October 5th, 2009

The Blue-and-White Mystery

One of Costa Rica’s most prevalent and iconic symbols is the traditional house, or “casa típica.” Visitors to Costa Rica will see houses of this type on hundreds of postcards, in paintings, and in historically accurate reconstructions of actual buildings. The house looks the same in almost every representation; it has a red tile roof, square openings for windows, whitewashed adobe (or bahareque) walls, and a bright blue band of paint at the base of those walls. This blue band is the most remarkable feature on these houses. Interestingly, the reason behind the blue-and-white color combination—and the blue band, in particular—is not entirely clear. People have developed various theories to explain the blue, and all seem equally valid.

Some people say that the blue-and-white decorating scheme is merely an homage to Costa Rica itself. Because the traditional houses all had red-tile roofs, their owners decided to paint the walls blue and white. Thus, their houses were red, white and blue, the colors of the Costa Rican flag.

Some believe that when these types of houses were built, blue and white were simply the cheapest paint colors available. The paint protected the houses’ adobe walls, and people merely used the most economical colors they could find. Of course, this explanation does not take into account the particular design of the houses. Why is the blue at the base of the walls?

Other people argue that the blue at the base of the walls serves a functional purpose. When houses of this type were popular, Costa Rica was a rural country, and the houses stood on either dirt or grass. During the long rainy season, water poured off the roofs of the houses and pounded into the ground, splashing mud onto the walls. If the walls had been painted white all the way to the ground, their bases would have been mud-spattered and dirty throughout the rainy season. The blue paint served to protect the walls from mud spots and to disguise any dirt. Of course, one might wonder why people chose blue paint, instead of brown.

Still other people agree with the rain theory but have a different idea about causation. They believe that houses were all painted white at first and that they all developed a rain-induced band of caked-on mud at their bases. The brown band was so familiar-looking that people began to appreciate its aesthetic beauty. The color-block look became popular and desirable. With the idea of replicating this banded look, people began to paint the bases of their outdoor walls, settling on blue as a color that would not continually remind them of mud and as a particularly snappy pairing with white.

Although the reason behind the blue-and-white combination on Costa Rica’s traditional houses may be unclear, the houses are clearly charming and fun to see.

Please let us know if you have heard any other theories about the painted design of traditional Costa Rican houses.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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June 5th, 2009

Rafa Fernández, A Costa Rican Master

Connoisseurs of Costa Rican art recognize Rafa Fernández as one of the country’s most influential painters. Born in 1935, Rafa Fernández has produced a large body of critically acclaimed work and has had many national and international exhibits.

Largely self-taught, Rafa Fernández has won several important awards for his artwork, most notably the 2002 Magón Prize, awarded by the Costa Rican government. His paintings often focus on the feminine form in surreal, magical settings, and his palette is rich and colorful.

In 2002, Rafa Fernández put together a viewer-friendly exhibit of his work, rejecting the traditional museum space in favor of San José’s city streets—the “heart of my city,” according to the artist. For this exhibit, the artist hung high-quality reproductions of his work on the outdoor information kiosks that stand in the pedestrian mall of Avenida Central. Viewers could stroll outside, studying 28 paintings that represented 50 years of the artist’s work. Johnny Araya, then mayor of San José, declared that this exhibit would bring the artist’s work closer to the average Costa Rican and that the images would speak to the spirit of the entire community. The exhibit acknowledges the artist’s own efforts to bring good art to the average Costa Rican.

In March 2009, Rafa Fernández exhibited 25 of his recent oil paintings at the Calderón Guardia Museum (Museo Histórico Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia). The exhibit included fantastical images of acrobats, unicyclists, trapeze artists and marvelous animals.

Of this recent exhibit, the artist said that

…[m]y paintings are the ghosts, large or small, who surrounded me in my childhood and who showed me that the world could be seen from an alternate dimension: filled with magic, mood and craziness, that I could create the most absurd worlds from the most concrete reality and that I could allow myself the luxury of absolute belief in the reality of these worlds. [The ghosts] taught me to create images that did not exist, to speak with characters I did not know, and in time, they became my family.

Read a brief biography of Rafa Fernández.

Read more about Rafa Fernandez’s exhibit on the streets of San José

Read more about Rafa Fernández’s exhibit at the Calderón Guardia Museum

Read about César Valverde, another great Costa Rican artist.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 11th, 2008

César Valverde, Costa Rica’s Muralist

As an art form, muralism functions in a very different way from paintings done on canvas. César Valverde, Costa Rica’s most prominent muralist, recognized the mural’s unique role in public life. He often spoke of the ways in which his large-scale works of art reached out to a broad spectrum of viewers. His murals hang in several of the country’s important government buildings and universities.

Born in the late 1920s, César Valverde studied art at the University of Costa Rica and later became a professor at that same university and a director of its art department. He also studied art in Italy and France and was very involved in European cultural and artistic movements. He served as Costa Rica’s Vice-Minister of Culture in the early 1980s and received several important awards for his art. Although he painted canvases and smaller works, César Valverde is now best known for his large-scale works in places like Costa Rica’s National Assembly building (Asamblea Legislativa), its Department of Comptrollership (Contraloría) and the Universidad Autónoma de Centro América.

In a 1990 interview on a local Costa Rican television station, Valverde described murals as true “art of the people.” Because they hang in public places, he said, murals should not make intellectual statements and should, instead, speak directly to their viewers. Valverde believed that mural viewers should feel a kind of collective ownership of the art. An ordinary person should look at a mural and think, “This is mine.” He pointed out, too, that successful murals engage in a dialogue with the architecture of the spaces in which they hang. He said that, in muralism, architecture and painting join together to form one single work of art.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of all of Valverde’s work is his use of color. Oscar Bakit, a Costa Rican artist, argues that Valverde’s vivid color palette is his own personal “invention”: a César Valverde work is unmistakable because of its brilliant oranges, yellows and turquoises.

Just as Valverde used several signature paint colors, several images frequently recur in his art. He often painted very similar women, figures some describe as female archetypes. These women often stand against backgrounds of small houses or among tropical fruits and vegetables.

César Valverde described his own work as “full of optimism, full of life,” and he thought of his art as a visual representation of Costa Rica’s most important values. The Costa Rican national post office commemorated his life and work with a limited-edition postage stamp of his art. César Valverde died in 1998.

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Click here to see an interesting video about César Valverde.
Click here for César Valverde’s website.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 11th, 2008

Mysterious Orbs

Costa Rica does not have a large indigenous population or a real pre-Columbian presence. Some people say that the Spanish conquistadores killed all the natives they encountered, which would account for the relative dearth of indigenous art and artifacts in the country today. Others believe that Costa Rica never had a large indigenous population and that its land was mostly used as a travel route for native peoples moving from areas around Mexico to South America. However, Costa Rica does boast a set of very important—and unexplained—artifacts from pre-Columbian times. These are the stone spheres that archaeologists and land developers have unearthed in the country’s Diquís Delta region.

The spheres are of various sizes, and there are over 300 of them. The smallest are pebble-sized, and the largest weigh several tons. All are made from the same type of stone, identified by geologists as a sort of igneous rock. Despite their size, the spheres were all apparently formed by hand, although whose hand has not been fully determined. The spheres are not all perfect in shape, although some come very close to being perfectly smooth and round. Oddly, there have been no stones found in an unfinished state.

The spheres first appeared in the 1940s, when employees of the United Fruit Company excavated land near the Pacific coast. Scientists believe that the stones were shaped between 600 and 1500 AD, using various stone-shaping methods—rough shaping by means of temperature change and finer shaping through picking and grinding. After their discovery, the spheres soon became status symbols, and wealthy families paid to have the spheres transported to their homes from their original sites.

Fans of the occult and astrological theorists have long speculated about these spheres. Because many of the stones seem to have been found in geometric patterns and special alignments, some astrologers argue that the spheres are the work of extraterrestrials or evidence of some paranormal communication system. Some have even linked the spheres to the lost city of Atlantis. These theories are entertaining but wholly unsubstantiated by science.

Visitors to Costa Rica can see these stones everywhere. Several stand in front of the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) building. Other official buildings and schools also prominently display these spheres. And some are still in the front yards of private residences, nestled among ferns and flowers.

Click here for more about Costa Rica’s stone spheres.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 29th, 2008

Literary Lessons

Carlos Luis Fallas is one of Costa Rica’s best regarded authors. His life and his books touch upon some of the most important periods in Costa Rican history. His most famous books, Mamita Yunai and Marcos Ramírez, deal with the plight of Costa Rican agricultural workers and the lives of everyday Costa Ricans, respectively.

Born in the early part of the 1900s, Carlos Luis Fallas had little formal education. He spent much of his early life working in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company near Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. He became involved in the labor struggles of the plantation workers and soon was an active member of the Communist party in Costa Rica. He later served as a Diputado, or Congressman, in Costa Rica’s national congress and took part in Costa Rica’s civil war of 1948.

Mamita Yunai describes the unfair labor treatment and grim conditions Carlos Luis Fallas witnessed firsthand on the plantations of the United Fruit Company. (“Yunai” is a latinized shortening of “United.”) This book was an early criticism of American involvement in Costa Rica’s economy and workforce.

In Marcos Ramírez, the eponymous hero is a young boy in 1920’s Costa Rica. More lighthearted and far less political than Mamita Yunai, Marcos Ramírez still makes an important literary and historical statement. The details of life and customs it describes are those of a pre-industrialized and pre-globalized Costa Rica that has now all but disappeared.

Before Fallas’ death in 1966, Marcos Ramírez won an award from the William Faulkner Foundation for the best Latin American novel, and Fallas won Costa Rica’s highly regarded Magón cultural award.

Costa Rica’s congress posthumously awarded Carlos Luis Fallas the country’s highest national honor, Benemérito de la Patria.

Click here for more information about Carlos Luis Fallas.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 24th, 2008

Artwork that Once Worked Hard

Before there were cars and buses, paved roads and traffic lights, Costa Rica’s most common mode of transportation was the oxcart, or “carreta.” Dirt roads crisscrossed the countryside, winding through coffee farms and sugar cane plantations. Farmers loaded their goods onto wooden oxcarts to transport them to market.

Oxcarts all looked relatively similar, and their traditional shape has since become an iconic Costa Rican design. Oxcarts had one axle, to which were attached large, round wheels. These wheels were flat and had no spokes. Two oxen usually pulled the cart, a heavy wooden yoke over their necks. Someone often walked in front of the cart, guiding the plodding oxen to their destination.

At first, oxcarts were plain and unpainted, their wood slowly weathering to a natural grayish brown. But the simple lines and utilitarian beauty of the oxcarts soon lent themselves to decoration and embellishment. Oxcart decoration became something of a national art form. Wheel-painting was particularly popular, and artisans decorated cart wheels with brilliant geometric patterns that radiated from the center of the wheel. Yokes also became a popular design element, and painters covered them in flowers and curlicues.

Now that Costa Rica’s transportation systems are fully modernized, oxcarts are almost nonexistent as transportation. Some rural farmers still use them, but oxcarts have now become mostly decorative. Restaurants and museums across the country hang hand-painted yokes and oxcart wheels on their walls. “Carretas” are the subject of many nostalgic historical paintings, and entire oxcarts stand in the lobbies of theaters and art galleries nationwide. In 1988, during the first presidency of Oscar Arias Sánchez, the Costa Rican government officially declared the “carreta” a national symbol. And in 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the “Oxherding and Oxcart Traditions in Costa Rica” a “Masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage.”

These beautiful, cultural symbols once put in generations of hard work.

Read about UNESCO and Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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