Sunday Inquirer Magazine : December 24, 2006
By Alya Honasan
HER CHRISTMAS TREES OF LIFE
THEY ARE a joy to behold when gathered together, a tiny forest of exquisite glass Christmas trees growing from a marble base. There are trees with squiggly sides dotted with green beads, or trees hand-painted in bright colors. There are trees with cross cutouts, or splashes of the familiar waves that have come to mark many of the works of sculptor Impy Pilapil over the years. But more than just eternal adornments for the season, however, these trees have also provided a perfect way for the artist to lend a helping hand. Each season, Pilapil creates three different versions of this foot-high work of art, producing 10 editions each. Proceeds go entirely to a cause that has moved her more than any other: the plight of children with cancer.
About three years ago, upon the invitation of a friend, Pilapil paid a visit to the East Avenue Medical Center, where the Kythe Foundation maintained facilities for children with cancer. “I met a few parents, and heard a lot of stories. There was a family from Mindoro who took the bus to Manila at 2 a.m., got to the hospital at noon to bring their one-year-old baby who had cancer, and who couldn’t eat because they couldn’t afford it—they had to save the money for the trip back. Napatanga ako (my jaw dropped),” she recalls. “And here we are throwing away food.” Another time, Pilapil recalls visiting during game time, and noticed how some children wouldn’t join in because, as their mothers said, they were embarrassed that they had a missing eye. Apparently, when children grew tumors in the brain, the pressure could sometimes cause their eyes to bulge or even pop out of their skulls. “And you know how much a plastic prosthetic eye is? P1,500,” Pilapil says. “And there are people who queue up to buy bags worth hundreds of thousands of pesos!”
Eventually, depressed by what she would witness, Pilapil decided to do something more productive outside of her visits, something she could do on her own. “I didn’t want just a fundraising project. I could ask friends, but how many times naman can you keep asking?” Since there is a constant demand for her Christmas trees, it has become her mission to make them every year for sick children.
It seems a good match in spirit. Kythe Foundation was formed in 1992 by two psychology graduate students from the Ateneo de Manila, Girlie Garcia and Icar Castro, to reach out to pediatric cancer patients through their Child Life Program. The East Avenue Medical Center was their first home, and by 2004 the program had received a People Power Award from Cory Aquino, and was officially an NGO. Today they work with some nine affiliate hospitals to alleviate the suffering of both sick children and their families.
Pilapil’s own work is nothing if not a celebration of life, in a lighthearted, joyful way, through her work with a wide range of hard, solid materials that she somehow coaxes into the softest of shapes. After a year at the University of the Philippines and art studies in the Accademia Italiana in Rome and the Pratt Graphics Center in New York, Pilapil first set her eyes on serigraphs on paper, which she exhibited in Rome in her first solo show in 1973. “Then I wanted to work in two dimensions, so I started working with steel,” she recalls. The metal waves begged for a more transparent medium, leading her to glass, which she began combining with stone by the mid-’80s.
Just when people have taken to calling her “the glass artist,” a label that can be both frustrating and amusing, Pilapil has begun doing funky things with sheet glass and playing with marble. “I guess I never claimed to be just a glass artist; I like to think I’m a sculptor of different media.”
A diligent student of Austrian philosopher and anthroposophy founder Rudolf Steiner, who espoused that the spiritual world can be accessible to man through proper scientific self-development, Pilapil found a humbling experience in the shift from glass, “a completely man-made product,” to stone, whose original form is determined solely by nature. “Stone speaks to you,” she explains. “You can treat glass like an object and subject it to what you want, but you have to respect the life force that carved a stone into being.”
Nowadays, Pilapil relies on this respectful “dialogue” with her material to determine whether to leave it alone or polish or refine it. The interesting results of such dialogues can still be seen in her latest show, “Earth Empowered,” ongoing until January 7 at Galleria Duemila. Last November, an exhibit at the Avellana Art Gallery featured her latest steel works, while “cradles” of glass holding “corals” made of melted and stretched Pyrex, ingenious results of her very own flamework, captivated visitors at the Alliance Francaise—a triple whammy of yearend shows that took Pilapil three years to prepare for.
Even in the house Pilapil has lived in for the last 22 years, which she rebuilt after a traumatic 2003 fire and which she shares with daughter Isa, a painter and website and book designer, and their dogs Magnus and Vito, Christmas trees figure prominently in the whimsical décor. She has been part of the Hotel Intercontinental Manila’s regular Christmas Tree festival for years, exhibiting pieces made of glass, and even used cigarette foil and cardboard.
She’s also trying to spread the love a little more; when she decorated the Hyatt Hotel’s lobby last year, she asked management to sneak in a drop box for Kythe. “It was just like the tree we had in the lobby, made of recycled bits of broken glass,” she recalls. “We can help put the broken dreams of sick children back together again.”•