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Artists Marina Cruz and Rodel Tapaya find a new canvas for creation in books with IsTorya

Artists Marina Cruz and Rodel Tapaya find a new canvas for creation in books with IsTorya

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  • IsTorya Studios in Bulacan is not just Cruz and Tapaya’s creative respite; It is also a platform for artists who want to tell stories beyond the canvas, and a boost for small independent creators who want to amplify the voices of others
Marina Cruz Rodel Tapaya artists at Istorya Studio in Bulacan

Artist couple Marina Cruz and Rodel Tapaya are always down to learn something new.

At their new outpost in Guguinto, Bulacan called IsTorya Studios, the painters are trying their hands at publishing, something they’ve always had an inkling of even as budding artists in the early 2000s. “Kasi seryoso din kami sa archiving e,” Tapaya said, remembering their early days printing out their own catalogues so they have some sort of record, a catalogue raisonné in the making. “Feeling ko hindi nag-e-exist kapag walang print e,” Cruz added.

What started from a few card games inspired by their children has since evolved into a number of books by writer-advocates and most recently by their artist friends, who’ve never in their wildest dreams imagined they’d one day publish a book—all thanks to Cruz and Tapaya’s encouragement and belief that an artist should not be confined within the medium of their practice.

We arrived at the compound—a rather sprawling property with adjacent multi-story structures with small and big rooms within them—on a blinding Tuesday morning. Artist Archie Oclos was out painting the storefront. He was one of the artist-authors the couple has tapped for IsTorya. His book “Mga Walang Pangalan Pero Andyan (those without names but are there)” stars six cats and their nine lives each. Every illustration in the book by the renowned street artist and muralist is accompanied only by three words. Something like a haiku but shorter. He had an early start painting outside that day to outrun the scorching sun but even in the rough outlines, one could already make out a cat. Is it connected to the book? I asked the couple. “‘Di ko nga alam e,” Tapaya admitted rather gleefully. “Siya na ang bahala. Ano kami e, giving them freedom kung ano ‘yong gusto nilang gawin.”

Tagpo series consist of four books by artists Rodel Tapaya, Marina Cruz, Archie Oclos, and Doktor Karayom.

That seems to be the governing ethos of IsTorya so far. If you ask the couple, the publishing house can really be anything. The same goes for its first book series called “Tagpo,” which so far has four books in it: Oclos’, a book by Tapaya entitled “Bayan ng Ginhaw” expounding on a universe based on one of his paintings; a vibrant blue-paged book by Cruz chronicling a hundred dresses that tell the story of her family; and a deceivingly child-like comic-ish book by artist Doktor Karayom set in bloody red. 

“Tagpo,” which was completed and released as an ongoing artist-author series during Art Fair Philippines 2024, got its name from Tapaya’s first-ever show in a waiting shed at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “That time hindi kami maka-penetrate sa mga galleries,” Cruz recalled. “So sabi ni Rodel, ‘Kung gusto mo lang namang makita ng mga tao ‘yong work mo e ’di sa waiting shed so hindi kailangan ng gallery o espasyo. Dalhin mo sya sa tao, kung saan may tao.’ Nag-fishball kami noong opening.”

The couple told that when they were conceptualizing the artist book series, they initially wanted the roster to not necessarily be all artists. These days, they’re trying to get musicians and filmmakers on board, too, because “Tagpo is where minds intersect and collaborate.” 

Photo from IsTorya Studio/Instagram

Other than personally choosing who they want to work with on a book, it was mostly a democratic process. Though they are generally very hands-on with the publishing process—following up on the artists themselves!—for the most part, the only limit that exists is that on paper: colors, word count, format. “Ang requirement lang namin ay one color lang for economic reasons,” the couple half-joked. Everything else is entirely up to the artist-author. “Ang [challenge] lang siguro is kung game ba silang ikompronta din ‘yong sarili nila,” Cruz said matter of factly, having gone through the process of writing a book herself for IsTorya, which she said is just as grueling as filling a blank canvas.

Back inside the shop, Cruz and Tapaya gave us a tour, starting in the back where they are planning to put up a riso studio in a well-lit high-ceilinged space. They don’t quite know when it will open yet, but they have tried making their own prints so far. 

That’s the thing I’ve noticed immediately with the couple and IsTorya: They are so willing to go out of their way to learn something, to step out of the success bubble they’ve found themselves in with their chosen craft.

The couple photographed in Tapaya’s studio

Cruz, who is known for her hyperrealistic paintings of articles of clothing, has made a name for herself for her personal exploration of family history, what it means to age through material belongings, and how that relates to the human body and experience. Her large-scale paintings are fixtures in the local art landscape and prized by collectors.

Meanwhile, her husband Tapaya, with his surrealistic folk narrative murals and sculptural installations, has produced a prolific body of largescale works. During our visit, we found several just-finished or in-the-process-of-being-made canvasses taller than us in the compound’s several rooms. 

“Ina-allow namin na wala talaga kaming alam. Parang estudyante ulit kami,” the couple said of their recent appearances at small independent zine and comics conventions colloquially known among the community as “latag.”

“Habol ka e,” Tapaya added. “Para kang nasa school ulit na gusto mong matuto, ganon ‘yong feeling.”

That’s just one of the reasons they’re dipping their toes in publishing. 

For starters, after decades of making their names in the art world, the couple wanted to explore something new. A fresh, creative start. They, too, enjoy the anonymity afforded to them in underground creative circles. 

“Medyo matagal na kami, may mga nakakakilala sa amin so minsan ang hirap ding gumalaw. Pero doon sa mundo ng publication, tinda lang kami. Mas na-sho-showcase namin ‘yong mga kuwento,” Cruz said. 

Kahit na ordinaryong tao, ‘di kailangan kilala ang artist o maalam sa fine arts o creative na tao kasi iba-iba ang level ng appreciation na kaya pala ng simpleng libro.

Marina Cruz

Kuwento—stories for their inherent value and not whether or not they can be profitable—the couple said, is a shared beginning and end goal in indie publication: “Passionate sila sa kuwento, hindi sa anong worth nito. Passionate sila sa anong iba dito, anong kuwentong inilalahad niya.”

There’s also a sense of community within the independent publication scene that they find inspiring. They are bound by the hardships that allowed for the alternative stage to come forward in the first place. “Once naman nandoon ka na sa setup ng publication, tulong-tulong naman e kasi alam din nilang mahirap,” Tapaya said of their fellow small independent presses, some of them stocking IsTorya’s books like Everything’s Fine.

Marina Cruz
Her book “Sandaang Damit“

A bonus is that they get to know people outside their social circles, something they rarely encounter in their solitary practice as artists. “Mas nakakakilala kami ng ibang tao, lumalawak ‘yong network, ‘yong perspective.”

But it’s not as if the couple is living in a bubble, insulated from social realities by the success that they built. Before IsTorya, Cruz is an advocate for adoption. Through IsTorya’s advocacy work, they are able to do outreach to orphanages, encouraging play to aid in children’s development. In 2022, for example, they gave away puppets and conducted art workshops at an orphanage in Pampanga.

IsTorya publishes advocacy books that address social issues like adoption and sexual abuse in children, too, because Cruz and Tapaya believe in print’s immediate power to educate. “Gasera ng Paglingap” is a compendium of stories that bring awareness to the different forms that sexual abuse and exploitation may take and that children may fall victim to. Written by Chary Mercado with illustrations by Mique Aquiluz, Marx Fidel, Dione Kong, and Mariko Nakamura, IsTorya initially helped raise funds to distribute and translate the text into different languages to make it accessible to underserved communities.

“Elipsis” by Ran Manansala with illustration by Jose T. Gamboa came next, a comic book that follows an orphan named Allan as he explores integration into society as an adult after spending most of his life in the orphanage. Through this book, Cruz hopes to replace self-pity with a readiness mindset among individuals like the protagonist—those who were failed by the adoption system but must persevere to never let that define the rest of their lives.

IsTorya, the store itself, is in limbo. Cruz and Tapaya are busy being artists, fulfilling the demands of their practice while also being parents to growing kids. At the moment, they are adamant about formally opening the store with regular hours so as not to overwhelm their operations manned by staff they share with their personal practice.

But the intention is to keep it open to everyone who wants to explore all kinds of creative expressions. And to be fair, they have more than enough space for all of it. 

The artists at their Bulacan studio

“Ano bang pwede?” the couple posed the question of the space. “Kasi receptive naman kami kung saan kami dalhin pero alam din namin ‘yong energies na kaya naming ibigay. Istorya should be inspiring us but not naman drain us. So na-ika-calibrate din namin iyan. Kaya din minsan ‘di namin alam kung todo open ba natin itong space or tayo ang lalapit sa audience kapag may workshop or collab with other artists, collectives. Lahat ‘yon ay mga question marks.”

What a conundrum it is, to be so free and open to the possibilities of creation. For now, Marina Cruz and Rodel Tapaya are more than happy to give a platform for artistic expression beyond what is expected of them, of their peers.

“Nagiging daan ang IsTorya para lumabas pa ‘yong ibang gustong sabihin ng mga artists outside of their main practice, to encourage small creators,” Tapaya said.

“Maumpisan mo lang ‘yong isang idea, tapos tignan natin. Iyan naman ‘yong IsTorya. Kapag ‘di nag-work e ‘di okay lang.” More than just being willing learners, they too welcome failure among millions of possible outcomes.

IsTorya is self-funded, subsidized by Cruz and Tapaya’s practices, which continue its upward trajectory with every show opened and every painting sold. If anything, they could have just been content reaping the fruits of their labor. But they know of the joy of creation and that they had to share it with others.

“Masaya rin kami kasi imbes na bumili ng luho biruin mo nakakapagpalabas ka ng mga libro,” Tapaya said.

Cruz, while also jubilant about the detour their practice has taken them in, is more happy about how printed matter has far-reaching implications. “Kahit na ordinaryong tao, ‘di kailangan kilala ang artist o maalam sa fine arts o creative na tao kasi iba-iba ang level ng appreciation na kaya pala ng simpleng libro.” ●

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