San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Small Community Creates Open-Air Art Museum

PUNTA ISLITA – Culture is not usually in the forefront of praises heaped on Costa Rica. Head to head with some of its neighbors, it has comparatively bland native or traditional art, culinary, dress and musical traditions.But here, in a rural backwater on the northern Pacific coast, the town has imprinted itself with murals over the past couple of years – a distinction that could represent an emergent and unique cultural value in public art.Punta Islita is a speck of a village accessible only by plane or by forging a river and muscling over a muddy dirt road in four-wheel drive. It shares a glorious swath of wild coastline with other scattered villages, and seems an unlikely place to find murals in paint and tile on the public buildings and even trees in its one-block center.A tree is hung with stylized flowers, spirals and moons, shapes echoed on the health center and other buildings, and murals depicting country scenes and themes such as chickens, a dog or children playing are painted on the school and other public buildings, and set in colored tiles on the walls of the pulpería, the general store. It is called an open-air art museum, a collaboration between Central Valley artists and artisans and the simply curious-enough-to-try townsfolk.“IT teaches them to create art and make money,” San José artist and hotel owner Florencia Urbina said. “It’s about Costa Rica developing a strong sense of self in its rural areas. They have the potential and the ideas to generate folklore, and culture is lacking in Costa Rica.”She and other artists have been working with people in Punta Islita for the past three years in an initiative by Hotel Punta Islita.The resort, a five-star affair of opulent houses, pools, restaurants and views, roosts on a mountaintop above the town, and is the undisputed hub of economic activity in the region. Most of the townspeople work for or with the hotel, and most have experienced an improved quality of life through their association with it.THE hotel’s general manager, Eduardo Villafranca, turned to Marcela Valdeavellano to mastermind a project that would set the hotel apart.Rather than relying exclusively on hired hands around the hotel, the management has encouraged the growth of private satellite businesses that complement the hotel’s services and allow the region’s residents to profit from the resort’s presence. Townspeople make soaps by hand, for example, and sell them to the hotel for use in the rooms.Working with artists from the Central Valley, some have learned to make sewing-kit sacks decorated with shells and seeds found in the area, also placed in the rooms. Others frame mirrors with driftwood collected on the beach and sell them in the hotel’s art gallery.It is “a way to reinvent the place that focuses on the people, working with a sense of identity, creating their own language,” Valdeavellano said. It is a model of sustainable development, she explained, but “the difference is, this begins with art. You can invest any amount of money, but if there’s no creativity, you lose everything. We started the other way around; now they have learned to be creative and can face anything.”IN the town, the murals and other works of art were joint ventures between artists from the city and people from the region who were, in many cases, children. The aim was not just to infuse the place with art and the seeds of new cultural traditions, but also to augment children’s and new business owners’ educations.Project coordinator Jody Steiger said, “The idea is to utilize works of art to help further develop the education of children in primary schools in Costa Rica, to enhance their cognitive and evidentiary reasoning skills and their awareness and love of works of art from Costa Rica.”The project attracted the attention of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in July, when a small delegation visited Islita. Kae Newcomb, an art educator with the museum, gave a two-hour workshop based on reproductions of paintings by well-known modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.About 20 artists, aficionados, up-and-coming artists and interested people from the village took part in the roundtable-style discussion of the masterpieces and made their own drawings. Also participating was Ronald Zürcher, brother of Hotel Punta Islita owner Harry Zürcher and one of Costa Rica’s perhaps two most influential architects.For information or directions to Punta Islita, call the hotel at 661-4044 or visit its Web site at

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