Jerry Navarro’s Shrine To Love
- Reuben Ramas Cañete () - July 27, 2002 - 12:00am
To the public’s mind, the late National Artist Jerry Elizalde Navarro was an intellectually astute and disciplined artist who helped father modern advertising in the Philippines, and was one of the key proponents in abstract painting. Collectors know him for his riotous colors and sensual female nudes in exotic locales like Bali. But few knew him as a sensitive family man and a great admirer of women. His wife Emma, who also administers to the estate, and receives curious guests and collectors wishing to authenticate their Navarros, lovingly maintains their simple yet elegant bungalow in BF Homes, Sucat, now a shrine to his artistic legacy, where his voluptuous nudes, his energetic dancers, and his profound abstracts jostle cheek by jowl with the furniture and the Balinese sculpture. The Philippine STAR, which interviewed Mang Jerry before his tragic passing away in 1999, revisited the house and its famous "Yellow Studio" recently, in order to know more about the man behind the myth, and the woman behind the man. Emma belies her age with a still-svelte body that can turn heads at a reception – a passion for fitness that she religiously maintains every day. In the process of recounting Jerry’s life through her eyes, we rediscover the great love story between Jerry and Emma, his muse and partner for the last 30 years of his life, and who inspired him to explore the female body in art as an act of total devotion.

Philippine STAR: How much have things changed in the house since Jerry’s passing away?

Emma Navarro:
It was difficult at first to change things. Jerry’s friends advised me to leave the house exactly as it was before he died. But that was difficult because my two children and I still live here. After a year, I decided to redecorate the studio by adding some elements, like a sofa set on the ground floor studio. My son Jeremy now sleeps on the loft, which was once Jerry’s upstairs studio, and so we had to rearrange the furniture. But as a whole, everything is still here–his old brushes, his paints, his palette (which was a gift from Botong Francisco), and his paintings. I repainted the façade of the house from white to peach salmon, and placed one of his abstract steel sculptures that used to be in the garage as a frontal element. I’ve left the original color of the studio, which is yellow, intact, because that was what Jerry wanted for this space.

Can you tell us a little about the house’s history?

We moved into the house in 1975. It used to be the standardized single-storey bungalow design that the Aguirres of BF Homes made in large numbers in the late 1960s. We first renovated our bedroom in the late 1970s to accommodate Jerry’s easels and paintings. We then added a second storey bedroom for the children in the 1980s. We finally added the two-level studio surrounding the master’s bedroom in 1997-98. Jerry was able to do his last paintings in this new space from October 1998 until May 1999. The paintings that you see here are mostly from his last period in the 1990s, which included the female nudes in his Bali and Japan periods, the Dancers series, and his abstracts and prints.

How did you and Jerry get to know each other?

After graduating from UST Fine Arts, I first worked in Hong Kong for a year. Coming back in 1965, I was introduced to Jerry, who was working at the time as creative director for the Ace Compton agency (now Ace Saatchi), by my good friend the artist Rodolfo Samonte. In fact, it was a close call, because we arrived at the office late, and Jerry was already on his way out. We were introduced at the lobby, and fortunately he liked me, and asked me if I can model for the agency. I became a talent model for Jerry’s corporate clients starting in 1967 until 1971. Among the ads we did were menu covers for Philippine Airlines in 1967-68; the Esso Calendars from 1967 to ’71; the Search for Miss Caltex 1967, and Royal True Lemon softdrinks. I joined Jerry when he went to Sydney, Australia in 1969, and did further studies under him when he taught art at Ranwick Technical School. This was when I also had fashion photographs taken by a professional Australian photographer. Coming back to the Philippines in 1970, Jerry went to work for McCann Erickson, while I lived with my parents. It wasn’t until 1972 when we finally decided to live together and raise a family. We lived in a rented house in San Antonio Village in Makati, where our first son Jeremy was born. He’s now a special events planner. In 1975, our second son Chad was born. He’s now an architect. Although I was technically competent to paint and draw because of my educational background, I chose to work solely as wife and mother since my children were born, and until Jerry passed away.

Did Mang Jerry use you as his model for his nude paintings?

I was Jerry’s main model–or his "private" model–since we were together. Jerry started his "Nudes" series in 1972, and most of the time I was modeling for him. When he would tire of drawing my body, I would often ask my female friends if they can pose for Jerry. Though at first reluctant, they eventually came back repeatedly. I also served as Jerry’s prop-up assistant, teaching the model how to pose properly for the artist. I never felt exploited in any way when we modeled in the nude. I’ve always thought that having your body drawn was the ultimate complement of your womanhood. In the process of painting the nude, he discovered Bali as an artist’s haven in 1984. Accompanied by his friend Roger San Miguel, he went to Ubud, which is the artist’s center of Bali, and he fell in love with the place. Thereafter, he returned to Ubud once a year to do paintings. I accompanied him once, in 1997. There is a place there called The Bamboo Gallery, where artists from all over would check in, and have individual studio facilities as part of their accommodations. He would find close friends there, artists like the Dutch Ari Smit, the Indonesian Madé, or the Malaysian Chang Fee Ming. It was like a club, where they would meet and exchange ideas on art. And they would also do nude paintings together, as well as native dancers.

Who were the Filipino artists whom Jerry admired?

Jerry had a lot of friends, although he carefully chose whom he liked particularly because of his position as an art critic. Among his closest friends were artist-writers such as Rod Paras-Perez, or the poet-critic Emmanuel Torres, and Cid Reyes, who was Jerry’s subordinate in advertising. When we were together, he would often speak well of certain artists for their originality, and their fearlessness. Some of these included Marcel Antonio, Jonathan Olazo, Gabby Barredo, Hermes Alegre, Roger San Miguel, Fil dela Cruz, Tiny Nuyda, and Ed Wilwayco. In the case of Tiny and Ed, they were also colleagues and neighbors of ours. He was especially fond of Gabby, and Gabby would return the complement, calling Jerry his mentor and father figure. We also had a barkada, to whom I would confide also, especially now that he is gone. These are very close friends like Lorrie Juvida and Louie Ojeda.

How has life been for you since Jerry’s passing away?

Well, I feel sad because I felt that he left me alone when I wasn’t ready, because I was so dependent on his love. But I am also happy for the freedom to pursue my art. When Jerry was around, I couldn’t paint, because he would look over my shoulder and criticize my work, even before it was finished! I only painted when he was out of town, and then hid it when he arrived. Now, I am reordering my life as an artist. My art is also a means to cure the boredom and sadness of Jerry’s passing. I was encouraged to exhibit by my weight manager, Dr. Joel Mendez. I did my first solo show at the Enterprise in July 2001, and my second at Megamall in January 2002. I’m still thinking about when to schedule my third solo. Right now, I am doing a series of watercolors and acrylics of women’s bodies mixed with drapery or landscape. It is my "exercise" as you call it. I feel that eventually, I will be doing abstracts, but not right now. Firstly, it would be compared too much with Jerry’s works. Also, I would like to prove that being an abstractionist means that you have already mastered the human form before you go onward. My concentration on the female nude is my way of looking at a beautiful figure. As a woman, you should be proud of your own body. You might say I am also an admirer of women, in the same sense as Jerry’s admiration.

Are you happy with the way things have turned out?

I am free, yes. I also don’t want to be married again. I have two grown boys who are successful in their lives, and I have my friends in the industry. I don’t abuse my freedom, though. I seldom go out. I am by nature a homebody.

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