She’s exactly like museums, quiet, well-curated, immaculately presented. And just like museums, what people rarely see is that massive amounts of hard work and chaos clocked in to achieve the seeming calmness. I first saw her in one of the many art lectures hosted by the Lopez Museum and Library. She stood in the corner wearing sky high heels (that I would soon associate fondly with the Lopez women), beautiful scarves with dainty necklaces peeking underneath matched perfectly with pressed dresses. She stood listening intently to whatever art movement was being discussed at length. If she ever had apprehensions about entering the art world, there would be no trace of it on her face.
“One day I was–I may have been eight or nine, I was thinking, what is it I really want to be? You put on all these costumes and try to figure it out. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure if I wanted to be a ballerina, or a nurse, or something. All I knew was I wanted to be busy.” And today, she is. President of the Lopez Group Foundation, Inc., Chair of the Lopez Group HR Council, head of logistics of ABS-CBN Corporation, and the Director of the Lopez Museum & Library, the eldest of eight siblings, mother of four, Cedie Vargas balances everything without a single strand of hair falling out of place.
The formulation of her schedules is a science: “they change from day to day, depending on my meetings.” Specific pockets of time are dedicated to various commitments, personal errands, zipping from ABS-CBN to the Benpres building, and the Rockwell Business Center—all the while calculating the ever frustrating, perpetually changing travel time between Quezon City, Makati, and Ortigas. As a child she thought, “If you were busy you had a purpose, you had a mission… Be careful what you wish for.” She laughed as I watched another notification ping on her iPhone.
If Cedie Lopez-Vargas were nervous, you’d never know it. She supplies sentences for botched opening remarks without missing a beat, mixing a joke in the process. As part of the audience you wouldn’t notice it, her subtle frowns, that-doesn’t-seem-right scrunches of the brows at an incorrectly supplied year, a misspelled name, and the occasionally missed out acknowledgement. Us, who’ve memorized the typed out sheet, shriek soundlessly at the peripheries cursing ourselves only to be pacified by her instant ad libs. Quick and smooth. All is right in the (art) world again.
Her duties however, aren’t limited to her career. “It’s lola day,” she laughed on Saturday in the museum, and proceeded to walk her granddaughter through the galleries. “Do you hear that?” cupping her hand to her ear. “Let’s follow the sound,” she said to her granddaughter as they floated out of the museum, Mrs. Vargas holding her hand while they listened for the orchestra playing outside. The two ended up sitting on the gallery floors, as kids played on their violins and cellos, Mrs. Vargas’ granddaughter in a structured gray dress, and her in a seemingly matching gray knitted maxi. Fully present. “There’s never enough time a week for me to do what I need to do,” but most of the time she does what she has to, and everything beyond.
Perhaps her perseverance stems from one of her favorite stories that involved her as a child being asked by her father, Oscar M. Lopez to do the seemingly mundane task of making phone calls. “So I would call, and say, ‘Oh it’s busy.’ Put the phone down, read a book, you know, intending to call again,” she shrugs. Possibly in the same manner she did back then. “And he’d come inside and say, ‘You’re not calling.’ And I’d say, ‘Because it’s busy.’ And he’d say, ‘How do you know? You’re reading a book. You’re not calling. You call, and call, and call. You stick to it until you get through, until you’re successful.’ That lesson in commitment was [ingrained] into me at a very early age.”
When the directorship of the Lopez Museum & Library in 2002 was thrust upon her by her father, she took her place and steered the ship without flinching despite her acknowledging her limits in the art field. “I’ve been sitting for fourteen years.” Fourteen years of museum stewardship, more than thirty exhibitions under her belt, a massive library digitization effort continuously underway, Cedie Vargas had to hit the ground running, and in five inch heels nonetheless. “There was time for me to learn, to be able to get my feet wet.”
She did more than just get her feet wet. She dove into that whirlpool that was the art and museum world, and found a way to thrive there. You’d see her in inky printed photographs sitting attentively amongst seasoned art practitioners, young and old, over dinner or standing beside her father studiously during exhibition openings. She laughs as she lists down the museum directors she’s encountered since then. “I’m still here,” she says happily. That level of determination is something her employees always attempt to match; if Mrs.Vargas told anyone to jump, rest assured the response will always be, “how high?”
One of her many leaps was her involvement in what would in its fruition become the annual MaArte Fair. Every year, in partnership with the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, she successfully oversees the setting up of the MaArte Fair, packed extensively with beautifully crafted textiles and locally made artisanal products, immaculately curated. And if I ever saw the image of giddiness in Mrs. Vargas, it’s when she talked about textiles and Philippine handiwork.
“Ever since I was young I was always interested in crafts. That was as far into the arts as I got to when I was young. I was always fascinated by how these things were made, and the potential. Building MaArte was another long journey just like the museum.” I recall a time she came back from Guimaras with her sister; she beamed for about half an hour talking about the potential of jusi, abaca, and natural dyes. To Mrs. Vargas, it’s more than consumption and consumerism; it’s a cause not only for the environmentally sustainable but also for the empowerment of the local industry.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you do it for Christmas? You’d earn a lot more,’ But that’s not our advocacy.” Mrs. Vargas discussing the formula of positioning the MaArte Fair way beyond the craze of the holiday season. “They will not bother to take the time to understand how maybe the craft you’re buying or the object you’re buying was made, the time the effort the talent or the soul that went into that object. [We want] not just to sell but to educate the people who are patronizing the projects.”
“There are times when we go through such pains to be able to ship over certain items. Like those very colorful mats from Palawan. We only had four. I’ve done this every year. I don’t know it’s going to sell, and maybe part of me doesn’t care if it’s going to sell or not.” I wish you could see it—how excited she gets when she’s furthering this advocacy, taking time from her schedule to make it a point to physically oversee all three days of the MaArte Fair, in her element, trying on beaded espadrilles, champagne in hand, discussing quite passionately with great detail the craftsmanship that went into each product displayed. “…You must be able to exhibit that because your commitment really is to show the best of what’s out there.”
She lives out her advocacy, continuously finding new ways to empower textile, and craft makers around the Philippines; one of her current initiatives to better the quality and sustainability of the crafts in Guimaras with the support of the Lopez Group Foundation, Inc. “The past year all the production went to China and our local industry was suffering so much. What we were trying to do was push for this artisanal crafts where the volumes are small. Because you really cannot mass produce, you should not try to compete with China. You try to niche yourself in the artisanal market, where the people will understand and pay a little bit more for artisanship.”
“What would you like to do, when things slow down, when they can slow down?” I asked her after a lengthy discussion about her life’s work. At first she laughs, after having just recovered from a week-long bout of sickness (“My body just decided to go on strike… The hospital didn’t want to let me out!”). After which she stares at the other side of the museum café for a long while, stern in a very purposeful silence. The Christmas music in November blaring from the café speakers suddenly sounded very loud. “I’d like to be able to have enough time to read a good book and enjoy it because I don’t have time to do that. Sometimes someone gives me a really good book and, I start enjoying it and suddenly I realize I don’t have enough time. I’m usually reading three books at the same time. I’d like to be able to slow down and read quietly with enough focus.”
And then you see it again, the determined nine year old that wanted a mission, a purpose in her life, now all grown up, neither a practicing ballerina nor a nurse, but instead a driving force in whatever task she’s given. “I always wonder what it would be like if I had an unlimited amount of time, to think about, ‘what do I have to do today?’ The luxury of being able to do that. Wake up at whatever time and not have to jump out. You’re already coordinating your wardrobe so it takes you from morning to night. Or you have to bring the accessories. I have to bring another bag, another pair of shoes. And the whole time you’re on your phone trying to manage to be here at this time so I can be here at this time.” She looks determined while thinking, really attempting to imagine what it must be like to live in a slower pace. That for her was uncommon ground. “I don’t know if I’d be happier. Would I feel more fulfilled? I don’t know.” For many people it’s a dream to be able to get away from the hustle and bustle, but for action-driven people such as Cedie Lopez-Vargas, the idea of slowing down seemed most unnerving.
She thrives in work that pushes her into unknown territory. Life for her will always be the search for new endeavors, never wavering from her family’s advocacy of furthering the Filipino identity and progress. Cedie Lopez-Vargas at fifty-nine, in all her facets, all her initiatives, exudes a youthful newness: unabashed, forward thinking, and continuously grounded. I don’t doubt she’ll steer the ship with as much determination as she did when she was first handed the responsibility, with her head high, wearing a hand-embroided dress, and a bright red scarf draped around her shoulders, ready to tackle whatever comes her way. Cedie Lopez-Vargas always seems to stand taller than most, a characteristic she can attribute to more than just her deep red sky high platforms.
SITTINGS BY MAGS OCAMPO