Ramon Orlina: A treasured Philippine artist

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On his life’s creative journey and breaking the limits of glass

n ‘I am like my art, I’ was transparent as glass.’ Orlina openly shares his life as an artist

n ‘I am like my art, I’ was transparent as glass.’ Orlina openly shares his life as an artist

From Picasso, Dali, Matisse, to Van Gogh, the works of the world’s greatest artists are immortalized in museums that also proudly carry their name. With these, they are able to touch generations upon generations of people with their genius, long after their gifted hands had given life to their final masterpieces.

In the Philippines, as a significant and commendable effort continues to thrive in making arts and culture more accessible to the public, advocates and admirers of the visual arts rejoiced at the grand opening of Museo Orlina in Tagaytay on April 9. For indeed, nothing less than a permanent display of the provocative works of internationally acclaimed glass sculptor Ramon Orlina can do justice to his artistic prodigy.

Comprised of an amphitheater, an interactive display system, a coffee house, and of course, glass windows all over, Museo Orlina provides an intimate view into the creativity of this treasured Filipino artist, who describes himself to be “as transparent as glass.”


Evolution

“I opened my museum for people to see my evolution. From the very prismatic works, I venture into works with more texture and colors. I also try different approaches and combine mediums,” Orlina revealed to The Sunday Times Magazine.

On the first and lower level of Museo Orlina, the Reflections Gallery showcases changing exhibitions, while the second and third levels serve as permanent spaces for his earliest to most recent works.

Inside the Museo Orlina

Inside the Museo Orlina

There, a huge collection of glass sculptures interspersed with pieces made from a variety of mediums such as bronze and wood; as well as jewelry, art cars, chairs and photographs of the artist’s works abroad, await visitors for an awe-inspiring experience.

From these, a lot can be discovered from the artist who revolutionized the elements of his medium—pushing the limits of glass without compromising his own freedom to experiment and create his visions into existence.

Simple yet elegant; pure and modern; refined and ever changing, these and more describe the glass genius and his masterpieces.

Uncertain start

The Museo Orlina Sculpture Garden where the amphitheater is located

The Museo Orlina Sculpture Garden where the amphitheater is located

At an early age, Orlina already displayed a creative streak. He was fond of drawing, was very much into comic books, and would even build his own toys.

Looking back, he believes an “artistic gene” contributed to his creative genius.

“Ever since I was a child I was already into arts. My great-grand father was known as ‘Antonyong Pintor’ in our town, and maybe that’s where I got it. But I would never buy a toy gun or a canyon; I would make my own using materials available to me,” he recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine.

After completing an architectural degree at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), Orlina secured his professional license in 1965 and went on to practice at a top firm.
Although he was more interested in Fine Arts, he thought back then that architecture was more practical choice of profession.

Changes in the Philippines’ political landscape in 1970s, however, fatefully forced him to take on a different career path. With clients leaving the country, he looked for another artistic venue and stumbled upon glass painting.

The personal art collection of the world-famous Filipino glass sculpture in his Manila home

The personal art collection of the world-famous Filipino glass sculpture in his Manila home

Prolific even at the onset, he was able to mount his first solo exhibit in 1976 entitled, Reflections, Paintings on Glass at the former Hyatt Hotel in Manila. The show proved to be a hit in the art community, and the young artist sold over 80 percent of the 25 glass paintings he put on display.

Word of Orlina’s talent quickly made it to Republic Glass Corp. (RGC), whose owners offered him a scholarship to study anywhere he believed he could further hone his art.
Orlina’s gift of foresight, however, thought the offer was “too good to be true.”

“A week after I was offered the scholarship, I went back to them and thanked them for their generosity, but I didn’t accept it. I am not what you can call an opportunist, and I knew that there is nothing free in this world. Either I pay or I would forever be indebted to them, and will have utang na loob,” the artist said in all candor.

Instead, Orlina forged an agreement with RGC that allowed him to work on the company site. In return he would credit them for all his artworks.

Uncertain nonetheless whether he would be able to develop an artistic breakthrough with the medium, a two-year partnership with the firm ensued.

“I was not an employee; I was just there to experiment. One time I saw their [glass]residue, and they were just throwing it away. I had them cut and grinded, and I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ And that was when I started glass sculpting,” Orlina recalled his moment of eureka.

In a year’s time, not only was the artist able to experiment on his chosen medium, but he was also able to create his first sculpture titled “Arcanum XIX,” which was quickly acquired for display as the centerpiece of The Silahis International Hotel, now known as Grand Boulevard Hotel in Manila.

The coup

Orlina decided to end his stint with RGC at the end of the two-year contract, and bravely pursued his newfound art on his own. While he credits the firm as the source of all his technical knowledge on glass, unavoidable conflicts due to office politics and jealousy, hindered him from focusing on his budding career.

In the next decade Orlina would continue sculpting enough glass art to mount several shows. But he failed to impress important art critics or buyers because appreciation for glass art was uncommon back then. It was clear to Orlina that his chosen art was still very new and not easily understood at the time.

“I did my sculptures for 10 years [after I left RCG]but people still didn’t know me.

They didn’t know if my works would continue, and even what it was all about. People were skeptical if their investment on my work would be worth it. Plus [my medium]being glass, people feared it might break so the value of my work was not established.”
Unfazed, determination saw Orlina through these hurdles and challenges, and he continued to throw himself in developing his glass art, while experimenting with other mediums at the same time.

It was his controversial piece, the $300,000 “Wings of Victory”—an artwork of 67 colorful steel birds weighing 35-kilogram each—that used to hang at the Wisma Atria in Singapore, which finally placed the name Ramon Orlina on the international map of visual arts.

“When people saw that, they were awestruck. They started to ask who did it; and when they heard the name ‘Orlina,’ they asked, ‘Who’s that’,” laughed the chatty artist.

“Imagine, 10 years [worth]of exhibitions and artworks and they still didn’t know who I was! Oh, it wasn’t an easy journey, but I kept my focus.”

Magical spirit

Today, Ramon Orlina remains to be one of the most sought-after glass sculptures in the world. I n the 1970s, when glass art was in its very early stages in Europe and North America, this Batangas-grown had already pioneered the highly skilled craft in the Philippines.

Taking inspiration from simple things in his surroundings such as a scenic view, cloud formation, the break of dawn, nature, as well as his family and music, Orlina imagines visual representations of these ideas and turns them into magical masterpieces that capture his free spirit.

“With every sculpture, there is a theme. Just like one of my popular works, the ‘Ning Ning’ series in ’89. My wife was breastfeeding a lot so I was exposed to breasts, so that most of my sculptures were to do breasts,” he related. “It really depends on what theme I am working on, whether it’s a commissioned work or an exhibit, I begin with the theme,” the celebrated artist shared.

But just like any other artist, he also experiences what he calls an “artistic block.”

When he hits one, he puts his work aside and goes on to do something else for a bit in order to avoid ruining what he had started.

“With painting, the struggle is within yourself. But in sculpture, you fight with your material, and you have to win over the material—that’s one thing you can’t control,” Orlina explained.

In simple terms, the artist shared his work process, as “cut, grind, smooth, and polish.” These terms, though simple, involve very careful precision, patience and hard work, in order to produce a three-foot Orlina sculpture. Large installations, takes years to complete, much like his famous “Quattro Mondial Monument” commissioned by his alma mater UST.

Built from bronze and glass, the four meter high sculpture represents four figures—the Filipino student, modeled by actor Piolo Pascual; the Filipina student inspire by the figure of Orlina’s daughter Monina; the beauty queen based on Charlene Gonzales; and the Dominican monk-scholar embodied by Fr. Rolando dela Rosa.

In 1983, Orlina was also commissioned to create the “Mudras Cross,” a 10-meter high cross situated outside Greenbelt Church in Makati City. The Our Lady of Edsa at the Ortigas intersection, and “Quintessence,” a glass and bronze window sculpture at the Singapore Art Museum, and many other famous pieces comprise the revered Ramon Orlina’s long list of celebrated works.

Famous clients

Included in Orlina’s esteemed list of clients are Philippine presidents, from the Marcos to Aquino, Ramos to Estrada and Arroyo. Orlina is rightly proud of his collectors, which also include the most prominent business and showbiz personalities.

“From Marcos, all the presidents have my work. [Former First Lady] Imelda has a few, and also [the late President]Cory Aquino. I know [former President]Fidel Ramos has a lot because he was into business, and businessmen always commissioned me to make special sculptures for him. Those never went on public display but directly to him,” he shared.

“I know Erap [former President Joseph Estrada]has some of my works too. It’s funny because when he left Malacañang he was not able to carry my works with him, so when [former President]Gloria Arroyo was delivering her speech from the Palace, I saw my works that belonged to Erap right behind her—two of them!” he laughed.

Passing on

Besides future expansions for his museum, Orlina hopes to pass on his knowledge to his youngest daughter, Anna, who is most interested in the arts out of his four children.

He also continues to showcase local talent through exhibitions in Museo Orlina, where he now spends most of his time.

“I go there almost three times a week,” he told The Sunday Times Magazine during the interview at his Manila residence. “I also want to meet and greet my guests and at the same time, work on arrangements and repairs.”

In the future, Orlina hopes to open a “School of Glass Arts,” something that has never been done in the country. Ultimately, at 70 years old, he believes that it is time to pass on his knowledge for his legacy to continue.

As for being named a National Artist, Orlina is dissuaded by the fact that politics is still predominant in the voting process.

“After all it’s just a title, but who wouldn’t want that, right?” Orlina said in all honesty.

But to called the “Father of Philippine Glass Sculpture” when he won the The Outstanding Filipino (TOFIL ) Award in 2006, according to him, is enough to show him that his life’s work and dedication to the movement of glass art in the Philippines has duly been recognized.

Even without it, the long lines of visitors to Museo Orlina who marvel at his masterpieces day in and day out undoubtedly make Ramon Orlina a National Artist—and this is clear as glass.

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