The extraordinary life of coffee artist Rens Tuzon

by FM Ganal
Oct 10, 2017
Rens Tuzon is a visual artist with more than 25 years of experience. He took part in the French art exposition The Story of Coffee between March 31 and April 2 this year in Paris, France as the only Asian representative among a group of international coffee artists.

It had taken Rens Tuzon several detours before finding the right direction that would lead him to an art medium he is now famous for: coffee painting.

After graduating from the Far Eastern University in 1992 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Advertising, Rens found work as a graphic artist in a publication.

He moved on to becoming an entertainment columnist, hobnobbed with showbiz people, and at some point, became a publicist for Sony Music.

Then, an opportunity to become a radio jock presented itself, which Rens grabbed and eventually thrived in.

All throughout this period in his career, Rens continued as a visual artist focusing on watercolor and photography.

How all that led to his becoming renowned as a coffee painter is the story he shared with (Philippine Entertainment Portal) in this interview.

GLORY DAYS. “Mahilig kasi ako mag-experiment,” Rens began.

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“Sa photography kasi, merong mga technique do’n—halimbawa gusto mo maging sepia, gusto mo maging luma.

"Wala namang Photoshop before, e. Ang ginagawa ko, binubuhusan ko ng kape.

“So kapag na-print siya black and white, bubuhusan ko ng kape para maging natural yung sepia… talagang puro improvise.

“Wala pang space para mapakita yung coffee painting, masyado pang broad ang appreciation sa watercolor 'tsaka sa oil.

“So ang ginawa ko, nag-mix media muna ako no’n,” the artist narrated.

That was also the starting point of his signature angel paintings.

His first solo exhibit called Anghel at 70’s Bistro/Art Space in Quezon City in 1997 introduced Rens to the local art scene.

He held another exhibit of his new works, Angels & Other Winged Spirits, the following year.

His works started getting attention, enabling him to exhibit his angel series in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Macau in 2001.

At the same time, other creative opportunities opened as well.

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“Sunud-sunod iyon, visual arts tapos parang external PRO External ng Sony Music.

“Nag-i-interview ng mga artists. Michael Jackson, Julio Iglesias…columnist ako ng different magazines.

“More or less, nalinya ako sa entertainment side, doon luminya almost ang pagiging artist ko, more on writing.”

He wrote music and concert reviews, which got him a job offer from a radio cable station in Taiwan.

The said station was looking for a disc jockey for a radio program that catered to overseas Filipinos workers. Rens took the offer.

He related, “Noong time na iyon, hindi pa uso si Papa Jack, gano’n ako… request and dedication, nagpe-play ako ng mga music na gusto nila.

“Kumakanta ako no’n, parang talaga Papa Jack na mas malandi pa kay Papa Jack. I was entertaining OFWs, e.

“Ang title ko no’n ay Pinoy Overseas with Love. Counterpart siya nung kay Rey Langit, To Saudi With Love.

“Ako naman broad,” he said, describing his years in radio beginning in 2002 as his “glory days.”

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“Naka-six years ako abroad as a DJ, parang naging ambassador ako ng mga OFWs."

His radio show was broadcasted in several countries in East Asia and South America.

DARK TIMES. From Taiwan, Rens continued his OFW life in Riyadh City, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It turned out to be a misstep, however.

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“Talagang akala mo sa telenobela lang mangyari, pero nangyari sa ’kin,” the artist confided.

He was already married when he left for Taiwan, and being away put a strain on his relationship with his family back in the Philippines.

He summed it up in one rueful sentence: “Family, e, nawalan ka ng anak, nawalan ka ng pamilya… broken family.”

Instead of making his life better, his sojourn in Saudi Arabia, Rens intimated, made it worse.

It started well enough.

“Three years contract ko sa Saudi. Okay naman…

“Ginawa ako ng prinsesa as ‘kanan kamay creative,’ gumagawa ng portraits niya.”

He did these portraits on walls and ceilings.

”In short, ako gumagawa ng palasyo niya.”

But Rens’s own world was about to collapse.

It started when he was given 12 Filipino laborers to help him finish the murals that were to be a part of the massive, more than 200-square-meter-wide royal bathroom.

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One of the OFWs approached Rens and invited him to look into their living quarters.

“Kasi ang sabi nila no’n, yung problema parang minamaltrato sila ng amo nila.

“Labing-dalawa sila nakatira sa isang maliit na space, mas malaki pa ang banyo.

“Doon sila kumakain, natutulog,tapos hindi sila pinapasuweldo for six months.

“Iyong amo pala na nagmamaltrato sa kanila, amo ko rin.

“Gusto na raw nila umuwi ng Pilipinas...tumakas. Sige, takas tayo, napasubo na rin ako, e.

“Siyempre, with a generous heart, tumakas kami.”

Unfortunately, their employer found out. “Kinasuhan kami, kinasuhan ako ng, una, breach of contract.

“Tapos yung against the government nila, kasi nagtayo ako ng union, e.

“So dalawa ang kaso ko no’n, puwede na pugutan ng ulo.

But it was not all in vain. Rens continued, “Nailabas ko baho niya, yung ginagawa niya sa Pilipino.”

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HELP FROM THE MOTHERLAND. Rens and the 12 OFWs escaped to the desert and lived as informal settlers.

“Siguro almost one month kami hindi kumain. Puro basura ang kinakain namin no’n, wanted kami, e.

“Sa disyerto, mainit, tapos may sand storm. Ito yung binalita na sa isang karton kami nagtatalukbong.

“Kapag gabi, baba kami sa bayan, kakalkal kami ng basura para kumain, parang mga taong grasa kami.”

They tried to seek help from the embassy, but they were told their case was difficult to prove.

At the height of their desperation, Rens’s erstwhile career as a DJ proved to be their saving grace.

He recounted his encounter with journalist Roland Blanco, “Kilala na ako as DJ, e.

"Nung namamalimos kami sa daan, itong si Ronald Blanco, gusgusin ako no'n, nakilala boses ko. "

Blanco became an angel of mercy who brought to the attention of Philippine media the plight of Rens and the 12 Filipino laborers as fugitives in Riyadh.

The news reached then Vice President Noli de Castro, who did everything he could to get them out of their sorry situation.

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UNEASY FRESH START. Rens’s exit from Saudi Arabia, however unceremonious, gave him another chance to start anew.

In his own words, it hadn’t been easy. “Nawala ako sa eksena, as in totally nawala.

“Pagiging DJ ko, pagiging artist—as in wala! Talagang namundok, healing time, e.

“Lahat, wala akong pakialam… isa akong hermitanyo for more than one year.”

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His self-imposed isolation from the world led him back to his core passion: painting.

Rens’s art became his salvation. “Parang na-wash out lahat yung mga burden ko…” he mused.

It was 2010, and the digital era was just beginning to introduce platforms that would turn out to be either a boon or a bane to artists.

As someone honed in traditional media, Rens felt lost.

“Nakita ko yung visual arts, hindi na gano’ng kasaya.

“The essence of art nawala, yung deepness ng art nawala.

“Kami no’n, ang pagkain talagang pinipinta… ngayon, kinukuha, ini-Instagram.

“Parang nawala yung soul mismo ng art, kasi lahat na lang—kung may camera, photographer.

“Kapag merong pencil, merong brush, painter.”

Rens introspected, “Papaano ko ibabalik?”

At that time, the coffee shop industry in the Philippines was booming.

“Why not ibalik ko yung art ko through coffee painting?” the artist recalled asking himself.

The thought excited Rens.

“Tignan mo, wala siyang Photoshop, wala siyang filter. It’s a basic art kasi.

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“Bago ka matututo ng watercolor, kailangan mag-monotones ka muna. Napakaganda ng coffee painting.

“Ang maganda sa coffee—stain, mantsa. Ibig sabihin, matagal mawala.

“Saka habang tumatagal, dumidilim ang kulay.”

BACK ON THE RIGHT TRACK. Rens concentrated on coffee portraits when he set out to reintroduce the medium to the local scene.

He worked on portraits of characters from the popular TV series Game of Thrones, as well as those from Marvel and DC comics, and Star Wars.

His portrait of the popular Star Wars character Yoda attracted the attention of a fan abroad, who offered him $100 for it.

Rens recalled, “Sabi niya, ‘Sir, pupunta akong Pilipinas, kukunin ko yung Yoda.’ Akala ko nagbibiro.

“Alam mo naman sa Facebook, hindi naman totoo yung iba, di ba?

“Naisip ko, ‘Sige, why not? Hindi ko naman siya ibebenta sa iba kundi sa ’yo.’

“Two days after, nagkipagkita sa ’kin. Binili niya, talagang binigay niya one hundred dollars.”

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The sale of his coffee art painting convinced Rens that he was starting fresh on the right track.

Coffee painting was already gaining popularity in other parts of the world, and he jumped on the bandwagon in the nick of time.

He said, “Sabi sa ’kin, sa New Jersey, sa New York, even sa Paris, boom na pala yung coffee painting.

“Habang ako’y natutulog, nagboo-boom na pala siya because of the coffee business.

“Sabi ko, ‘Right timing, right track.’”

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INTERNATIONAL BREAKTHROUGH. In March this year, Rens took part in an International Coffee Exposition and Art Exhibition in Paris, France.

Titled Raconte Moi Le Café (The Story of Coffee), the show was organized by a group of French art students aiming to broaden the appreciation of coffee painting globally.

Rens was the only Asian representative among the ten coffee artists from around the world in the Paris show.

The international exhibition further fueled Rens’s “revolution” to bring back traditional art to the forefront.

Even though his name has become closely associated with the resurgence of coffee painting in the country, Rens admitted that he is not comfortable with the tag “pioneer.”

“Ang yabang ko naman kung pioneer...Ang gusto ko lang yung basic, kasi ito yung basic, e,” he said, referring to coffee art.

For him, it is enough that his endeavors in art are recognized and his works are regarded with care.

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As he put it, “Ang isang artist, ganito, hindi naman necessarily bilhin mo gawa ko, e.

“Gusto lang naming i-appreciate ang gawa.

“Kung bibilhin mo lang siya para masabi na meron kayo, hindi ako papayag.

“Gusto ko kapag bibilhin mo gawa ko, you appreciate it.

“Yung aalagaan mo. Gano’n yung mga artist, kaya ang mga artist tinatawag nilang ‘malalim.’

“Ano lang kami, appreciate mo yung gawa, itago mo yung gawa, okay na sa ’min no’n."

Rens Tuzon holds coffee painting workshops in various locations around the metro and nearby provinces. Check out his Facebook page for updates.

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Rens Tuzon is a visual artist with more than 25 years of experience. He took part in the French art exposition The Story of Coffee between March 31 and April 2 this year in Paris, France as the only Asian representative among a group of international coffee artists.
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