Artist Spotlight: Isabel Echevarria’s Paintings are Inspired by Her Past Travels and a Dream She Had of Her Grandfather
September 27, 2017
“It came to me in a dream,” she leans in, as if to share a secret. “In the dream, my grandfather was a young man. He woke me up and asked me to accompany him to see the malecon de Manila (Manila pier). And there I was, as a little girl, holding his hand as I walked with him, and he showed me the sights of Manila circa 1920.”
Isabel Echevarria is a storyteller. She draws you in with vivid descriptions and hand gestures, each phrase punctuated with inflections that take you from the highs to the lows of a story. But her best stories are reserved for canvas, where her hand wields the brush and she takes her viewer on a journey through brush strokes and paint.
Old Manila in Full Color
It was the dream about her grandfather that became the last piece of the puzzle, when she was trying to put together a theme for a new series of works in 2014. In Parallel Time is a series of paintings of cities and towns Echevarria visited throughout her life, and whose soul and character resonated within her. Each of her works show the fusion of past and present, rendering turn-of-the-20th-century buildings in monochrome, with present-day elements coming alive in full color.
In Parallel Time was launched in the Philippines via her recently concluded solo exhibit at the Altro Mondo Art Gallery in Greenbelt 5 last July. “I had always wondered what Manila looked like then,” she explains. “I helped my father gather old maps of the city for a novel he had planned to write. I knew the plot and the characters…but he had fallen ill before he finished his first outline. I suppose all these years, my imagination was left wanting.” Then came the dream, and Echevarria knew she was meant to complete her father’s unfinished novel in oil.
Every step that led to her career in art has been, like In Parallel Time, a coming together of sorts. From Echevarria’s childhood memories—“I don’t remember a day when I didn’t want to draw or paint; it was all I would do as a child”—to her earliest influences—“I had an uncle who painted portraits of family members, and I remember sneaking into his room just to watch him. The overwhelming smell of turpentine and linseed oil still holds for me an attraction I cannot resist”—to graduating magna cum laude with a degree in Modern Humanities.
She recalls being a bright-eyed college graduate when noted Cebuano painter Maestro Andres Abellana told her, “You have walked long and have reached the bottom of the stairs. Now climb.” And so she did.
Portraits Coming Alive
It was Echevarria’s ability to convey emotion in a painting, and her extraordinary talent in portraiture that made people notice her work. Some of her portraits were recently on display for Rostros, a retrospective portrait exhibit held concurrently with In Parallel Time. Held at Fundacion Sanso, it is interesting to note that Rostros is the first exhibit at the gallery that did not feature the works of Juvenal Sanso, the artist after which the gallery was named.
Echevarria has the uncanny gift of making her subjects come alive on canvas, catching them in that ‘magic’ frame where they are seemingly caught in conversation or in the middle of movement. “Portraits are a very personal thing. I am not a hardheaded artist, but I have my standards and I do trust my taste pretty much. I do, however, have to listen to the client and be a friend, and make sure the client is as satisfied as I am. I am always doing what I can to make sure the personality of the subject reveals itself on my canvas.”
One of the most difficult portraits she had to do, she recalls, was of Doña Luisa Lorenzo. Echevarria had a photo shoot with her when the subject was 93, but was given photos of Lorenzo when she was 50. The challenge was to be able to come up with a portrait of her when she was about 75 years old. “I took the challenge and did a pretty good job, I am told.”
Crossing Parallels Across the Atlantic
She had a steady stream of clients who wanted their portraits done, and mounted successful exhibits around the Philippines. But the time came when she knew she had to move forward, or ‘climb’ again. In her author’s notes for the book Crossing Parallels, which chronicles her work since moving to Spain in 2004, Echevarria shares that there came a point when things in Manila were “comfortable and easy. If I didn’t step up, I would stagnate…I somehow felt I needed to learn more and grow. I didn’t realize I would be crossing parallels of distance, social biases and even discrimination.”
This pushed Echevarria to devote herself further to her art. “My move to Spain meant that I had to start from zero. I was 50, with no degree in Fine Arts, and I had to compete with European artists. I had to develop techniques and concepts on my own. It was tough.”
Times may have been tough, but a quick look at her accomplishments since then have shown that her devotion has paid off. Echevarria’s works have reaped awards every year in art competitions since her relocation, most notably the prestigious Oresanz Award given by the Angel Oresanz Foundation for the Arts in New York City. Her portrait of national hero Jose Rizal is on permanent display at the Philippine Embassy in Madrid. Her works have been printed on shawls by Norwegian fashion brand Holzweiler and snapped up by clients such as the Queen of Norway.
Echevarria has been cited and her paintings have appeared in Who’s Who in Art 2014, the Compass Directory of Artists 2015 (both published in Leipzig, Germany by Art Domain Publishers), and Artenews Publications New York, where she was co-editor until 2015. She continues to mount successful exhibits, regularly returning to the Philippines to do shows and meet with clients who commission her for their portraits.
For now, Echevarria says, her story continues as a Filipino artist in Spain. That she has distanced herself from the comforts of home, she says, “made me brave. It made me discover my roots. It made me proud to be Filipino. It gave me In Parallel Time. These are answers enough for me, every time I stop to wonder why I did it.”
Text by Mia Rocha Lauchengco
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