But how exactly is this mind developed?
The drive towards things that are “artful” may seem to be a highly introverted activity. How an artist experiences a certain situation is how she will interpret it with the finished work. A closer look reveals that social and familial factors also are key shapers of creative consciousness. Accomplished Filipino painter and children's book illustrator Athena Magcase-Lopez is a testament to that.
“My artistic inclination started in my childhood years by way of heritage,” states Athena, who uses Tenni Magcase as her pseudonym in her illustrations and signs her paintings as Athena. “I grew up in a family that delved in the fine arts, architecture, poetry and music.”
Her family’s background in Filipino culture and politics subtly formed her very own understanding of the world.
“I was a young girl when Papa got involved in politics. Somehow, as young as I was, my interest and awareness of people from different walks of life were aroused,” she remarks.
Athena is originally from San Pablo City, Laguna. Her parents were Pedro Manuel Magcase, a gentleman farmer and politician, and Herminia Paez Santos, a jewelry designer and entrepreneur. Nationalist poet and writer Ildefonso Santos was Athena’s maternal grandfather. She was the only girl of four siblings; she notes that her mother was the disciplinarian while her father would spoil the children “if we would let him.”
In married life, Athena, too, was surrounded by creative inspiration. She was married to Melvyn Patrick Lopez, a songwriter and published poet. They have three children: Maia, Alessandro and Johann. Their two grandchildren are Sai and Shri.
In the early ‘80s, the couple opened the advertising agency Mannaheim, but after a few years, the company ceased operations and the family moved to New Jersey, which Athena currently considers home. Sadly, in 2013, Melvyn succumbed to cancer. “Although I am at peace, I miss Melvyn every single day,” she says. “Life has to go on, so I keep memories, experiences and inspiration with me as I go through life.”
She received a fine arts degree from the College of the Holy Spirit in Manila with a major in advertising and a minor in painting. It was with Mannaheim's publication of The Magic Jeepney, a children’s book that celebrates Filipino ingenuity, that Athena hit her stride. Additionally, being a finalist in the 1982 Noma Concours International Picture Book Competition in Japan sponsored by UNESCO brought her much pride. “That was one of my most memorable achievements,” she recalls.
“I am so glad that I have been able to be a visual artist, children’s book illustrator and kindergarten teacher,” she confides. Her demeanor is influenced by a philosophy of art that is deeply purposeful. “Art should convey and inspire change and confront prevailing issues in the hope of moving the collective imagination to find ways to improve the quality of life.”
Filipino people and their struggle for a life of dignity give Athena inspiration. She paints portraits of sung and unsung men and women who led lives of purpose and meaning. In fact, one turning point of her career was the 1986 assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino. She felt so strongly about the event that, to contribute to the clamor and hope of the Filipino people, she depicted the narratives of those times through her paintings.
While Athena has completed many projects, she holds a select few dear to her heart. Among them is Malakanyang sa Pagpihit ng Kwadro,” which she considers a family portrait. The painting depicts the jubilation of the Filipino people after 21 years of the Marcos dictatorship. A very memorable one is Awit ng Isang Ina, a collaboration between Athena and her husband, Melvyn. It is a visual depiction of the real-life narrative of her sister-in-law, a victim of the dictatorship, who gave birth to a daughter inside a jail cell as a political detainee.
A Star Story was a project that was very meaningful for Athena and her family. “It’s Melvyn’s story, which I illustrated and was digitally designed and laid out by our son, Syd,” she says. For her husband, the book illustrates universal themes of “sharing, friendship and companionship against feelings of loneliness in a bustling, complicated world, told through the eyes of two star children.”
More recent cherished works include Weaver in a Cave and A Home Between, a “then and now” juxtaposition of two Filipina women -- an early Filipina artisan and a present-day immigrant artist. Weaver in a Cave highlights the Filipina artisan weaving bark cloth in a cave with native writing on the wall, surrounded by earthenware pottery filled with herbal medicine. Based on Athena’s immigrant experience, A Home Between is a situational portrait of the artist in her second home in America, a place of comfort, while the Philippines remains precious in her memory.
Athena’s painting technique has evolved through the years. “My earlier works display brushstrokes that are choppy and textured,” she explains. “My recent works are more fluid and mellow, though the sepia tones are richer and vibrant.” Using a predominantly earth-tone palette of ochre, burnt umber and sienna, her work reflects her Malay heritage. More recently, she has also been incorporating prints into oil and acrylic paintings as collage to further enhance her personal story.
Known primarily for painting and children’s book illustrations, Athena finds the two fairly similar. She explains, “The only difference between painting in oil or acrylic and illustrating a children’s book would be the size of the canvas or paper and the medium.” She is a strong believer in good illustrations being able to speak for themselves “even without words.”
Athena has just completed her newest children’s book illustration: Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines. Written by Rey E. de la Cruz (a Positively Filipino correspondent), it is about his childhood in the early ‘60s in Ballesteros, a coastal town in the province of Cagayan in the Philippines. The book also has Ilocano, Tagalog and Spanish editions.
“The book is based on a magazine article I wrote,” de la Cruz tells me. “Tenni was one of the first who encouraged me to turn it into a children’s book.” The layout artist is Syd Lopez, Athena’s son.
To those who know her, Athena and art may be synonymous, but if she were not a visual artist she would be a dancer. The option reinforces the inventive mind behind the individual, adding to “peace of mind, joy and calm” in inspiring her to move forward and keep on creating.
Athena Magcase-Lopez can be reached at email@example.com.
Serina Aidasani divides her time between New York and Chicago. She works in marketing communications and public relations.
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