The Madhatter’s Masquerade Ball at Van Gogh is Bipolar


I received a call from my friend Jetro Rafael a couple of weeks ago inviting me to a Masquerade Ball at Van Gogh is Bipolar, his eclectic little restaurant located in a compound along Maginhawa Street, Sikatuna Village.

“Sure, what’s the occasion?” I asked.

To which he replied tentatively: “It’s the end of something”.  He chuckled after he said it.

Okay. Cryptic.

Van Gogh is Bipolar has established quite a reputation and a following these past few years. It’s been featured on local lifestyle shows and even on BBC Asia. Quirky and intimate (serving only 12 guests a night, if it’s open), the restaurant serves “mood altering” food that helps manage Jetro’s bipolar condition.

It’s been awhile since I’ve last visited the place, so despite my fretting over the dressing up part, I decided to go.


Stepping into Van Gogh Is Bipolar’s Masquerade Ball is like wandering into a surrealist dream, the impression made all the more pronounced by the flimsy drapery separating the driveway of the compound and the grayness of Maginhawa Street with its ongoing road repairs and noisy tricycles.


The courtyard of the compound had been transformed into the party area. Tables with lit candles and plates of sweet potatoes were organized on the lawn. There was a photo area with a backdrop of damask patterns and masks. The 2nd floor landing overlooking the courtyard was converted into a stage for musical performances.


A popcorn stand stood by the driveway. Ushers gave us wooden party spoons and served us cocktails of lime and fruits as well as juice drinks in small baby bottles. Thick soup with noodles and shredded chicken were handed out in glass bowls.


There was an alcove in front of the restaurant’s porch, separated from the rest of the courtyard by white cloth and leaves hung on a makeshift trellis. On top of the wooden frame that marked the entrance to the alcove was a glowing lantern, and propped on it was a crescent moon wrought in GI sheet. The light from the lantern shone into the little pinholes hammered into the moon, revealing a moustachioed face.


Inside the alcove was a long wooden table with thick loaves of bread stuck with little whirly pops. Above hung a chandelier with candles in different colored jars.


At the far end of the table sat a nude female model in a mask. Robert Alejandro, illustrator, backpacker, and sometime reporter for the Probe Team sketched away with blue watercolor washes in a large sketchpad.


I sat down to sketch in a hassock on the porch that was dimly lit with a red bulb, as if in photography dark room. I could hardly see what I was drawing. Maybe that’s why it looked so good at the time, but not so much in the daytime.


Here’s my drawing, fixed up a bit for public consumption.

A musical duo (Feanne Hontiveros and her boyfriend, I think), performed on the makeshift stage. We bumped into old UP Fine Arts friends and talked about our friends who weren’t there, while the duo on stage sang their set.

An hour passed and the guests began cramming themselves into the little restaurant.


The interior of Van Gogh is Bipolar looks like an eclectic victorian parlor. There was a huge baroque dining table, sets of mismatched chairs embellished with words and splashes of paint, gifts and souvenirs left by friends and patrons, plus all sorts of bric-a-brac collected from Jetro’s travels around the world.


There were skeletons hanging on the ceiling.


Plastic crowns and hats diners were stowed away in trays so diners can wear them while eating in the dimly lit interiors and feel like cuckoo royalty.


Or you can wear this, in case you don’t want your date to recognize you.



There were teapots and teacups, old signages, paintings on desks and on walls, and even a cabinet owned by a dead President. By the doorway, was a wall of calling cards and notes left by guests and patrons that in the dim light of the parlor looked like a flight of butterflies had swarmed on the wall and remained frozen in time.


I saw some celebrities in the attendance – Iza Calzado, Carla Humphries, and Alexandra de Rossi. Jetro has famous friends.


The guests had gathered around a woman seated in front of a koto harp. Without introduction, she began to sing. Her voice alone gave her away as Armi Millare, lead signer of Up Dharma Down.


Here’s Armi Millare without the mask together with my date, Abi.


After Armi’s performance, the nude male model arrived. Wearing a top hat, he stood in a corner of the parlor surrounded by red walls covered in black graffiti. My friends decorated his body with paint Abi and I brought along at Jetro’s request.


Towards the end of the night, I asked one of my Fine Arts friends what exactly was the Masquerade Ball celebrating, to which I got another cryptic answer of: “it’s a funeral”.

I never did get a straight answer to my question that night, and I suppose it’s not really important. From talks with Jetro, everything about Van Gogh is Bipolar has always been about embracing spontaneity and imperfection and perhaps following the logic of dreams.

The Importance of Saying No


“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

Neil Gaiman, 2012 keynote address to the University of the Arts Philadelphia*

“’s critical that we (both individuals and companies) get really good at “pruning” – learning to say “no” to opportunities and projects – that don’t align with the important work that we’re doing. This means passing on opportunities – even really good ones – in order to preserve the energy needed to bring our best effort to the work that we know we need to excel at.”

Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative**

They say that opportunity knocks only once and I suppose a lot of us have been conditioned to open the door when that happens. Creating and grabbing opportunities is not easy, especially when competition is fierce and people are all vying for the same thing. So anyone can understand how hard it is to even find paths that can lead us to the things we want most in life.

But in many ways, it’s probably more difficult to walk away from an open doorway or to stop ourselves from taking a peek inside an open box. As hard as it is to find something to say “yes” to, it may even be harder to say “no” to opportunities that come along the way. As I grow older, I’m beginning to realize that the things we decline are as important as the things we accept. Maybe saying no to something doesn’t mean turning away from an opportunity but more of a conscious decision not to be distracted from the things that matter to you.

Lately, I’ve found myself saying “no” to things. It’s not like I couldn’t use the money. I need it more now than ever before. At one point, I may have viewed them as opportunities. But It’s getting to a point where I’m trying to be more deliberate with my choices because I know that time is short.

The time I spend creating a storyboard for another person’s product could be better spent making a storyboard for my own movie. The effort required to create an illustration that deliberately apes another artist’s style while forgetting my own (which may be easy and at the same time profitable) can best be used to make my own stuff. Of course, I’ve done all these things before and may do them again, but does it bring me closer to my “mountain”?

The heart of every decision seems to boil down to discernment. Something parents don’t always teach their children, but may ultimately be the most important thing one can learn. To know oneself and one’s desires is a gift. Nevertheless, there is never any real assurance that one is “on the right path” and moving toward one’s mountain doesn’t guarantee an easy time. The future is always an uncertain and doubt will always remain.

So, it may not be about learning to say NO as much as learning who you are. When the image you see in the mirror is clear, hopefully the decisions we make for ourselves become right and true.

* Read the full transcript of Neil Gaiman’s speech here.

** Read Todd Henry’s article “Want to Get More Done? Stop Doing So Much.”


I recently had a two-man show with Sergio Bumatay III at the Canvas Gallery, my first. I had previously joined group exhibitions with my organization, Ang INK but preparing several paintings in one go is a first for me. In the end, I finished five 4 x 3 ft. paintings.

It was an interesting experience. I don’t think “fun” is quite the word I’d use. More like “frantic stumbling along”, which I know isn’t a word.


Deciding what to do, making studies, preparing surfaces and actually “negotiating” with the paint to create images that I was happy with was difficult. Nevertheless, it was extremely satisfying seeing the paintings finished and framed. Having these pictures arrayed in a gallery gave me a feeling that they existed apart from me, that other people could hold them and they weren’t just in my head. I only wish I could have been faster and actually finished more.


I learned a lot from the experience and it’s something I want to keep on doing in the coming years. I often think to myself why I paint. I’ve worked in advertising for years and I work at a time when doing stuff digitally is a must for any workflow, but something about painting excites me and inspires me.


I like looking at paintings. I like looking at other peoples paintings and it makes me want to paint more. I think I paint not because it’s “cutting-edge” or because it has “limitless possibilities”. Quite the contrary I think; I paint because it is limited and even “archaic”.


Making marks on a surface is as old as the history of man. But I like the idea that with direct physical contact with a material, people can create different shades of meaning and emotion. And that, I think, is extremely satisfying.