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The Movies in her mind

Maria Isabel Lopez, a lifelong artist, goes solo with her show of framed mosaic art pieces

Images by Noel B. Pabalate

Video by Jay Bustamante and Angelo Alejandro

“You handle glass like you handle men—loosely. Never handle them tightly. The more you tighten your grip on them, the more you  get cut.”

Coming from actress-painter Maria Isabel Lopez, such words of wisdom gain more resonance. The former Binibining Pilipinas Universe, a Fine Arts graduate from the University of the Philippines before making a name for herself as a sexy star in the mid-1980s in such films as Silip, Isla, and Hubo sa Dilim, should know her art as well as her men.

“Even with the bubog (shards of glass), if you make kalkal (go through them), you have to be gentle,” she says of her newfound love affair with mosaic art one afternoon inside her third-floor office, part of a modest Quezon City townhouse she shares with her children Mara, 25, and Ken, 19. “You can wear gloves, but I don’t. I love to feel the texture, especially certain types of glass with wavy texture.”

Her marriage to Japanese national Hiroshi Yokohama, the father of her two children, was annulled years ago. She’s now in a long-distance relationship with California-based American Jonathan Melrod, who started out as one of her art patrons. Lopez credits him for encouraging her to further explore mosaic art by introducing her to the right schools and teachers in Chicago and Berkeley. They also once traveled together to Ravenna and Venice, where she saw for herself all sorts of possibilities after seeing up close and personal fine examples of Italian-style Byzantine mosaic art and stained glass on a number of old churches and public buildings.

“He also encouraged me to put up a studio in California,” she says. “Long-distance relationships are possible, but they’re very costly. He flies here. I go there. We meet up, say, in Cannes when I was there for ’Ma Rosa. If I’m an ordinary employee, say, a waitress at Jollibee, how can I sustain that? It’s going to be just a cyber relationship. As partners in life, you have to physically meet, bond, and do some traveling.”

NO REGRETS ‘Falling down is part of my being,’ says Isabel. ‘Mistakes form part of your growth as a person.’ (Manila Bulletin)

NO REGRETS ‘Falling down is part of my being,’ says Isabel. ‘Mistakes form part of your growth as a person.’ (Manila Bulletin)

After years of joining what she describes as a “smorgasbord” lineup of artists in group shows, from fellow actors such as Cesar Montano, Rosanna Roces, and the late Vic Vargas, to fellow ex beauty queens like Evangeline Pascual, Nina Ricci Alagao, and even Melanie Marquez, Lopez is staging her first one-woman art show at SM Megamall’s Passion Arts Gallery.

Dubbed as “Body and Soul,” Lopez’s art equivalent of a launching movie, runs from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2. Not only is it a solo show, it will also showcase for the first time her artworks—all 16 of them, including an embellished fiberglass torso—as a mosaic artist using mixed media such as stained glass, stones, pebbles, Boracay sand, and marble chips, and combining them with more conventional elements like acrylic and modeling paste.

WORKING GIRL Maria Isabel Lopez gets her hands dirty and sometimes nicked in the pursuit of her art (Manila Bulletin)

WORKING GIRL Maria Isabel Lopez gets her hands dirty and sometimes nicked in the pursuit of her art (Manila Bulletin)

The concept behind her first solo exhibit is the glorification of the female body and various symbolisms representing the forces that shape it, she says. As an artist, Lopez has had a lifelong fascination with the nude female form as well as tactile elements on canvas, which she again explores in “Body and Soul” by deftly combining old and new media. She’s equally comfortable and adept with color as she is with texture, which is evident in the changing and gradating hues in her artworks, depending on the light and time of day.

“For me, creating is a spiritual journey, a spiritual trip. So when I do nudes, they’re usually contrasted with other works such as crucifixes. I believe I can create because I’m also God’s creation. It’s that power within me that allows me to create. And these are the results,” she says.

Creation is also her way of expressing gratitude and making full use of God’s gift. Although she describes herself as a Christian, Lopez loves and respects all beliefs. Despite her public image as an outspoken and independent woman, she humbles herself before “one God” and prays, especially before she sits down and begins doing an artwork, whether in her small home studio beside her office or on the set of a movie or telenovela.

Instead of engaging in idle gossip in between takes, she brings with her a mobile studio on the set. It’s a small luggage, says Lopez, replete with all the materials she would need to pursue her second career. If an artwork is too large, she tries to do it one section at a time by bringing on location a mesh material, which doubles as her temporary canvas.

“In fact, almost every piece that I did here is related to a particular film,” she says with amusement. “I started and finished working on this nude, for instance, on the set of Joel Lamangan’s Siphayo. I also finished a piece on the set of Barcelona, where I play mother to Daniel Padilla.”The Movies in her mind mb3

Lopez didn’t let the attendant publicity that came in the wake of Ma’ Rosa and the emerald green Albert Andrada dress she wore to the Cannes red carpet, which eventually went viral, get in the way of her art. In between interviews, personal appearances, and shootings, for instance, she was quietly working on her unfinished pieces.

Before buckling down to work on a particular piece, she usually does a random “study,” which she illustrates on a small piece of paper. In hindsight, she could have very well done without one because she always ended up junking the study in favor of “what’s on my mind.”  But is she ready for the possible fallout of going solo?

“Being criticized, whether for my acting or my painting, has never bothered me,” she says. “I welcome criticism. I don’t know what’s with me, but I benefit from that. But I can’t say I’m totally without fear now that I’m days away from my first solo show. There’s always the fear of rejection, the fear of not being accepted. For years, I’ve been doing group shows with either my fellow beauty queens or fellow artistas (actors). This time, however, it’s different. Compared to a smorgasbord film where no one gets blamed if the movie flops, this time I’m on my own.”

Even if you say to her face that she’s “pangit,” (ugly), “okay lang ako (I’m fine),” she says with a chuckle. These people, she adds, are usually the ones who have issues about themselves. What hurts her is comments from strangers about her private life that aren’t only malicious, but totally unfounded. She probably comes to the set with the same candor and open mind, which allowed her to tackle a gamut of roles in a number of celebrated indie films, including Lorna, Kinatay, and a brief but memorable appearance in Ma’ Rosa.The Movies in her mind mb4

“A week before I was to get married, I had to do a love scene in Sa Kuko ng Agila, the movie that launched Erap’s presidential bid,” she says. “I promised myself then that I would quit doing sexy roles. It would be my last. But it didn’t happen. Kinatay came, and every film came na sexy pa din. Now that I’m like a junior citizen, I’m still doing sexy roles.”

But she claims to harbor no regrets—never, ever. She welcomes everything she did, including taking the sexy route, falling in love with different men, and all the mistakes and implications that go with what she did. “Falling down is part of my being,” she says. “Mistakes form part of your growth as a person. Even with my children, I tell them it’s okay to make mistakes as long as they make you better persons.”

She views her initial decision to go daring, as part of her evolution as an actress. Everyone, she says, from Gloria Diaz to Elizabeth Oropesa, has gone through the same route. From there, they all graduated to become leading ladies of action superstars. If they’re lucky enough, a few manage to land meaty starring and supporting roles, winning awards as well as the chance to walk red carpets and get five-minute standing ovations, which she and her Ma’ Rosa costars and director experienced in Cannes,  along the way.

And how does she compare acting with painting?

“Both are creative pursuits, but in acting, you have a boss, someone like Brillante Mendoza,” she says. “You have to follow a story, portray a character, and do whatever Brillante wants you to do to fully and effectively interpret that character. In art, I’m the boss. It’s my show. I decide what to do with my time.”

What she finds heartening though is the varying nuances each discipline does to her brain. In acting, you end up reliving and using real-life emotions you went through in the past in order to breathe life to your character—hugot moments in show biz parlance. In painting, however, you’re in the moment while your mind wanders off without you even noticing it.

“There’s a movie in my mind while I’m doing this,” she says, with a laugh while pointing to the nearly finished fiberglass torso in her studio, which also doubles as Lopez’s costume storage for all sorts of roles—“from teacher to putaching (whore).” “In fact, there’s a movie now whirring in my head as I stand here talking to you.”