(This piece comes out in the November issue of Town And Country Magazine. In the course of writing this, I spent an exhilarating afternoon with GCF. As an added bonus to the great conversation, she allowed me to wander through her art collection. I am sharing pictures of her pieces in this post.)
We started our meal with dessert, chunks of refreshing buko pandan still crunchy from the freezer, made right in her kitchen. But then, this was midafternoon, neither lunch nor dinner, and by her admission, Gilda Cordero Fernando doesn’t do too well following rules. So as we sat in her bedroom, where she received me, it seemed perfectly natural that after dessert came pasta with fried oysters, followed by salad, and finally, bite-sized lumpia of chickpeas, her own recipe of a treat from the 1930s. As we dipped the crisp rolls into garlic-infused vinegar, she told me that the late Larry Cruz had appropriated this dish for his restaurant, Abe.
We chatted beneath Elmer Borlongan’s mural; dwarfed by the urban denizens he had painted to span the entire wall. Gilda sat across from me, dressed casually in chic white capris and a printed tee. Her closely cropped hair lent her an elfin, mischievous air. I thought her eyes danced as she spoke and that her youthful features made her seem twenty years younger. I found it difficult to believe she would turn 80 this year.
Perhaps I seemed rude, but I couldn’t help ogling this room filled with art. Olan Ventura had depicted life-sized likenesses of
Gilda’s household helpers on the four panels of her closet. When lit from within, Gerry Leonardo’s fiberglass sculpture doubles as a lamp. By the bathroom door hangs a charming painting by Spanish artist Jose Maria Ovejero. Later, as this visit progressed, I discovered that the rest of the house held just as much treasure, its rooms filled with pieces as quirky, unconventional, and priceless as its mistress.
This month, Gilda opens her third solo show at SLab, the gallery for paintings of Isa Lorenzo’s Silverlens group. Pilipinas, Oh My! Philippines will showcase her works in watercolor, Gilda’s medium of choice, in this, her latest incantation, that of a visual artist.
She started painting in the late 1990s, when she was almost in her seventies, at the studio of Araceli Dans. Before that, we knew her for decades as an award-winning writer of fiction, and then through her essays that came out in the Sunday papers. She also spent time publishing Filipiniana, under GCF Books, putting a team together that would bring out well-written, beautifully-designed volumes. “I wanted books I could hug, cuddle, dance with” Gilda reminisces. I get what she means. I own one of her books, Household Antiques and Heirlooms by Felice Sta. Maria. I have had it for years and I still find myself perusing it now and again, rereading portions, and learning something new. It is a book that I live with, not consigned to the dust in my shelves.
Alongside the publishing came her theater productions, Jamming With An Old Saya and Luna: An Aswang Romance. Somewhere in this list of past lives is a stint as a proprietor of an antique shop, dealing with and trading wonderful knick-knacks.
These last two years, Gilda has focused on her watercolors. She paints from midnight until about two in the morning. She brings forth whimsical, casual, colorful images of Philippine life and history, paintings filled with her joie de vivre. Gilda deals with social realities lightly, treating societal ills with wit and humor. Her works follow no accepted precepts of perspective and composition except her own. But by no means is her talent left unguided. She relies on a formidable group of friends to critique her. Or at least lend tacit approval to her technique. “I visit Danny Dalena with pancit, then I ask him to look at my pieces” she says with a laugh. “The first time he saw my paintings, he told me ‘Ikaw Gilda, huwag na huwag ka mag-aaral ng art’” she recalls, chuckling. He wanted her pieces to remain fey, as untethered to accepted mores as she herself.
Another buddy, sculptor Roberto Feleo, passes on advice. “He showed me how to do image transfers” narrates Gilda, “so easy pala! But first I had to buy him chicharon.”
When she finds herself in need of even more help, she seeks it from those who have passed on. One night, confronted with blank paper and with no idea what to do, she meditated and summoned the spirit of old friend Onib Olmedo. “I saw them, the yagit,” forlorn faces peered at her from inside two glass cylinders, features so characteristic of Olmedo’s paintings. She incorporated these images into two of her pieces, Let Them Eat Cake and High Life and Low Life, for this show at SLab.
I marvel at how effortlessly Gilda has moved through life, gliding through her transitions as suavely as the steps of the freeform dancing she loves. She shares that she never had qualms about blazing trails and trying something new. “I just knew that as a pioneer, I wouldn’t make any money. Ako ang taya.” She credits Marcelo, her husband of 57 years, for providing well for their family, thus allowing her to be.
While she hasn’t gotten the hang of the Internet, and still writes in longhand, she keeps pulse with Manila by going out and experiencing its cultural life. She makes the rounds of art galleries and art events, keeping tabs on her numerous artist friends. She watches movies and tries out new restaurants, even by her lonesome. Gilda shrugs when asked what she sees for herself after this show. “I don’t know. Iba naman.” She’s all set for the next adventure.
When darkness had fallen completely, we took a tour of her house which National Artist Lindy Locsin had built in the 1960s. Soon after, I took my leave. I had had my fill of Gilda’ delectable food, engaging art, and inspiring conversation. As I made my way out, through the pebbled paths of her husband’s garden, I thought to myself: when I grow up, I want to be like Gilda Cordero Fernando.
Pilipinas Oh My! Philippines runs from 21 October to 14 November 2009 at SLab, 2f Yupangco Bldg, 2320 Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati City. Phone (632)816-0044 or visit http://www.slab.silverlensphoto.com