Filipina film star Maria Isabel Lopez shows her mosaic art in Sebastopol garden
Visitors to Maria Isabel Lopez’s “studio” will find that the art display begins not at the door but the back gate.
Almost completely concealed behind the 1850s farmhouse in Sebastopol where she works and lives with her partner, Jonathan Melrod, is a vast garden mansion of multiple rooms, each a distinctive surprise. Here a meadow of graceful grasses, there a waterfall spilling into a pond. Pathways wend gently among densely layered plantings of exploding perennials and walls of semi-formal hedges, past a 300-year-old oak and groves of almost every fruit-bearing tree imaginable.
Lopez is one of more than 160 artists who will welcome visitors and collectors to their homes and studios this weekend and next to view their “Art at the Source.”
But Lopez wants it known that the garden itself is not just a spectacular backdrop for her mosaics. It is, she says, a work of art itself, lovingly developed over 17 years as the slowly unfolding dream of Melrod, a human rights attorney who she met through a mutual friend on Facebook.
“There is a symbiosis between the garden and caring about people and the environment,” said Melrod of this lush place where he and Lopez connect quietly and in conversation over their shared love of natural beauty, eating clean out of the garden and being a voice for the poor and oppressed.
Visitors during the open studios weekends are welcome to explore the lavishly landscaped grounds designed by Gary Ratway of Albion, who has done many exceptional North Coast gardens, and tended by Melrod, with support from longtime Sebastopol gardener Lena Hahn-Schuman.
“It’s been my life’s project since I came up here,” said Melrod, a man of boundless enthusiasm for his ever-evolving three-dimensional artwork. “I can’t afford to do it all at once but I add a little bit more every year.”
His latest addition, still a work in progress, is a small rammed earth guest house by the pool with massive reclaimed wood doors under construction by John Richards of Ukiah that serves now as an open air gallery for Lopez’s work during Art at the Source.
Lopez leads a double life. In one life she lives in rural west Sonoma County, where she dresses down in jeans and work boots and devotes herself to her art and cooking out of the bounteous garden begun by Melrod. Her other life is in the Philippines. When she alights from the plane in Manila she assumes her other persona as a glamorous movie and TV star.
“When we first went to the Philippines together we went to a mall. I had to go to the bathroom. I come out and there are 50 people surrounding her taking selfies,” said Melrod, shaking his head. He had barely paid attention to her online profile when they began sharing comments on more serious issues.
The pair had instead, bonded over their mutual concern for human rights causes and have now been a couple for three years. In her home country Lopez has used her celebrity to draw attention to women’s rights. She works with Gabriela, the radical women’s movement and political party battling violence, human trafficking, censorship, environmental degradation and poverty.
Her passions are frequently reflected in her artwork, a love she has only recently returned to in a serious way after some 35 years in entertainment. Among the pieces on display in the garden for Art at the Source is a mixed media portrait of a real woman, a political prisoner, whose cause she and Melrod took up on one trip to the Philippines. They found her in an 18-foot cell where 32 women were crammed in 120-degree heat. Working with a human rights organization the couple gained access to the jail and brought food and books to the prisoners. With a smuggled cellphone Lopez snapped a photo of the woman with her baby. That image became the basis for her portrait. The pair ultimately were not successful in persuading the jail to allow the woman to keep her nursing baby past six months.
They remain undeterred. Lopez is now working on a biographical drama about Bai Bibyaon, the first female chieftain of her Manobo tribe, who led a tribal war against logging and mining companies that threatened to destroy ancestral lands. At 92 she is still fighting for the rights of indigenous people. Lopez plays Bibyaon in middle age while her daughter, also an actress, portrays the chieftain as a young woman.
“She’s very brave,” said Lopez. “It involves a lot of issues from women’s rights to environmentalism.”
Lopez had little while growing up, an experience that informs her art, fuels her passion for good food and healthy living and fires her activism.
“We were so deprived. That made me creative. I created my own toys,” she remembered. “I would get scraps from notebooks and cut them into paper dolls and then design clothes for them. That was the beginning of my art.”