The Two Lives of Justin Nuyda


Justin Nuyda or Tiny to his friends has two lives—one as a lepidopterist and the other as a visual artist. It has been this way as far as he can remember, he says. He does not really know how one influences the other. One thing he is sure of though: one cannot live without the other.

His Winged Beauties

Tiny’s love for butterflies began at an early age. His dad (Hermel) and uncles (Rene, Glenn, Jeciel) were the pioneers in this specialized field of Lepidotera. These men had an intense passion for butterflies.

“My dad, writer Hermenigildo Nuyda, was second of six brothers who all grew up in Bicol in the 40s. They had a garden where butterflies roamed freely. Maganda ang kamalig nuon. They started naming them based on their looks and forms: vampire, forest king, green enchantress, spotty green, cabbage.” However, this fascination was interrupted by the Japanese occupation and then the American liberation.

It was only in 1952 that Nuyda brothers became serious collectors. Their exploration grew from the kamalig to forests, jungles, hills, and mountains. This was the era that the famed (George and Karl) Semper’s butterfly collection seized to be mere description. In 1954, the Nuyda siblings led the way to Mt. Halcon. In 1957-64, Glenn Nuyda ventured further into the Palawan wilderness.

The first generation of Nuydas was joined by a second generation led by Tiny who even today continues to be the most outstanding lepidopterist, even surpassing his father and uncles. Butterfly catching may be a bygone activity but for Tiny then it was what he lived for. He adds: “The earliest butterfly I caught was when I was in grade school. I was 6, I even cried. I pointed it to my father, di ko nahuli but nahuli nya. At 7-8 years, I would tag along, hawak ko yung braso ng tatay ko, baka maiwanan ako sa gubat.”

He continues, “At 12, I was already catching butterflies. I would hear stories from butterfly collectors describing what they could not catch then I would go to the place to look for them. I would even go up when before there were no trails. Kabayo ka, lakad ka. There are certain butterflies that live on certain altitude only. Malaria and other diseases were your enemies.”

In 1957, he ventured alone or with his father-in-law, Colin Threadway, head of Procter & Gamble at that time, who taught him how to describe butterflies. They would eventually go to Mindoro, Palawan and Northern Luzon in the 60s.

It was also at this time that Tiny frequented Mindoro, Palawan and Northern Luzon. In 1968, in a Bukidnon trip with Treadway, they went up 3,000-4,000 feet. They did not know that they were on the slopes of Mt. Kitanglad. It was there that he saw Delias baracasa. The first butterfly named after him was also caught in Mt. Katinglad, the Delias nuydaorum, in 1975, it was named after him by Dr. Schroeder of Senkenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.

Tiny would climb many other mountains in search of butterflies. It was on Mt. Halcon where he caught many sub species and on Mt Banahaw where he found exactly the same butterflies as in Mt Halcon (except for chikkei). He frequented the Babuyan Islands in Camiguin, Calayan Island, and Sibuyan. He believes they are somehow connected because they have the same species of butterflies.

Tiny elevated his study of butterfly into a formal discipline: “In 1993, we formed the FilKulisap society for us to describe our own findings through its scientific journal. Before we did not have the capacity to name species because there was no venue but we had photos and butterfly collectors could testify knew about it,” Tiny proudly recalls.

In 1995, Tiny donated some species and started a comprehensive butterfly farm at the Assumption College, Peace and Care for Earth Ministry (PACEM Eco-Park) in Antipolo, Rizal. Given the cool climate and being a largely secluded space, butterflies breed and freely can roam there. So far, it is the only comprehensive haven where these winged beauties can be fully appreciated.

“I go abroad not because of my art but because of my butterfly collection. I’ve been to the Leiden Museum in Rotterdam and Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt. The Leiden has impressive and extensive collection of tropical butterflies found in the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea,” he mentions.

Tiny has named over a hundred endemic sub species and new species such as Archillides hermelli which he named it after his father in 1992 and the Moduza urdaneta ayni named after his daughter in 1993. There are also many sub species in Mt. Apo. Other butterflies he named are Lexias satrapes hiwaga in 1989, Tajuria igolotiana bonito named after his cousin and Dacalana halconesis after Mt. Halcon, both in 1999. The DENR has prohibited catching butterflies since 2000.

His Waiflike Brushstrokes

“In art, there are unusual colors that just can’t go with each other but they exist in a butterfly,” says Tiny. “For example black and yellow. With a thin line of gray you can put them together. How light to dark is. You can witness that in a butterfly, most colors exist in them already.”

He learned a lot of this from the late National Artist Cesar Legaspi who had a special fondness for him. He used to visit Mang Cesar when he was still in high school: “You cannot go wrong with nature, it is always right,” Mang Cesar would tell him. “He would look for fallen kaimito leaves pin them his canvas, and use them as inspiration for his paintings,” Tiny recalls.

Tiny stood by his own visual language, having favored his own kind of abstraction more than another kind of realism. His abstraction is always met with praises although it is not being categorized. Even Tiny does not know what to call his style: “Before, it was called “surreal” or ‘modern art.’ It’s not abstract because you see landscapes; only good things appear. It is not also conservative because no such thing appears. I stood by my style since my first one-man exhibition in Solidaridad. In fact there are places I go to that remind me that look like a painting not realizing I had already painted it. I would play with gaze. A painting should communicate to a person with the person who wants it.”

The colors of the butterflies influence Tiny’s work: “I have my own choices of colors but a lot of times, I prefer color combinations in butterflies. There are colors that are real but do not look right. He veers towards more natural earth colors, warm side not the bright and luminous.”

Tiny’s first exhibition was held at Solidaridad Galleries in 1968. He was already doing his Search Mindscapes theme. In fact, this is where he met National Artist Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera who lent him an easel when he was installing.

Tiny’s process is organic; he primes his canvases with as much as seven coatings. He often uses colors that play with the eyes. His colors come backwards and forwards. However, he only uses white for blending and he scrapes it. He adds: “There are some works I started five years ago which I only finished now because I like it better than the last one I did. Even if somebody likes it but if I don’t like it, I don’t give it. An artist must go from one level to the next. If it doesn’t work, change to another level or improve what you have done. When you are doing something, your mind is so focused, unmindful of the wrong. I would ask the opinion of other artists.”

Tiny was a founding member and closely associated with the Saturday Group. He narrates: “It all started in 1968 when HR Ocampo bumped into writer Alfredo Roces in Ermita one Friday. Fond of banana split ice cream, he invited him for a snack at the Taza de Oro along UN Avenue. They both enjoyed the camaraderie that they agreed to meet with other artists the next Saturday on the same place and Saturdays thereon.”

Tiny would join them on the third Saturday for the next ten years. This was a loose organization that would attract an entire generation of artists. Some of these eventually became National Artists HR Ocampo, Cesar Legaspi, Vicente Manansala, Ang Kiukok, Jose Joya, and Benedicto Cabrera. Other artists like Federico Alcuaz and Juvenal Sanso (whenever in town), Mauro Malang Santos, Ed Castrillo, Onib Olmedo, and  Sym Mendoza. Even writers Rod Paras-Perez and Leo Benesa.  

“You can be a member if you attend twice. Younger artists mingled with older artists. Initially, there was no president. Ocampo was just the spokesman. Everybody, no matter, how young had a say. I was their pet being the youngest of the founding members. They were in their late 40s, I was in my 20s. So mga bata pa rin sila,” he gleefully reminisces.

They would have nude sketching, out of town trips and annual exhibitions. They went to the studio of Botong Francisco in Angono at one time. To this day, most of his lifelong friends were from this artistic bunch.

There has been a resurgence of young and old collectors buying his works however Nuyda laments how young artists could be more expensive than National Artists. In the galleries, they can’t sell it at that price. He plans to have a black and white plus one color show soon for his future mindscapes.

For his butterflies, he would like to write many subspecies in the FilKulisap journal as there have been no big news in the last ten years. And there’s that long overdue Philippine Butterfly book. Eventually I would like to donate all my holotype first caught to a worthy museum for every Filipino to view and marvel at.

Like his butterflies, Tiny is the last of his species. Like his paintings, his life is a masterpiece-in-progress.  

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