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Posted by Dexter Matilla - - 0 comments

By Dexter R. Matilla
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:53:00 03/08/2009

Filed Under: Arts (general), Lifestyle & Leisure

BETSY Westendorp started the day like any other. She had packed her painting tools and was soon on her way to Port Area in Manila with daughter Sylvia.

Betsy, named after her godmother, the Dutch painter Betsy Westendorp-Osieck, had always been fascinated by the wooden houses on stilts.

“Beautiful” was how she described the barong-barong, the fishermen’s houses that used to occupy the now reclaimed area of Manila Bay. It was a site that Betsy had full view of from her apartment studio.

Back then, afternoons for her would include boat rides along those waters. She would take in the sunset view, close her eyes, and paint the picture in her head. She would later reproduce the image on canvas. She did not like the idea of painting from the boat on the spot because “that would just be difficult.”

But her mission at Port Area on that particular day was different. She wanted to paint a cluster of houses in a place called Isla Puting Bato on the spot. With Sylvia beside her, Betsy went about her way.

She was close to finishing her painting when a group of young men—residents of the area—went up to her and asked what she was doing.

One of the men said threateningly: “Hey, foreigner, what are you doing? Why are you painting the bad aspects of our lives? To show to everyone the kind of life we live? We’ll tell the [Philippine] President what you are doing. Go now. Leave.”

The young men then started to shake their car, so Betsy and Sylvia packed up and left.

“We did not want to tell them that the next day I was going to inform the President [Ferdinand Marcos, who was sitting for the artist at the time] about the whole thing and that we are not foreigners,” Betsy said.

“My daughter and I are Filipino citizens and love this country. Those houses I was painting, they were works of art, popular art at its best. And that is the way I feel about it until now.”

When Betsy took the unfinished painting to Spain, it was exhibited and received wide acclaim. (It is now in the possession of a dear friend in Madrid.)

The series of barong-barong paintings is still one of the most remembered works of Betsy, and even the great Spanish art critic Carlos Arean wrote that it was “the artist’s best so far.”

Still painting

Betsy still paints with the help of a steel contraption built for her inside her apartment studio along Roxas Boulevard, which is her home when she’s in the Philippines. Anyone entering the high-ceilinged room would feel lost in what seemed a mystical realm.

Large-scale paintings by Betsy covered the walls. One could just imagine stepping through the frames and almost immediately being transported to a time, to a place that continues to exist in Betsy’s mind.

Some of her more recent works, along with some from the not-so-distant past, will be exhibited at the Mandarin Suites, 4/F, Gateway mall, Araneta Center, Cubao.

The exhibit is called “Reflections,” and will run March 12-23. It will feature her famous landscapes and floral paintings, atmospheric impressions of light (“Atmosferografias,” said one art critic in Spain) and never-before-seen portraits of Philippine high-society members.

The artist started very young. She loved doing portraits of her family and her loved ones. Her break came when she met the Philippine Ambassador in Madrid, Luis Gonzales, and his wife Vicky Quirino-Gonzales.

The couple introduced Betsy to Spain’s elite, and the artist soon found herself doing the portraits of royal personalities, with King Juan Carlos describing the artist as his favorite.

“The relationship between the model and the artist is very beautiful,” Westendorp said. “Doing portraits is like painting a person’s soul. I don’t paint from a photograph because I want my subject to be there with me. The moment the model leaves, it’s like dancing when the music stops.”

Betsy has since seen and painted different subjects and exhibited in most parts of the world. But she keeps coming back to Manila.

For helping spread the beauty of art and of the Philippines, Betsy was conferred with the Philippine Presidential Medal of Merit for Art and Culture in simple ceremonies in Madrid early last year. Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo described the artist as teary-eyed when she delivered her acceptance speech.

Love of her life

Betsy is 81 years old. In her heart, she is no different from the girl who started doing portraits of her family and friends, or that young woman who brought her daughter to Isla Puting Bato to paint.

Her mind is still very active and she is almost online every day, since she maintains a Facebook account and totes around an iPhone. With the latter, she showed us a picture of her beloved grandson Ian, who passed away recently at the age of 26.

She described Ian as the love of her life. Loving for Betsy means devoting oneself, which is why she remembers Ian by painting him.

This is the same reason why, despite her grandmother’s strictness, Betsy still married
Filipino-Spanish businessman Antonio Brias Jr., who was very sick when they met.

“Never find a man in a clinic, my grandmother said,” Betsy recalled. “But what can I do? I fell in love.”

Betsy plans to stay as long as she can in the Philippines. She will wait for daughters Sylvia and Carmen, who will both stage an exhibit with Betsy in April.

“But I may just have one painting during that exhibit,” Betsy said. “After ‘Reflections,’ people may get tired of seeing me and all of my paintings.”


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