The paintings in Fraley Lounge are often mistaken for the work of the Rocky Mountain College faculty and students, but they are actually the work of a diminutive man with a ready smile who serves as a Sodexo chef in Bair Family Student Center.
“I often take my classes to look at the paintings because they are so colorful and dramatic,” said Jim Baken, RMC art professor.
The class discusses the artist’s bold approach, his use of Fauve colors, the idea of expressionism, and possible interpretations of the work, Baken said.
One particular Baken favorite is the large painting over the Fraley fireplace. It depicts New York City in a swirling composition and what appears to be the Statue of Liberty wrapped in cloth and moving through space across the picture plane.
“This piece,” said Baken, “reminds us of liberty and our present state of affairs. The entire gallery of work elicits a variety of discussion because the collection is unique and evocative.”
After class, many students will filter into the cafeteria where the artist will be serving special preparations at one of the many food stations.
The man who painted them is Sam Tagatac, a 73-year-old survivor of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines that killed his father and uncle – guerrilla warriors fighting for the Allies - and forced his family to flee to the United States.
“That’s how I knew I would wind up in the West,” he remembered of his trip to America. “My mom and aunt knew cowboy songs and that’s what they taught me to sing on the ship we took to get to America.”
They landed in Santa Barbara, Calif., where much of the Philippine émigré community was transplanted during World War II. In school Mr. Tagatac discovered his talents were artistic. He loved music, playing violin and saxophone. His music teacher was Henry Brubeck, brother of legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck, who once came to perform a benefit concert to help raise money for band uniforms.
When he graduated from high school, he headed to the University of San Francisco. His family wanted him to become a doctor.
“The family decided what you would become. They decided who would be an engineer, lawyer ... and when they came to me it was ‘we need a doctor,’” he said with a smile. “But I didn’t want that. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but it wasn’t that.”
Instead he left USF and earned a bachelor of arts degree at San Francisco State, majoring in film and English.
“Not really employable,” he said with a laugh, except for three years when he was hired as an instructor in film and Asian studies. He also taught briefly at the University of California Santa Barbara.
“I left because the teaching jobs were temporary, and I was tired of the prospect of continuous study,” he said.
Eventually his stepfather lured him to the restaurant business. Filipino restaurants were famous in the Santa Barbara area and Mr. Tagatac studied with the masters. The work was more durable than teaching, he thought, and experts were schooling him.
“They were the shamans,” he said. “I learned everything from them.”
He discovered that, along with his musical and culinary talents, he also liked to write. His experience resulted in his first book, “Filipino Chefs of Santa Barbara.”
Inspired by Filipino chefs, Mr. Tagatac opened his own restaurants. He was married with three children, operating restaurants and buying a new home when the recession in the 1980s hit.
“Everything was topsy-turvy. My wife – only 35 years old – suffered a stroke, and with the recession and medical bills, I lost everything,” he said. “But I didn’t lose life.”
He decided he needed to continue his education.
“I always believed in education. The way to live better was to do something with your brain,” he said.
He was accepted to a master’s program at the University of California Los Angeles but knew he couldn’t afford it. He could afford Santa Barbara’s City College, which offered courses for $1.
He thought he might try auto mechanics at City College, but a scheduling error resulted in his enrollment in computer programming. Fortunately that classroom was near a more interesting classroom.
“I looked in and saw people painting and instantly I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I learned the great lesson of my life: Art will make you happy.”
Eventually Mr. Tagatac realized his dream to be in the “Cowboy West.” When his wife, incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease, needed full time, long-term care, his children stepped in to care for her. They encouraged Mr. Tagatac, who had struggled to care for her and raise the family, to pursue his dream.
“I came to Montana,” he said. “I had some friends who said I’d find only rednecks. But I told them later they were wrong. California has more rednecks and redwoods.”
He relied on his chef experience to earn a living, cooking for I Hop, Stella’s and the Yellowstone Country Club before landing at Sodexo.
“I like the atmosphere of being at a college. It stimulates me to learn new things and try new things. I started painting again and was thrilled when my work was chosen to be on display in Fraley,” he said.
For Rocky students Mr. Tagatac is like a Renaissance man, according to Baken.
“Students really like him. He’s a chef, writer, musician and artist, all in one life. He’s remarkable.”
For Mr. Tagatac the best compliments on his chef skills come from students coming back for second and third helpings. Sometimes there is a question about the ethnic or cultural source of the food, giving him a chance to tell about the culinary history.
“This they seem to enjoy. I know I enjoy it,” he said.