Photo by Teresa Carandang
In the 1980s, Galo Ocampo was like any other St. Ann Parish member. He and his wife Loretta were devout Catholics and walked a few blocks to St. Ann’s to hear the daily mass. Afterwards, together with friends, they walked the short distance — before I-66 was built — to either the Safeway or McDonald’s on Wilson Boulevard. When he came home, he tended to his garden. He grew eggplants, tomatoes and bittermelon in his backyard.
Few of their neighbors would have known that Ocampo is considered one of the greatest artists in Philippine art history. Ocampo is best known for the “Brown Madonna,” depicting the blessed Virgin Mary as a Filipino. He was one of the leaders of the modern art movement in the Philippines. Aside from being a painter, he created and designed enduring national images: the stained glass windows of the historic Manila Cathedral and the Santo Domingo Church and the Philippine coat of arms and presidential seal.
More than an artist, he was also a soldier and a spy. He did covert work for the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) during World War II. An account of his spy work is documented in his biography, “The Life and Times of Galo Ocampo,” written by Alice Guillermo, the renowned writer and art critic. In 1943, Ocampo was inducted as a First Lieutenant of the Lapham Guerilla Unit under Captain Albert Hendrickson. He worked undercover in Manila as an art director of a theater group. Ocampo’s commanding officer Major Chris Hipolito’s affidavit described in detail his intelligence work. This included helping distribute the Liberator magazine, a publication of the guerilla movement, and sharing information obtained from short-wave broadcast news. Ocampo and his theater group also hid, fed, and clothed guerillas pursued by the Japanese. According to his eldest son, Mitch Ocampo, Ocampo secretly transmitted messages through movie billboards by using pre-established symbols and codes. The information Ocampo retrieved and transmitted helped track enemy movements.
After the war, Ocampo lived in New York. He worked for Gen. Carlos P. Romulo who was then the Philippine representative to the United Nations. (Romulo later served as president of the United Nations General Assembly from 1949 to 1950). Ocampo also stayed briefly in Washington, D.C. to study heraldry (the system by which coats of arms and other armorial bearings are devised, described, and regulated) at the U.S. War Department and numismatics (the study of coins and paper currency) at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving. When he returned to the Philippines, he taught art at the University of Santo Tomas and served as head of the Fine Arts Department at the Far Eastern University. He was also director of the National Museum of the Philippines. All these known through “The Life and Time of Galo Ocampo” and Hector Tiongson’s article, “A Brush with Greatness,” published in the online magazine “Positively Filipino."
On a recent Thursday morning at their home in Arlington, Mitch and Dennis Ocampo explained that they left the Philippines because the political climate made them uneasy. This was at the height of the authoritarian rule of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Martial Law had just been declared and Galo and Loretta Ocampo were very much concerned about their children’s future.
In Arlington in the 1980s, painting was very much part of Galo Ocampo’s daily routine, according to Mitch Ocampo. First he tended to his garden and then spent the rest of the day painting in almost every room. “He would start one in the upstairs bedroom, he would start one on the porch, then started one in the basement,” Mitch Ocampo recalled.
Dennis Ocampo said his father “relished” getting Grumbacher oil paints from a local Arlington store because they were very expensive in the Philippines.
In the Ocampo residence, Galo Ocampo’s paintings, family photographs, and awards are on display throughout the house. The colors in a portrait of the young Loretta Ocampo are still vibrant 77 years after it was first painted. Mitch Ocampo said his father was a “master of colors” and taught a class on colors in the Philippines. An unfinished oil painting, “Madonna of the Coconut,” from 1985 (the same year Ocampo died) hangs in the living room.
One of Galo Ocampo’s last works is a painting of St. Ann. It shows her dressed in glowing colors of red, purple and yellow and a young Mary in a pure white gown hovering over St. Ann’s Church. It is on display at the Rectory of St. Ann’s, the only known Ocampo painting currently on display in a public building in the metro D.C. area.
Galo Ocampo died on Sept. 12, 1985. He was buried at the Arlington Memorial Cemetery with full military honors befitting his rank as a U.S. Army Captain. In 2013, his centennial was celebrated. Guillermo’s “The Life and Times of Galo Ocampo” was published that same year. In 2015, he was posthumously awarded The Order of Lakandula, one of the highest honors conferred by the Republic of the Philippines.