THE FAMOUS SCULPTOR GOES BEYOND CRAFTING HIS AMAZING ART
It is just past two o’clock on a cloudless day in Tagaytay when a slim, stylishly dressed figure walks in on the gaggle of visitors milling around the luminous sculptures that inhabit the town’s fastest growing attraction – Museo Orlina.
At first, the guests aren’t quite sure, but it doesn’t take long for it to dawn on them that Ramon Orlina, the hand behind the amazing art collection, has indeed made a showing for, what else, selfies! Reaction is swift and soon everyone gets their turn posing with the dimpled (right side only) Orlina who is all this while gracious and jocular with strangers. The meet and greet does not cease even during the three-hour-long photo shoot photographer Harvey Tapan subjects him to. People approach him, and sometimes, when he notices hesitancy, he approaches them.
“It’s no trouble. I’m happy to do the photographs. The fact that they come to Museo Orlina means they appreciate my works,” Orlina beams.
Since soft opening in November 2013 in the presence of two National Artists, Billy Abueva and the now gone Abdulmari Imao, and a special exhibit Subject: Non-Objective featuring non-figurative abstract works, Museo Orlina has evolved into a destination of myriad possibilities that Orlina and his Malacca-born wife Lay Ann are excited develop further.
“Ten years ago, Ramon was already talking about opening a museum, long before BenCab (National Artist Benedicto Cabrera, whose BenCab Museum in Tuba, Benguet has become an unqualified crowd drawer) opened his,” recalls Lay Ann. “It had always been Ramon’s dream.”
The original plan to establish a weekend retreat in a townhouse, one of four facing Taal Vocano, built by a friend in Hollywood Subdivision on the intersection of Sta. Rosa Highway and Tagaytay Ridge, morphed into the present day facility when Orlina remembered his obsession and purchased the next door unit. He proceeded to tear down walls and staircases to produce a single structure.
The next step involved acquiring the lot in front and converting it into a sculpture area and amphitheater that was unveiled in April 2014 with a performance by Ballet Philippines and installations in the garden. Today, visitors meander around the intimate field, coming close to maestros such as Abueva, Arturo Luz, BenCab, Lor Calma, Daniel dela Cruz, Reggie Yuzon and Olivia D’Aboville. Museo Orlina was able to purchase a metal installation of Ed Castrillo, dubbed Clash, before he died of cancer in 2016.
Shortly after, expansion was completed with the purchase of the remaining townhouses in the block and their transformation into larger gallery spaces. Befitting the seminal oc
casion, Orlina held a solo show of sculptures made of optical glass, called Orlina Clear Impressions, expectedly a sell out. In homage to the Philippines’ often forgotten but no less exceptional sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, the Tampinco Gallery showcases art works in the classical style of the master, who participated in prestigious events such as the Exposicion Universal de Barcelona (1888) and the St. Louis Exposition (1904).
Orlina’s journey to the place he holds as foremost pioneer in the glass arts was marked by both struggle and success. The oldest of four of ship captain Vicente, whom he did not see “for months” and school- teacher Paulina, worked for eight years as an architect, four for Carlos Arguelles and four on his own, before succumbing to the artistic siren call. (Actually, Martial Law in 1972 caused him to lose a significant client, leading him to think about reinventing himself.) “I also experienced the starving artist years from 1976 to 1986.”
An exhibit of his paintings on glass at the old Hyatt Hotel (now Midas Hotel and Casino) piqued the attention of Republic Glass executives, who approached him with a tempting scholarship “to go wherever you want to go to learn what you want to learn”. If he ran out of money, they told him, he just had to call and money would be sent to his account.
The offer went beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but Orlina stood firm in saying no. “Ayaw kong mangutang na loob sa kanila.” Instead, he forged a deal with Republic Glass, allowing him to observe and work onsite, and in return, he would credit them in all his art works. The stint led to the discovery of the method and medium he developed and perfected – using the glass residue (cullets), which were just being thrown away. This, he ground, shaped and polished into the magnificent abstractions that command stirling prices (starting from 200,000 pesos upward) and are found in the collections of the Sultan of Brunei, the Singapore Art Museum.
“It’s good that I did not go abroad then,” Orlina reflects. “If I had, perhaps, I would have come back doing the usual things like glass blowing. Luckily, I found my own technique.” The next years were spent, not only in honing his craft but promoting public appreciation for glass sculptures. Since the medium appeared to be a breakable one, buyers were reluctant to invest in it.
In 1985, two large-scale commissions – both foreign – came Orlina’s way, serendipitously requested by two malls along Singapore’s iconic Orchard Road, Wisma Atria and Forum Galleria. For Wisma Atria, he created Wings of Victory, consisting of 67 colorful steel birds weighing 35kg each, and for Forum Galleria, it was Fertile Crescent. Sadly, the birds vanished when the mall was refurbished, but Fertile Crescent has been relocated near the National Stadium in a prominent location. Orlina finally landed on the international arts radar through these projects.
On a visa run to Kuala Lumpur, Orlina was to meet another appointment with destiny – he was introduced to Lay Ann Lee, a rising barrister in Chooi and Company law firm by a Filipino friend who was renting a room from her. “I had never met a sculptor before,” Lay Ann recalls. “We went to a jazz bar that night, and during our discussion, that’s when I realized, ibang klase itong guy na ito.”
More dinner dates, flower bouquets, cross-Causeway trips from Singapore, then once Orlina’s projects ended, visits from Manila followed, until Lay Ann decided to visit her fiance’s city for a recce, an arrival that coincided with the annual Nazareno Fiesta in Quiapo. Since Orlina lived in the Sampaloc district, he decided to let Lay Ann experience a slice of Manila mayhem. Munching on Mamonluk siopao and a sipping a fizzie, the cosmopolitan Malaysian witnessed what can only be described as an assault to the senses. She says: “It was a real culture shock, but when you are in love…” The rest is, of course, history with four children – Naesa, 29, Ningning, 28, Anna, 25 and Michael, 19, for whom galleries in the Museo have been named after – bearing testimony to the 30-year-old marriage.
Lay Ann’s legal background has certainly boosted the management of her husband’s stellar career. “I’m not intimidated by contracts and I’m used to negotiating. I know Ramon’s rights.
“If we know our obligations, we expect that the gallery knows its obligations too. Then we can work well together.”
At first, Lay Ann thought of finding work in Manila, applying at the Asian Development Bank. She reconsidered when the job she might have bagged involved continuous travelling and she got pregnant with their first daughter Naesa (the reverse spelling of Asean), followed a year and four months later by Ningning (Monina after her dad Mon). “I decided to go full time na lang with him. Her first office was their dining table at home.
When Lay Ann began organizing her husband’s business affairs, she discovered a lack of documentation of his art pieces, mostly the smaller ones. She observes: “Artists with wives, who are involved in the business, tend to be more successful because the artist is able to focus on being creative, while the wife handles the documentation and marketing. There is a sense of order.”
Her inspiration in nurturing a huband-artist has been Patricia Olazo, wife of the late printmaker Romulo Olazo and an accountant. “Her system of documentation and cross-referencing is amazing. Sculptor Michael Cacnio’s wife and I have learned a lot from her.”
The Orlina’s unique partnership is well known in local art circles, and became even more evident when Orlina headed the Art Association of the Philippines for two terms, from 1991 to 1999. Lay Ann was a constant presence in the group’s activities. When I tell Lay Ann I’ve often heard it said that she is “Orlina’s secret weapon and that he wouldn’t be here today without her,” she chortles: “I make sure to always remind him.” But it is said with such great affection, one knows the artist is fully aware of his immense personal fortune.
But Lay Ann quickly adds: “Actually, he’s the visionary, and I’m just the implementor. He’s the macromanager, I micromanage. However, we are very consultative and constantly always ask each other, what do you think? That’s why we are able to do projects well together.”
Contracts between artists and galleries continue to be a rich minefield of nightmare scenarios, which the Orlinas are trying in their own way to refine for the better. “If you don’t have a manager, the gallery becomes your manager. And if they don’t have your interests at heart, then they’re not going to promote you,” Lay Ann remarks. Issues such as costs of the artist’s transportation of artworks from home to the gallery, printing of invitations, length of time for the gallery to hold the artworks after the exhibit (some are allowed to hold them for a year!), lack of sales reports and terms of payment many times go unresolved, increase expenses and create resentment between the two parties.
According to Orlina, an exhibition space in Museo Orlina’s was deliberately designed to allow young artists, especially from the provinces, to shine. Besides offering what the Orlinas believe is a contract template for a fair relationship, some logistics such as framing if the artist is unable to afford it could be borne by them until such time he is financially able.
These past months, Museo Orlina has seen a range of activities, both art-inspired and corporate, take place, including two Tagaytay Art Beat festivals, whipped up by the Orlina kids in 2015 and 2017 that saw around 2,000 millennials camping out in the garden to enjoy indie music and art; press conferences launching a new Beetle by Volkswagen, a thesis exhibition of graduating multimedia art students of Lyceum with a three-day workshop; and another three-day workshop on glass blowing by Czech artist Jiri Pacinek and his team.
Poetry readings and more dance and music performances are scheduled to keep the Orlina enclave humming and eternally stimulated. And perhaps, if conditions are right, Lay Ann may open a small Malaysian weekend restaurant with a select menu of cherished family recipes, including pineapple tarts. Food, art and escape – such good reasons to visit Museo Orlina.
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN