From Farmer’s Son to Celebrated Artist
At 72, Costa Rican artist Isidro Con Wong still finds inspiration in his childhood calligraphy lessons.He likes to say it was that early exposure to Oriental brush and ink that made him an artist.
Born in Costa Rica to Chinese parents, Con Wong spent his early years listening to folktales of China and studying Cantonese with his mother. Although not an artist herself, the mother recognized her son’s talent and encouraged his doodling.
Con Wong’s father, on the other hand, had little patience for the arts. Like many other fathers of his time, the strict patriarch wanted his son to succeed in the family’s farming and shoe businesses.
The artist still laughs when he recalls his father’s glee at the end of his first show more than 30 years ago. Not a single painting had sold, but instead of helping his son, the influential and rich father scorned him, saying, “You can have your old job at the shoe factory back, but only if you ask for it.”
Con Wong fared better at a second show a few years later. A German collector bought the whole collection – but only because the paintings went for $1.50 a piece.
Despite the lack of reception at the beginning of his career, Con Wong persisted with his unique and wonderful art. His painted scenes of the Costa Rican countryside are like childhood fantasies. There are mangoes the size of the moon and miniature cows dangling on tree branches. Chinese characters are camouflaged as multicolored vines, and volcanoes spew petals.
As a free spirit and self-taught artist, Con Wong cares little about trends and critics.
“I only follow the trend of my heart,” he says. “I paint not to conform or please others but to give form to my inner voice.”
The artist says he has felt the magic of art running through him since he was a child, but it was only at 40 that he was able to bring this potential to fruition.
“At 40 it was not easy to make a name for myself,” he recalls. “My works were different and offered little frame of reference for the public.”
Recognition may have been scarce in the beginning, but this is no longer so. Today, Con Wong’s paintings are exhibited not only throughout Latin America but also in the United States, Europe and China.
At home in Costa Rica, the artist’s name is as recognizable as that of national art icon Rafa Fernández. Elsewhere, his paintings make up part of the permanent collections of the International Museum of Naïf Art in Paris, the LatinAmericanMuseum in Monaco and the Taipei Museum of Art in Taiwan.
In 1988, the artist won the International Grand Prix of Contemporary Art in Monte Carlo and caught the attention of Princess Caroline of Monaco. Con Wong was asked to stay in Europe, but could not bear living far from his beloved Puntarenas, the port city on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
Despite international success, the artist remains humble and true to his farmer’s roots. Like all farmers, Con Wong likes to date events according to the seasons. To him, the joyful naïf paintings of the 1980s and ’90s were part of his spring and summer periods, in which colorful canvases overflow with trees, flowers and omnipresent virile bulls.
The early 2000s were marked by black abstract paintings, representing fall and winter for the artist. On these canvases, a multitude of black organic forms play against a black background. Despite the lack of colors, the black paintings are no less lyrical than his earlier works.
In recent years, Con Wong says he has been working on a period of transition‚ with the comeback of colors and bulls perhaps heralding the return of spring.
The artist will be hosting the opening night of his newest exhibit March 16 at 7 p.m., in the Tribu building in San Antonio de Belén, west of San José. The ultramodern complex, with its open spaces and natural lighting, promises to be an interesting backdrop for Con Wong’s canvases. The show will include past works as well as some new paintings, and will run for two months. For more information and directions to the building, call Milenia Gamboa at 209-7766.
Last month, Con Wong spoke with The Tico Times about his childhood, art and life.
TT: How did your upbringing influence your art?
ICW: I was born second-generation Chinese. At home, my parents kept the Chinese culture. We were more than 60 Chinese living in one big house in Puntarenas. It was like a little Chinatown in the heart of the Costa Rican port. For me, China was my house, and when I opened the front door, Costa Rica was outside. The two cultures became part of my subconscious and made me what I am today.
Which artists influence you the most?
I am fascinated by Vincent van Gogh. All artists are interesting to me each time I have a chance to see their works. Such encounters make me want to scream, “Long live art! Long live humanity! Long live mankind!”
How would you describe your style?
My style is very personal and different. Many art critics have catalogued me as a naïf painter. But personally, I don’t consider myself as such. I believe the spirit and sensibility of a naïf painter exists in all human beings. For this reason, I don’t object to this classification.
How do you explain the transformation from colorful paintings to black canvases?
As a kid, I enjoyed dark nights as much as days full of sunlight. They are two different landscapes, yet they are the same.More than half of my works are southern landscapes. Now they are abstract and black landscapes. As a kid, I looked at the black nights as being full of surprises; they were like celestial orbits giving way to the infinite. Now my black monochromes give me great creative freedom. Many people think of black as the absence of color, but for me it is the sum of all the colors.
What advice would you give to budding artists starting to paint for the first time at age 40?
I would say 40 is a great age and an ideal time to change careers – to let loose the hidden artist in you.
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