Celebrating Beauty | Betsy Westendorp

Words Sam L. Marcelo. Roundtable discussion moderated by Joan Orendain. Photography Jonathan Baldonado assisted by Arvin Somera. Hair and makeup by Genstein Yuzon-Griffin.


“Old” is having a moment. Writer Joan Didion added “face of Céline” to her résumé at the age of 80, when the French luxury house known for its cool minimalism used her slight countenance, swallowed by a pair of oversized sunglasses and a black sweater, for its 2015 spring campaign. That was also the year that Wang Deshun, a 79-year-old grandfather with a full beard and flowing white locks, sent hearts into tachycardia when he strutted shirtless down the runway during China Fashion Week. Last year, Iris Apfel, 94, was tapped for an advertising campaign by Australian fashion label Blue Illusion. And this year? Carmen Dell’Orefice, 85, closed the show for Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei in a blood-red ensemble that crowned her queen of the Parisian catwalk. Take that, Gigi Hadid.

To figure out this “trend” — if one can call it that — which has Millennials asking gray-haired grandmothers where they got their hair done (they didn’t), High Life invited sculptor Agnes Arellano, writer Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and painter Betsy Westendorp to a chat moderated by author Joan Orendain in Annabel’s Restaurant along Tomas Morato. All of them are over 60, considered to be retirement age in the Philippines; and all of them are still making, doing, and waging a war against idleness. On the agenda for that Sunday afternoon in April: finding out what fuels their creativity and where they find beauty.

BETSY WESTENDORP

When you reach a “certain age,” people expect you to stop doing things, as if creativity had a best-before date. “The worst thing you can ask is ‘do you still paint?’,” said Betsy Westendorp, who shared that another artist in his 80s was furious when he was posed the same question. “Of course I still paint. Just because I am old, I’m not going to paint?,” she huffed, suggesting that the very idea of not painting was ludicrous.

With her snow-white hair pulled back from her patrician face, Westendorp is a classic beauty. She is always dressed in white, a color that photographs well against her vivid atmosferografias. Doubters sometimes ask her if she really paints her huge skyscapes herself — another ludicrous question — as though such a feat were impossible for someone like Westendorp, who is 89. To the doubters: the answer is yes, those ceiling-grazing canvases are done by her hand alone thanks to a clever system of pulleys and levers. “The empty canvas is the most beautiful and challenging thing. It’s marvelous to face an empty canvas and think ‘what am I going to do here,’” she said. “For me painting is happiness.”

Westendorp never received a formal education in the arts, though she wanted to enrol. Her grandmother, hearing that students would have to draw nude men, said that art school was no place for her granddaughter. Private lessons were arranged as a compromise. “My teacher gave me my first brushes and tools for painting. I went to several studios of different painters for a while,” she said. “It’s nice to see what other people do. I love it.” It’s an understatement to say the least, since “other people” refers to the likes of Salvador Dali and Fernando Amorsolo.

For many years, Westendorp painted only portraits. President Ferdinand Marcos sat for her, as did the First Lady Imelda Marcos. “I came back for what I thought would be 15 days, I’m still here,” said Westendorp, who returned to the Philippines from Spain at the former First Lady’s request. 

Hundreds of portraits later, Westendorp discovered her true muse: the sunset of Manila Bay. “That was more beautiful. What I enjoy most now is painting clouds. I feel so free,” she said. “I don’t want to do any more portraits.”

Beauty is paramount for her, which is why the disturbing work of younger artists alienates her. “You say age is fashion? No, ugliness is fashion. It’s disgusting. It’s terrible,” she said. “Many times, I wonder: why did that person choose that subject to paint? I cannot understand it but they do it. There must be a reason.”

Angst is not for her. Today, she is working on a book that gathers her painted memories of the gloaming and afterlight. “You can endure many hardships in life if you have art. I paint and that’s my prayer. That’s the way I keep on going.”