Growing up, Sofronio was drawn to people interested in art. The Cebuano artists introduced him to en plein air painting, and he learned about the legendary artist Martino Abellana from Carcar in Cebu. Abellana was one of Fernando Amorsolo’s and Guillermo Tolentino’s students at the School of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila. Abellana returned to Cebu and co-founded the Fine Arts Program of UP Cebu. Dubbed the “Amorsolo of the South,” Abellana passed the torch to many Cebuano artists including Sofronio. Abellana’s influence on him was quite significant. To this day, Sofronio continues to highly credit his mentor in his formative years as an artist for his appreciation of the power of knowledge as an important life tool. Abellana taught the concept of the very basic that made SYM understand the most complicated.
From humble beginnings, Sofronio was determined to follow his dream, his passion. He ventured to try his luck in Manila despite not knowing anybody from the big city. For a while, he was basically homeless but found work with Mabini Street artists. It wasn’t long before Sofronio met his future benefactor and father-in-law, Cipriano Villanueva (Amang) from Bulacan. Amang offered the artist the job of teaching his son, Freddie, how to draw.
In 1963, Sofronio studied at the University of Santo Tomas’ College of Fine Arts in Manila. After each painting class, the artist would write his initials S.Y.M. at the back of his canvases for identification purposes. Sofronio’s classmates soon called him by his initials, thus baptizing him with a new nickname “SYM.” He signs his paintings “SYM.” While studying, he managed Amang’s art shop called Vilco, short for Villanueva and Company. Together with the Villanueva brothers and Romulo Galicano, SYM and the emerging artisans lived in the art shop located on Dimasalang Street.
SYM transferred to the newly opened College of Fine Arts at the University of the East (UE), impressed by its eminent professors like Florencio Concepcion (Composition), and I-Hsiung Ju (Aesthetics and Philosophy). “At the time, UE’s Fine Arts was exploratory,” SYM recalled, which he particularly liked. In 1967, chosen to represent the school, at the On-the-spot Annual National Student Art Competition, sponsored by Shell Oil Company, SYM won the Grand First Prize. This marked the beginning of many more accolades he would receive throughout his lifetime.
The artist’s first solo exhibition was held at the National Library in Manila, simply entitled “SYM.” Mostly of local scenery and street scenes, complemented by commissioned portraits, the show was an instant success. “It is precisely the warmth and the homey-ness, the nostalgia and the love of things Philippine, not to say the provincialism and the loving naivete of his expression, that makes him such a sought-after painter among the artists-writer group,” wrote Julie Y. Daza, Daily Mirror, 1970. At SYM’s exhibitions, both solo and with the group he co-founded, the Dimasalang Group, paintings would sell out.
The original Dimasalang Group led by SYM and Emilio Aguilar Cruz (Abe), together with Romulo Galicano, Ibarra de la Rosa and Andy Cristobal Cruz, started as an informal group of artists who enjoyed painting en plein air. They reached the height of their popularity on the Philippine art scene in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. As a natural-born teacher, SYM inspired and mentored many aspiring artists. His students in Manila formed Dimasalang II. In 1981, when SYM moved with his wife, Ely, and seven children to Canada, the artist nurtured a set of Canadian Dimasalang.
In Vancouver, the artist, known for his impressionism in the Philippines, transported his style of painting to the landscapes and scenery of his new home. SYM re-invented himself and began his formal switch to what he referred to as “neo-classical cubism.” Looking back at his first prize-winning painting in 1967 at the Shell Oil competition, and, also a 1966 oil painting of “Madonna” as a student at UST, he realized that cubism was certainly at the back of his mind. “A painting is a manifestation of what is inside your brain, inside your mind,” SYM explains. The composition of his work is quite complicated; various elements come into play to produce a grand design. “Grand design meaning that you manipulate small elements, big elements and different movements to create a design to express something.”
A philosopher and deep thinker, SYM often talks about the relationship and parallelism of art in everyone’s life. SYM sees the universe as “very complex but they (its elements) are well composed and well organized that they will not collide with each other. It is totally arranged, totally well designed and well composed.” That what we all do in this planet is aligned with the total universe – from the smallest to the biggest -- is SYM’s understanding.
Sandie Gillis is based in Vancouver, Canada. She is the co-author of SYM: The Power of Struggle, a biography on Filipino-Canadian artist SYM Mendoza. She holds a degree in Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines at Diliman. Aside from writing, she enjoys traveling and has a passion for producing documentary short films.