The word “friend” conjures images of intimate chats, exchanges of gossip, laughter over trivialities and baring one’s soul, seared by life’s cruel moments.
It could also be sitting quietly, concentrated on a canvas, painting with an amazing artist. These are all precious moments with Betsy Westendorp Brias. I call her friend because I have that privilege, and I would like to think the affection is returned.
Her home in the outskirts of Madrid, called Aravaca, is large and sprawling. Truly it is an artist’s domain, for all around we see her collectibles. Beetles and insects of all sizes and shapes displayed on glass stands are her accents in the living room. The insects are sculpted, not desiccated, by hand by a Japanese artist, but so perfect in every detail that even the legs of a praying mantis move to perfection!
Beetles are fragile inside, but nature has provided them with a coat of armor. Many have beautiful sheens and colors. She collected them for their beauty, but now keeps them as reminders. That’s because Betsy, beautiful and delicate inside, has also had to toughen up and build an outer shell of protection, just like the beetles she collects.
Betsy also has a large collection of wooden Mindanao baul or chests, exquisitely inlaid with mother of pearl. Collected through time, they are now old and valuable. Somehow the patina of age makes them priceless.
In her Makati apartment, she also has these Moro baul, but this time in miniature. She cleverly disguises the lights illuminating her canvases inside these boxes.
Beautiful singing voice
In the center of her living room in Madrid is a beautiful and young Betsy, painted by Fernando Amorsolo . When I really got to know her, Betsy was living there with her two daughters, Isabel and Carmen. Her third daughter, Sylvia, was then living in Chile.
Isabel, her eldest, has a beautiful singing voice. When Betsy would invite for dinner, she would cook a mean paella, table side, while Isabel would sing a torch song in Spanish.
Blonde and very pretty, these three girls were the center of Betsy’s world. They were born in the Philippines, all went to school at the Assumption Convent, and are fluent in Filipino and English.
Betsy recounts how she had fallen in love with Antonio Brias, handsome, caring and vulnerable. Betsy met Tony Brias in Madrid. In Spanish, the word “flechazo,” loosely translated, means “hit by an arrow,” perhaps referring to Cupid’s arrow. She was drawn to him and he was smitten with her.
Tony was a Filipino of Spanish descent. Betsy’s mother warned her to tread slowly. She was wary because this man would take her away from them.
Also, she was troubled that Tony was in Spain for treatment of a recurring illness . For Betsy, it was precisely this vulnerability that made him attractive to her. Not only was he extremely good looking, but he also had a sensitivity and guardedness that awakened a lot of tenderness in her. They got married.
Betsy made her life in the Philippines. Her three children were born here. Tony was a high-ranking executive of San Miguel Corp., and they had a beautiful home on Pili Avenue, Forbes Park.
Betsy always loved to paint. Her canvases then were bursting with the colors of the orange red hues of flame trees that grew along the wide streets of the Makati enclave. She painted a memorable mural of the fountain inside her home. She gifted this to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It is still on display at the Malacañang Palace.
Betsy has not been without pain. She had to nurse her husband through a lingering illness. She remembers it as a truly trying time in her life. When he died, still a young man, she was alone to raise her three daughters.
I have seen her up close and personal. She has a grandson, Isabel’s only child. Ian was born in the apartment where Betsy now stays in Makati. He grew up with the ruddy good looks inherited from Betsy’s Dutch ancestors. Ian was very blonde as a child, but turned sandy-haired as he became a man. He had green piercing eyes that now look out of the screen saver on Betsy’s computer.
Ian died of a fulminating sepsis that took his life in just a day. He complained of gastric pains, but the hospital dismissed him with medicines for an upset stomach. In less than 12 hours, Betsy and Isabel were faced with a tragedy that, even today, makes Betsy’s eyes well up in tears.
Only last year, Isabel, her eldest daughter, died from complications brought about by a broken heart. She never recovered from Ian’s death. Isabel became deeply depressed and broken. Divorced from Ian’s father, Isabel was very lonely and despondent. When one is in such excruciating pain, one ceases to live.
The evening she was told that Isabel was comatose and would not last the night, Betsy sat down to paint. She does that in good times and in bad. The resulting painting was not dark. Instead it was a red sky, with the sun shining through the clouds. Between the clouds was a shadow that seemed hollowed out, like a tunnel. She says she accompanied Isabel as she crossed through the tunnel to beyond that evening.
Beautiful would be an understatement. The painting is a burst of artistic expression that could only come from within the artist’s soul. “This painting I will never part with, as it signifies too much for me.” She calls this painting “Passage.”
I end here due to lack of space. I really could go on and on. Having completed 90 years of age, Betsy will launch her book on Feb. 22, Thursday, at the Metropolitan Museum,
6 p.m. It consists of two volumes of the most important works of a lifetime.
Betsy continues to live life to the full. Her canvases are eloquent statements of how she perceives the world in all its splendor. Tropical heliconias, orchids in all forms of expression, red poppies in an open field, shrubs of blooming hydrangeas in the palest of blues, muted pink and subtle white.
There are also glorious skies streaked with sunlight, vaporous clouds, some cumulus, and some fog-like. There are signature sunsets and sunrises, incredible in their explosions of bright colors .
Betsy does not get defeated by life. With her brushes and canvases she recreates what she perceives. She paints as she feels. For Betsy Westendorp, the world is beautiful. —CONTRIBUTED