KIBUNGAN, Benguet – When Reynaldo Pellos, a US Peace Corps volunteer, arrived in Kibungan, Benguet, in 2002, he immediately sought out village potters to observe how they worked.
An environmental scientist with a passion for pottery, Pellos looked forward to a stint in the town, where pottery is an old village tradition.
He found the last of these potters at the edge of a small river in Sitio Abas in Barangay Poblacion.
Pacito Kagap, then 89, spent most of his latter years pensively inside his house and its surroundings. “He was not bedridden but he was just hanging out in his house. He was too old to teach,” Pellos said.
In a sentimental moment, Kagap showed Pellos his last remaining clay pipe.
“[Kagap] was famous for his clay pipes. People from all over came to have one,” he said.
Six months later, Kagap died. Pellos felt that it seemed Kagap was just waiting for someone to breathe life anew into the craft he had loved.
Pellos has taken on the task ardently for the past five years. Today, Kibungan is earning a reputation for its clay craft.
The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has provided Pellos a grant to revive and develop the art of pottery in the town.
Pellos, 29, is a Filipino-American, which is why a Philippine assignment as a Peace Corps volunteer was close to his heart. He said he wanted to reconnect to his roots in Cavite, his father’s home province.
Equipped only with a brief orientation on Kibungan culture and elementary conversational skill in Kankanaey, Pellos blended with the community, now his home for the last five years.
Pellos finished environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, but he says he has an equal passion for pottery and photography. He spent a semester studying photography and clay techniques in Europe.
His stint as a volunteer officially ended in 2004, but he felt that he had to continue his initiatives in Kibungan. Pellos chose not to return to the United States, where more lucrative jobs await, but instead worked on his papers to extend his residency in Kibungan.
Now speaking the language, he is an adopted Kankanaey son. He stays with the Bolislis family, who lost a son several months before Pellos came to town.
For Zosimo and Magdalene Bolislis, Pellos is “heaven sent.” He eased their sorrow over their lost son.
School of living traditions
Pellos went around Kibungan soon after his conversation with Kagap to test the clay quality from every area.
He found at least 50 kinds of clay, of several colors and grades (from ordinary to high quality). He even discovered a white to bluish clay that matches the characteristics of the most expensive clay used by the Chinese for their enduring porcelain treasures.
Pellos tried to look for funding, a mere P30,000, to jumpstart a workshop and a modest kiln.
The opportunity was on his side. The NCCA heard of his project and asked him to submit a proposal, which eventually earned a grant of over P100,000 to revive the town’s traditional pottery.
The nearby community of Bila in Bauko, Mt. Province, still had women doing traditional pottery so he brought them to Kibungan for a workshop.
But knowing that pottery had died in Kibungan because it was labor-intensive and with little returns, Pellos taught modern techniques using the potter’s wheel and brick kilns.
The community’s products were first exhibited as part of a graduation program from the NCCA grant. Pellos said the NCCA officials were impressed by their serving bowls, teapots, cups and saucers.
All the items would have been bought, if not for the fact that the residents wanted to keep their work.
Today, a core group of six potters and the occasional participation of local children and other villagers, compose the “Ulnos di Linang” (clay organization). They display their wares in exhibits and festivals like the yearly Adivay in La Trinidad, Benguet.
The town’s “School of Living Traditions” is on its third year and has offered rice wine and “bubud” (native yeast) making, and production of indigenous instruments to locals. The old women serve as teachers in the school.
Message for environment
Pellos also used his pottery to deliver an environmental message in a recent exhibit staged by the Cordillera Green Network (CGN), a nongovernment organization focused on the protection, preservation and promotion of the Cordillera environment.
The exhibit, which featured 157 clay monkey masks made by Kibungan residents, wanted to send a message about the rate of deforestation in the region.
Mariko Sorimachi Banasan, CGN director, said the activity, with a special focus on clay work, hoped to give the young a view of nature through the arts.
The masks were exhibited at the Victor Oteyza Community Art Space (Vocas) in Baguio City last month to celebrate Environment Month. The show was called “Where have all the monkeys gone.”
Banasan said big monkeys or apes used to roam the forests of Kibungan. In fact, Kibungan derives its name from the word “kibeng,” which means big monkey or ape.
These creatures, however, have long disappeared from their forests. Banasan quoted old folks as saying that they last saw these creatures roaming the forests in 1965.
“Their extinction was an indication of how we have failed to protect and preserve their forest habitats,” she said.