April 10, 2023 – Redge
Through the proper application of heat and pressure, humans have transformed simple sand into the stuff of dreams.
Glass is used to peer into the furthest reaches of space, built as protection for the deepest of oceans, and engineered to sheath skyscrapers that reflect the skies.
Two Filipino artists from the house of Orlina accomplish a similar feat— using the medium to mirror the depths of the human soul.
The Emerald Wizard - Ramon Orlina
There is something poetic about Ramon Orlina choosing to build the museum to his art close to the town he grew up in, as Museo Orlina sits overlooking the majestic Taal volcano and houses some of the prolific glass sculptor’s favorite pieces.
Yet with a career spanning almost half a century, no one structure can hope to hold the works of the country’s premier glass shaper. Indeed, Orlina’s iconic works grace the homes of tycoons, politicians, and celebrities. One greets visitors in the central foyer of the National Museum of Natural History. Still another commemorates the 400th year of the Philippines’ oldest university— as a staggering bronze-and-glass structure cast in Thailand.
One thing unites all these pieces however— and that is their creator’s genius.
“I look into the glass and ideas form in my imagination,” says the soft-spoken Ramon, “I draw on the glass using (a marker) and cut out a form. The form slowly takes shape as I keep working on it and I am able to see into the glass to the other side.”
Each unique piece, when in production, is worked on by the master and his assistants from 8am to 6pm, in what Mr. Orlina calls a “daily discipline.” An understandable requirement given the medium’s notoriously difficult temperament.
“The transparency of glass is its beauty,” explains Ramon, who states that this quality makes glass both interesting and more challenging to work with.
One look at an auction page for Mr. Orlina’s work reveals just how interesting heated sand can exhibit. Some of his pieces feature light, gentle curves that invite the viewer into deeper pools of darkness. Still another set references the stark straight lines of martial arts fighters. Others yet evoke faces whose gaze follow people around the room.
“I like it best when I am free to form the design,” Ramon says, but is given to commissions where he has less freedom and must conform to a theme. “Some clients buy art for investment and that cannot be helped because art can have a very high ROI.”
Yet before commanding the seven-figure sums his pieces are commonly associated with, the currently nominated national artist was once invisible.
“The low point in my career was when I was starting out as an artist in a new medium of sculpture,” he recalls, “the local art scene was so slow to recognize and appreciate, whilst foreign galleries and clients were already amazed at what I was doing.”
Orlina credits a well-known art critic, Leo Benesa, as someone who saw his innovation and trendsetter in the mid-70s. “I persevered in my art believing it to be special. Slowly, more local writers and critics took notice as I got larger projects.”
Nowadays, Mr. Orlina passes on his name, his craft, and his legacy to his daughter, Anna.
“I always knew she would as she is most like me,” Ramon muses, knowingly. He notes their similarity in liking foods such as pajo manga with bagoong balayan, fruits like guyabano and guava, and a penchant for chicken feet dimsum. “We even have the same crooked fingers and deep dimples,” observes the proud dad, “and I believe she inherited from me the natural artistic talent.”
Yet for all these similarities, he also notes their differences. “Anna is different in her style of working as she sketches her concepts and designs while I don’t.” While the two also work with the cold glass method, their approaches are very different.
“My shop is very different from hers. Anna has a purpose built studio of her own with the latest machines from Czech Republic and USA. She studied abroad in 3 different schools and is knowledgeable of machines and techniques used in the West.”
In contrast, Mr. Orlina is self-taught, fabricating his own machines through trial and error, and improvisation. “In fact, a well-travelled glass art enthusiast who has visited many glass art studios in the West commented that he had never seen a shop quite like mine!”
And true enough, there is no one quite like Ramon Orlina— whose legacy (in part through his daughter), links artists then and now. “I think young people are too stuck on their gadgets and are missing out on the beauty of nature,” he laments, while at the same time admiring the newer generation’s access to “Technology in creating large monumental works using computers.”
For an established artist safely in his sunset years, he wishes his daughter “to grow in her art, be original and bring pride to her country.” For his audience, he hopes that they appreciate his abstract works and sees it (and perhaps life itself), for what it truly is…
A Gleam of Genius - Anna Orlina
Akin to most descendants of celebrated artists, Anna Orlina’s work lives in the shadow of her father’s craft.
Thankfully, glass is transparent.
“I feel the benefit of having his name, the connections, and of course, the expertise,” Anna acknowledges, “I’ve grown up with (glass sculpting) as the norm, and a lot of galleries that my father has worked with, now want to work with me.”
Everything however, comes at a price. And for Anna, this prestige came with pressure.
“My first challenge was how to differentiate my work from my dad’s.”Anna recalls.
Her road thus found her traveling away from her father’s emerald empire and into what was effectively Hogwarts— for glass making.
Spending a long summer at the prestigious Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle, Washington, Anna recalls the exciting days of learning in an environment that inspires. She cites the fresh air, the closeness to nature, and the creative enthusiasm of everyone around her.
“There were six to ten students per class, a head instructor, a teaching assistant, and crew,” she explains, “but everyone was just so into glass!” From flame working to glass blowing to casting— only one word summed up her experience there.
And it shows.
After further studies in Corning, New York and the Czech Republic, Anna’s work (when compared to her father Ramon’s mostly stoic forest of aquamarine sculptures), is better described as a playful sea of color.
“I use up to two or three colors that compliment,” she explains, “any more and they might contrast in a bad way.” Her process often involves her sketching out options, keeping in mind what sizes and color of glass are available, before tinkering with the design on her iPad. “It’s a bit like LEGO,” Anna says, describing her 3-month-minimum process for conceptualizing, designing, sourcing, cutting, grinding, laminating, smoothening, and finishing for each piece.
And then there are the mistakes.
“There was this one piece for Art Fair Philippines which was a cube,” she remembers, “but after the first day of the exhibit, we noticed that something was wrong with the laminating.” Hurriedly conferring with her team, Anna quickly lopes of a sagging errant edge and tips the structure on its side, embedding it into a chunk of glass to serve as its new base. The lime-green hued piece, titled “Optical Illusion” now suits its name far better.
“Then this other time,” she goes on, “something was wrong on the inside of a piece. It just wasn’t refracting the light right.” Frosting several sides, her friends all explained it looked like genius. Anna had to tell them she was hiding a mistake.
Anna reveals that the secret to moving past seeming failures is to trust the process and finding novel ways to fix problems. Her eagerness to embrace the sudden also compliments her other skill at art - appreciating limits.
“There are customers that buy my work and I’m grateful for them. But when it comes to commissions, my favorites are the ones who know what they want.” She confides that limits help her focus all her creativity on parameters that matter, and makes for an overall better quality work.
“We younger artist owe so much to older ones,” she states, ”for starting institutions when there were none.”
Indeed, Anna admits that the problems and peculiarities she faces would not even be possible had people like her father, Ramon, not created the industries she finds herself thriving in.
The spaces that allow her to experiment and play with her art now call on her vision of what the future of Philippine (and possibly, global) glass sculpting, will look like. It is a tomorrow hopefully illuminated with her own unique gleam…of genius.
Real stories. Real people.
We believe that life isn’t about a binary of ones and zeros - but about the sum of our hopes and dreams, our struggles and heartaches, our tragedies and triumphs.
The things that unite us are far stronger than the things that divide us.
And those stories are why we are alike.