Impy Pilapil is a multimedia artist – sculptor, serigraphist, muralist, and stage designer… (read more)

At home with Impy Pilapil: Engaging the 12 senses through art

MANILA, Philippines – When asked by the editor of this paper to do an article on Impy Pilapil, at first I was reluctant, not sure how I could do justice to my good friend’s life story. I then realized that through the years, I had been witness to her life’s journey, and to her coming home. Coming to her “inner” home.

Impy Pilapil’s work is the expression of her development as an individual, a conversation spanning a lifetime between viewer and artist.

From this perspective, one wonders, in an artistic career spanning three decades of unstoppable creative flow, how Impy managed to maintain this ability to manifest experiences that could have just as easily forever remained a silent ownership of wisdom. This despite her living through a life that is embraced by family love but also interspersed with doses of chaos, challenge and character.

This journey through life, her biography, was the fertile soil that allowed her to deliver her most ambitious and exuberant exhibit so far. Last year, the Ateneo Art Gallery curated her tour-de-force, major works that were part-cinematic, part playful and undoubtedly the work of an accomplished sculptor. Titled “Interactive — The 12 Senses,” the outdoor installation of collective works was set up on Ateneo de Manila University grounds. It introduced the notion developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who lived in the early 20th century, that the human being actually possesses 12 senses: movement, balance, life, touch, temperature/warmth, sight, taste, smell, the sense of the “I,” thought, word, and hearing. Interactive was Impy’s take on this novel idea.

One work towered up to nine meters, while another sprawled across the university yard, literally meant to be stepped on. Unlike Impy’s earlier works, reaction was encouraged, touching and interaction were allowed, blurring all boundaries between ages and rules. It was noteworthy as dignitaries and celebrities joined the big crowd in experiencing the textures and sounds of natural materials that formed the main media of her exhibit; university professors rubbed their backs on the “Rainbow Ring,” an outsized spiral with brightly colored spinning rings, and children from the Waldorf School ran to climb the central piece, entitled “Mangrove,” as if it was the most natural thing to do.

With the deep conviction that art is for everyone, Impy found time to specifically invite the maintenance department of Ateneo for a tour of her artworks. The experience put such joy on their faces that words are not able to describe it.

It occurred to me that this work on the 12 senses was really a reflection of Impy’s own process. In a state of wonder, I attempted to see how the whole of her life could be found in the parts of her art, and how her art in the parts of her life could be found in the whole.

For the sense of Movement, Impy recalls that as a child she was very playful. No Barbie and Ken dolls for her, though! Sticks, twigs, leaves and stones were her toys, and her accompanying creative attitude allowed her to cultivate the imagination necessary to relate to them beyond what their forms suggested. Her mother recalls that at age four, Impy tore paper to shape into human patterns.

For the sense of Smell, Impy remembers vividly how her lola enhanced the atmosphere of her childhood with non-stop cooking while her mother baked on weekends and the aroma of upside-down cake, meatloaf, and other delicacies evoked joy as she savored their love expressed in slow-cooked meals. This was also the era before computers and color TV. Surrounded by a lot of cousins and the neighbors’ children, her sense of Life spelled security and protection. Games she indulged in included patintero and piko, allowing her to discover through play the senses related to Balance.

Impy’s parents, seeing the value of education, sent her to become an interna at St. Theresa’s College, Manila, for high school. At 16, she explored the world of fine arts from an academic setting at the University of the Philippines. This was in the late ‘60’s, the decade when self-expression was at its liveliest, if not the loudest! An opportunity to explore the world arose at 17. She left her fine arts course in UP to study Scenografia, a visual arts course in cinema, stage and costume design at the Accademia Italiana in Rome, where a classmate, Isabella Rossellini, would later become a famous name in the fashion and beauty field. That time was also known as the Swinging ‘60’s, the perfect time to discover mobility, and she recalls how she hitchhiked with friends all around Italy.

The zeitgeist of the ‘70s was of structured culture, and this provided a time where form and structure could be explored in a rather “fitting” manner.

Back in Manila and fresh from Italy, she was told by Cultural Center president King Kasilag that much as she was delighted to meet someone in such a specialized field in theater and costume design, the CCP had no job for her as the theater was yet to set up its own organization.

Impy then decided to run a haberdashery! Tailoring, as any designer might conclude, is one of the toughest and most exacting sciences in the fashion industry. A collar swerving in the wrong angle or an extra crease in the cuff could render a barong unwearable. In designing men’s wear, flamboyance was not allowed as it could camouflage poor craftsmanship. Men’s wear is all about rules! Impy pioneered the first painted barongs with modern geometric patterns that became must-haves. Through the years, her designs have been adapted to embroidery and can still be seen on the market today.

Interestingly enough, she remembers with stars in her eyes a specific group of clients who themselves were working to make their mark on the world. She recalls how, on a short visit to the Philippines, a sweet young black American teenager with his siblings would hang out in her atelier, shunning the frenzy of Manila, and would eat adobo at her table as her sewing machines hummed in the background. She remembers how observant, inquisitive and pensive the gentle young man was. His name? Michael. And the siblings? The Jackson 5. In Manila for their concert, they ordered a lot of painted barongs and outfits sewn at Impy’s shop.

The tailoring shop allowed her to be the pioneer of what is now accepted as a standard in the creative industry: business as a creative endeavor. This was long before it became de rigueur. Impy had to explore this facet of entrepreneurship in herself, both for her survival in the economic realm, and for the nourishment of her artistic sensibilities. Nowhere else is one expected to respond than as an entrepreneur in a creative industry.

In the early ‘80s, her brief marriage compelled her to raise her daughter Isa single-handedly. Impy recalls how she opted not to have a yaya and devoted all her time during Isa’s first year to maximize the sacred relationship between mother and daughter.

The senses of Life, Warmth, Touch, Balance, along with the other senses, were, one might say, what epitomized motherhood. This was the best opportunity to experience to the fullest all the 12 senses, the best opportunity for anyone to understand the nuances of Steiner’s ideas.

As a common experience to most Filipinos in the ‘80s, the decade was about letting go of old systems and structures and building new social forms, moving from nationalism to globalization, from letting go to holding on. Of a hopeful future, from Marcos to Cory. Freedom of speech after a long lull became the buzz du jour.

Impy’s art slowly emerged as the expression of newer confidence. Color and Form flowed between the transparent medium of glass, the malleability of steel and the density of stone. Polished, faceted, sparkling and vibrant, her works at this time were sometimes exuberant but never exaggerated. One began to feel the polarity of the time, finding home in her artwork.

Her creations in the ‘90s, like her life, turned into more existentialist musings. The pieces entitled “Seed,” and “Faith” embodied the theme of the decade, as new age groups mainstreamed into yoga classes, as the study of qi gong and tai chi allowed practitioners to see invisible parts of themselves expressed in movement disciplines. A study of the Bhagavad Gita, meditation sessions, vegetarianism, became the current rage.

It was in this atmosphere, where “letting go” was the buzz phrase, that after a series of complicated health challenges, Impy’s father Serafin passed away. Throughout her father’s five-year bout with Berger’s Disease (a smoker’s disease), she expressed this important rite of passage through a series of sculptural works collectively titled “Into the Hereafter,” which served as symbol of the paradox of an embrace as a gesture of freedom, a sculptural invitation to acknowledge, and consequently perceive the Filipino “Loob,” that living space in everyone which is walled and hidden by what is material.

That hereafter is the now for Impy. Her sense of life is evident as she lives in a house enlivened with the presence of their beloved pets: three beautiful and docile (once stray) cats, Dio, Uno and Pigré; the welcoming bark of mongrel Vito and the frisky sniffs of Magnus, a bull terrier. When they settled in their vintage Bel-Air home in the early ‘80s, Impy and Isa planted all the trees that now surround the modest property. Avocado, mango, macopa, duhat, tamarind, caimito, chico and bignay trees provide the habitat for birds, which Impy delights in watching at dawn from her bedroom window.

“There is frenzied tweeting sounding like a major conference at five in the morning when the lady birds arrive, perhaps to do their inspection of the nests.” Much more recently, she excitedly shared that after three years, a seed from a pomegranate that a special friend had given her was blooming.

Like a flower in full bloom, Impy, comfortable in her creation process, now dabbles in other aspects of expression. Late last year she participated in exploring speech as “sculpting,” using the medium of air, under Michael Burton, playwright, stage actor, and therapist in the modality he labels “transformative speech.” Earlier on, she explored where and how the human body makes visible the forms of sound under Eurythmist Dr. Grace Zozobrado-Hahn. Challenging the artistic process as a threshold to its limitless potential as therapy, she has noticed that her tinnitus, a condition characterized by a ringing sound in the ear, becomes silent as she does the wet-on-wet watercolor techniques prescribed by her art therapist.

Currently studying Rudolf Hauschka’s classic book on The Nature of Substance and Van James’ Spirit and Art, Impy is a diligent student of Steiner’s ideas. She advocates practical applications these ideas, a firm believer in Waldorf education (which espouses a curriculum for age-appropriate sense education), biodynamic farming, and anthroposophic medicine.

Her simple pleasures may be cooking for a few select friends as the aromas of her leg of lamb baked with a simple rub of mustard and yogurt waft through her home, paired with her classic pasta pomodoro; her paella and bacalao or her to-die-for roast organic chicken in apples and plum. Augmented with a generous heap of biodynamic greens, talinong and romaine topped with slivers of yakon and gumamela petals, one can almost testify that such an experience is really a feast for the 12 senses! And we haven’t even gotten to the dessert comprising scoops of durian ice cream or her best friend Doren Tayag’s pastillas de leche cheesecake.

Like the proverbial elephant and the blind men, one can conclude one “knows” Impy through individual, separate experiences. But having a grasp of her life, as she herself was able to recognize by doing a biography workshop, may change one’s perception of her as a mother, artist, human being.

St. Francis of Assisi describes the artist part as follows: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head and his heart is an artist.”