliman. She married civil engineering student Jose “Totoy” Dans Jr. in 1950 and went on to have ten children in eleven years. Full-time motherhood might have been the death of a painting career, but she said, “I just painted at night.” Mixing motherhood and painting came naturally to her, as did encouraging her children to think creatively through play.

“We were living here since 1961,” she says of their residence. “There would be a line of blackboards for children on a rainy day. Gustong gusto din nila magsulat. Kung wala kang blackboard, susulat sila sa wall with pentel pen, so you have all the konsumisyon (They liked to write. If there were no blackboards, they would write on the walls with pentel pen so you would have aggravations) ,” she laughs.

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Araceli Dans, The Raincoat (ivatan vakul) acrylic on canvas (24x30) 2007
Araceli Dans, The Raincoat (ivatan vakul) acrylic on canvas (24×30) 2007

Painting to Survive

Cheloy is eager to teach, as well as to continually learn. She is generous with her advice to aspiring artists, passing down the wisdom of Amorsolo to, for instance, her physical therapist and her gardener—both of whom have progressed as artists because of her guidance. Because of her skill as an artist and teacher, she was a highly-regarded art teacher at Ateneo Grade School, as well as a lecturer for the graduate schools of Ateneo and La Salle, and the pioneer of the Fine Arts Department in her alma mater, the Philippine Women’s University.

The fame and recognition that Cheloy has garnered is only secondary to a dedication to improving her craft. Art is still very much a necessity to her now, as it was when she was a young girl trying to earn for her family.

“I can never stop painting. I would die if I stopped painting I should paint for as long I have my eyes and my mind and my thoughts. It’s like eating. It’s like breathing. You must paint to survive.”

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