Cory Aquino and Lilia de Lima: Unity in Bloom

“Former President Cory was the one who introduced me to painting.

 She always had faith in me even when I had no faith in myself.” 

–Lilia de Lima, Director General 
 Philippine Economic Zone Authority

Among the select few who were fortunate enough to receive the artworks of the late former President Cory Aquino, perhaps the only one who could claim to have the most personal connection with her paintings is Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) Director General Lilia de Lima.
De Lima is the only person who was able to collaborate with the late President on three of her most valuable art pieces.

“It was former President Cory who actually convinced me to try out painting,” de Lima began as she welcomed The Sunday Times Magazine to her office for an early morning interview on Friday.

She apologized for being late, (even if it was only five minutes), as she had just arrived from Singapore the previous night, and only had a few hours of sleep. But the director said she could not miss out on sharing her stories about Mrs. Aquino.

“I met Madam Cory during my visits to the Luisita Industrial Park. She was already a private citizen at that time, but would always be there to show her support and welcome us. During one of our inauguration ceremonies, she approached me and said, ‘Lilia you look so tired and harassed, why don’t you join us in our painting class?’ and I said, ‘Naku ma’am, I’m just a lawyer, hindi ko po linya yan.” But she never stopped, and every time we would run into each other, she would keep trying to convince me.”

De Lima said she was never the artistic type. “When I was still in school, I was athletic; I joined the oratorical and debating team and tried all the other extra-curricular activities—except art.
“Then one time, during one of her shows, she introduced me to her teacher Jeffrey Consumo and asked him to include me in their painting group. Shortly after that meeting, Mrs. Aquino called me and asked if I already had my own painting set. Since I was just a beginner I decided to get those cheaper ones. But when Ma’am Cory learned about the brand I bought, she told me she’d send me a set of the same brushes she used—and she did. And when the painting materials arrived, I said to myself, ‘Oh no, there’s no turning back.’”

De Lima would then form her own Manila-based group together with Justice Chit Morales, Rosie Castro, Ching Vargas, Celia Villanueva, Joy Alvarado, Deedee Sytangco and Chitang Martinez, and Consumo would join them from time to time. “Our group would meet every three months or so, but even if we didn’t have our sessions and the others would stop, I would continue painting.

“It was then that I realized that the ‘painting bug’ had bit me, I was hooked! One night, after finishing a painting, I looked at the clock and saw that it was already 2:30 a.m. I decided to write her a note and said.

 “Dear Madam President, look at what you’ve done to me! It’s already 2:30 in the morning and I am still washing these brushes! But Ma’am I am not complaining. Thank you for bringing me to the wonderful world of painting!”

De Lima’s paintings often depict nature, such as her flower and orchid series, wonders of the deep; waterfalls series, seascapes, landscapes, etc. Her paintings characterize by her vibrant colors that match her passionate personality. “I believe paintings were meant to be placed on walls so I want my paintings to make people happy and feel good.”

Abstract in Blue and Unity in Bloom:
Two of Aquino and De Lima’s art collaborations

Her first collaboration with Mrs. Aquino was a butterfly painting, “I was doing my butterfly series and she said it was beautiful, so she asked me to paint a butterfly and she did the background.”

Five years after her brush first touched the canvas, de Lima held her first one woman exhibit. Out of the 100 paintings on exhibit, 68 pieces were sold. “I borrowed the painting we did together, and although it was not for sale, someone kept asking for the price. When Mrs. Aquino learned that I was donating all the proceeds of my exhibit to an orphanage in Bicol to build a chapel and boys quarter, she told me, ‘Lilia, let’s just sell it, we will just paint again.’”

Painting was their way of keeping in touch with one another; de Lima said Mrs. Aquino would always ask her how her painting was and encourage her not to stop.

They would do two more collaborations together—one was abstract piece and the other a painting of yellow flowers with a glowing red background. “The way we do it is she will either send me the background, and then I would add my own touch and send it back to her.”

“For our last work together, she already painted the red background, the green vase and the stems, and asked me to finish it. Unfortunately because of all my work with the agency, I kept on putting it off, and promised myself to do it once I had the time. Until one day, I learned about her sickness.”

It was then that de Lima’s happy mood throughout the interview quickly changed and she became a bit emotional.

“She only signed the painting at the back, because she was waiting for me to add my part so we could sign it together. When I got home after attending her wake I suddenly felt so lonely and empty. It was then that I decided to finish our painting. I added the yellow flowers because it was her favorite color, and was actually in tears as I was doing it.

“Mrs. Aquino was so down to earth. Even if everybody adores her and considers her an icon, she never let it go to her head. Sometimes I would even remind myself that I was with a president, because she was never conscious about her stature and would always think of others. She was selfless and that was what amazed me, and that makes her different from anyone I have met in my lifetime.”

De Lima says she plans to devote a section of her next exhibit to the late President as a tribute to her. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine becoming a painter, but because of Mrs. Cory’s encouragement I discovered the wonderful world of art. She always had faith in me even when I had no faith in myself, and for that I will forever be grateful.”|

As for their last collaboration, De Lima decided to call the art piece “Blooms of Unity”—a fitting symbol of two women brought together by their love for painting and their eager desire to serve the country.

first published in The Sunday Times Magazine: July 28, 2013

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