Betsy Westendorp: Manila Bay, clouds, and a love story

Jerald Uy

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The artist tells Rappler about her love for painting, clouds, and the Manila Bay

PORTRAITS FROM LIFE. The artist Betsy Westendorp does not take shortcuts. Photo by Jerald Uy

MANILA, Philippines – It started with a love story.

In the 1950s, Spanish Betsy Westendorp would always look forward to the end of the day from her Ermita apartment. Her husband Antonio Brias, who worked for San Miguel Corporation, would fetch her and bring her to the then Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) to watch the sunset at Manila Bay.

It was always the highlight of her day. As the sun bid goodbye for the day, the couple would hold hands and share a kiss.

“Have you ever seen the sky?” Betsy, now 85, asked this writer. “The figures clouds form and their movements?”

“The way they change is so fast — their colors change in a second,” she added.

Similarly, it can be said about life.

The trips to Manila Bay ended when Brias passed away in 1976 and Betsy returned to Madrid. But even then, she could not forget Manila’s skies.

She continued to paint the Philippine sunset while in Spain.

Painting pain away

'Edge of Darkness,' 1994, oil on MDF

“We don’t have an easy life,” Betsy said thoughtfully. “But painting has saved me from a lot of pain. When I paint, I forget about everything else.” 

The artist said that she finds peace in painting. “Sometimes, when there’s a big problem, I start painting. After a while, I say to myself, I think I had a big problem, [but now] I don’t know which one it was.” 

When she returned to Manila for vacation years ago, Betsy was surprised to see that the sea had receded farther due to the reclamation project. (Today, Manila Bay faces another threat.)

ALSO READ: The battle for Manila Bay: Citizens rise against reclamation

Fortunately, the artist has the ability to capture and preserve nature’s majestic moments in her mind.

“I always remember. Besides, painting is a matter of combining colors,” Betsy said. “I never know what I’m going to do. I have never sketched anything. I don’t make plans. I just start with a blank canvas and start painting.”

'Gathering Fury,' 2008, oil on canvas

It also helped that Betsy took a lot of notes. “When I look at the sky and I don’t have a camera, I write [down] the colors [that I see] — the name of the pigment that is in that combination of colors,” she shared.

“I’ve been painting the sky for many, many years because I love the sunset in Manila Bay — the formation of clouds is so beautiful.” 

But even she admitted, “The beauty of the sky has deteriorated a lot in Manila because of the pollution.”

No limits

'Enroaching Darkness,' 2009, oil on canvas

Westendorp said that what she loves about being a painter is that there is no required age to become one. She actually encourages her friends to paint.

“If I was a prima ballerina, I would have had to stop years ago because my body would not have [performed well anymore],” Betsy laughed.

“But as long as I have good eyesight, as long as my hands are steady and my body can stand it, I will paint.”

Betsy said her upcoming exhibit at Manila Contemporary in White Space will showcase a “newer version” of her.

“If you like to paint — no matter what your age is — you should do it. You should paint,” she said.

“We all have to look forward like the clouds, the never-ending subjects that move continuously.”

'Impressions of the Sun,' 2011, oil on canvas

So when was the last time she painted the sky?

She pointed at a painting with green hues across the room.

“Yesterday.” –


[“Betsy Westendorp: Portrait of an Artist” will run at the Manila Contemporary at White Space 2314, Chino Roces Avenue (aka Pasong Tamo Extension), Makati City from January 17 to February 10.]  

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