3rd 2006
Mia O. Herbosa: Carpe Diem

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By Amelia H.C. Ylagan

Alfonso Ongpin contemplates his newborn son, Luis. The amber of dusk falls softly on his lapel from an imagined window just over his shoulder. The soft light picks up a dab of muted vermillion from a palette of ochres and siennas, glazing a pink glow on the baby’s cheeks. In the somber silence, one can feel the meditation in eternity between father and son, as they gaze into each other’s eyes.

“Legacy” is painter Mia Ongpin Herbosa’s powerful tribute to her maternal great grandfather, Alfonso, and her grandfather, Luis. The portrait is part of her exhibition of recent works, Carpe Diem, which opens at the Alliance Française de Manille Total Gallery on December 5, 2006 and runs until January 12, 2007. This is her 9th major solo exhibition.

“I never seriously thought I would grow up to be a painter, but I did,” Mia says in her artist’s statement for the exhibit. ” Thoughts of Lolo Poncho and how he loved art as I do often fill my mind. We even share the same introspective interest inself-portraits.”

Mia has done about ten self-portraits, which include two etchings and a sculpture, in her young career. Among three major self-portraits, “Self Portrait at Thirty-One: Homage to Dürer” (2001), was bought by an insistent private collector who saw it at the framer’s as it was being prepared for the “Homage to the Masters” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in July to September 2002. “Self Portrait (Lamplight)” (2000), oil on masonite, was exhibited at the L’Arc En Ciel in Alabang, Muntinlupa and at The Drawing Room in Makati in 2004, and kept as part of the family’s collection. The third is “Life in a Still Life: Self Portrait at Thirty Six” (2006), which is one of the paintings to be seen in the Carpe Diem exhibit at the Alliance Française.

“I paint my life,” Mia says of her art and its evolution. Indeed, her style has subtly changed in the 14 years that she has been painting. Her self-portraits seem to mark the introspective self-assessments that she speaks of, as these are whispered into her consciousness by what she calls her “inner voice”. Mia’s latest paintings flash with new colors, rejoicing in her fulfillment-first, as a mother to 3-year old Lana, and second, as a recognized and multi-awarded painter who has done her Lolo Poncho proud.

After a Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Arts, major in Fine Arts at the Ateneo de Manila University, Mia relocated to the United States in 1992 to train at the New York Art Students League. She studied portraiture and figurative painting for four years under the famous “Master of Light”, Frank Mason. It was from his exacting mentoring that she gained mastery of perhaps the most vital element that gives life to a painting – its lights and shadows, or chiaroscuro. Learning Mason’s methodical application of a grey scale to create dimension, Mia painted in uncanny likeness to the grisaille of the old masters in her early works.

Figurative exactness characterizes Mia’s mastery of her art. Her amazing deftness with skin tones and instinctive grasp of body language and facial emotion make her portraits come to life. Her four years training in sculpture and another four in etching honed her genius in form and tone as she evolved into her own style after the Mason discipline. She has won the Junius Allen Memorial Award in three categories-portrait, sculpture and etching, the Dumond Memorial Award for painting, the David Peña Award, and has consistently won the Red Dot recognition in the Art Students’ League for her paintings from 1993-2000.

Mia acknowledges her second teacher, Ronald Sherr, the portraitist of many U.S. Presidents, as the most influential in her style and technique. Critics have pointed out similarities in their choice of subjects and message, and in their style and composition, as the candid or informal are preferred to rigid poses. Encouraged by Sherr, Mia has become more experimental, unleashing her instinctive shades and exuberant color. “Aviva” (2000), a realistic portrait of an overly made up fat lady and “At the Mirror” (1997), a magnificent black female nude posed in a dance studio, were among five paintings that won and brought Mia to 27 cities in Europe on a study tour under the Edward G. McDowell Study Grant in 2002.

It is her friend Gregg Kreutz, (author of the book “Problem Solving with Oils”), who urges her to be spontaneous and to be free in her expression. Kreutz is an impressionist who paints with a flourish, finishing a piece in three hours, or at most, in two days. “I am a classical realist, and will probably never be an impressionist,” Mia says. It would take her about eight sittings to complete a portrait. (She does not work from photographs.) Then she would let it sit for a month or so, and look at it again before the final corrections and finishing touches are made. Still, Mia works well with Kreutz – she is the only painter allowed to work unsupervised in his personal studio in Manhattan. There, the much-sought North light falls perfectly on the canvas, especially between 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the colors on the palette are pure and clear.

“I am not a rebel,” Mia says of herself and her art. While she had opted to leave the Art Students’ League in 2001 to join the more unstructured Salmagundi Artists Club, Mia feels that her disciplined, academic ’90s genre will always be with her. To this day, the set-up process before painting is for her a prayerful ritual – a deliberately slowed process of cogitation and composition as the thought tableau is positioned for still life or a live model. She still meticulously lays out her palette like Mason taught her, although the ubiquitous grey scale of Mason is now replaced by a vibrant color scale of mixed yellows, reds, umbers and blues, and a lot of white to bring in the light and to accent high points. “My palette is my instrument,” she says.

And so we can almost hear music in the inner rhythm of Mia’s recent works – more vibrant with the joy of primary colors. “Perhaps it is motherhood,” she says, when asked about the bright reds in three of her paintings at the exhibit: “Red Letter Day”, “Favorite Red Shoes” and “Red Chair”. “I am painting for my daughter, who loves red, like children often do.” Is it a deliverance from the loneliness of the heart and the soul in her early years in New York, when struggling to find herself and her art?

“It can be a very lonely life, being an artist,” Mia says in her artist’s statement of her 2004 Manila exhibit. “So cerebral, so personal, one lives very much in the world of the soul, mind and heart. So internal is the struggle, conscious life goes on, many times oblivious of this other life, only to be surprised by unexpected moments of chance and serendipity.”

Beautiful Mia, beautiful soul. She has framed herself in a trompe l’oeil titled “Life in a Still Life (Self-portrait at Thirty-six)”, looking out to the world in a knowing Mona Lisa half-smile. The gilt mirror painted on the panel sees Mia looking at herself, and holds her up for the rest of us to see and applaud.

On the wall across, in yet another portrait, “In a White Hat (Lolo Poncho)”, her great-grandfather, Alfonso beams his approval. “Carpe Diem,” he says to Mia. Seize the day.