By GINO DORMIENDO Contributor THE FIRST SOLO exhibit of Joey Velasco is not intended for the callous of heart and those totally bereft of compassion. Neither are his works meant for those who regard artists as mere purveyors of beautiful images to be hung on the wall. With his large, plywood-size oil paintings as well as relief wood sculptures documenting the lives and collective journey of a group of street children in various parts of Metro Manila, impoverished, neglected and abused, the artist has struck a sensitive chord by opting to do his unique kind of advocacy work. By interacting with these kids of the city's slums, he sought to expose their abject existence, both in his art and through the book he wrote that documents their lives. Titled "Hapág: Faith Beyond the Canvas," (ArtAsia Gallery, 4th Floor, SM Megamall, Oct. 13-30), the exhibit is designed to call attention to the sad plight of our less fortunate brethren, the young and innocent children of the metropolis. The artist started work while undergoing treatment for kidney disease (a large mass in his left kidney had to be removed), and by the time he was through with the treatment, he found himself totally immersed in completing a series of paintings on the plight of the children. The stories they shared had moved him to create the paintings and write the book. Velasco, a 39-year-old ex-seminarian from Don Bosco in Pampanga, has produced an entire tableau of hope and redemption made possible by one's faith. Working in a style that is reminiscent of such masters as Titian, Velasquez and Caravaggio, Velasco situates the children in the context of Jesus Christ's apostolic life. With Christ virtually present in each canvas, the artist admonishes us to do our part in building a Christian community. These scenes are heart-rending as they are awe-inspiring even to non-believers and agnostics. The largest mural is "Hapag ng Pag-asa," a 4 x 8 ft mural involving the 12 children and Christ also shown with them, partaking of food in the manner of the Last Supper. The image has been replicated in huge billboards and many passersby have reportedly been moved by the message it carried. These are, of course, all real characters that Velasco has individually painted in the other works and their figures are delineated in flesh-and-blood configuration, in the style of the European masters, from their grimy visage down to their table manners. One must not fail to see the child on the floor, hungrily eating the left-over food. Particularly striking is Velasco's unique ability to show emotion with the visage --- darting eyes and all. Velasco admitted the use of a model for Christ, a mestizo whose features he altered by making his face gaunt and grimy. But the children, he insists, are all authentic, and they are captured in the manner of cinema verité, with little alterations save perhaps by what the brush has done in the name of verisimilitude. That he learned how to do portraits just a year and a half ago makes the artist's feat all the more incredible, if not totally unbelievable. But he has achieved it, and can only gape in such display of skill and talent.A number of the works, ostensibly smaller in size, have Christ in the company of an old man whom the artist met in Home for the Aged while doing his missionary work. The piece, "Atrofia: You Are My Strength" shows the subject hugging Christ, clutching his crown of thorns. Another painting, "Heal our Land," shows Christ's hands clasped in prayer, a Filipino flag draping his arms. The pieces that literally take our heart away are those showing the children in casual and intimate conversation with the Master, as in "My Life Is in Your Hands" with a cripple boy of 10 and his elder sister being comforted by the Master. There are more scenes of the Hapág children that are better seen in the gallery walls of Artasia rather than vicariously experienced here. Velasco calls them the story of our people's own redemption. The exhibit opens on October 13, 6 p.m. at Artasia, Art Walk, SM Megamall. One may also peruse the book "They Have Jesus: The Stories of the Children of Hapag," which will be simultaneously launched on October 13, at the Book Fair Exhibit in the Megatrade Trade Hall, 5th floor, Bldg A, SM Megamall. Velasco's other works, together with cause-oriented artists, will soon be touring parts of the country, through Gawad Kalinga.