San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tétreault: Artist, Nomad and Gardener

This year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and Canada. To celebrate the event, the Canadian Embassy in San José has been co-sponsoring numerous cultural activities.

Last March, pop singer Rachelle Jeanty had audiences swinging to various beats at both Tokú restaurant and bar, in the western suburb of Escazú, and Jazz Café in San Pedro, east of San José. In August, mezzosoprano Linda Maguire thrilled audiences with her brilliant performance at the National Theater.

The next cultural event promises to be just as exciting. Starting Oct. 12, Costa Ricans will have a chance to view the energetic works of well-known Canadian artist Pierre-Léon Tétreault. This much-awaited retrospective exhibition will be held at the CalderónGuardiaMuseum in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Escalante through Oct. 29.

At 59, Pierre Léon Tétreault is an artist with a long proven record. The recipient of many awards, including the Burnaby Print Biennial Prize in 1986 and the Canadian Grand Prix Graphex-5 award in 1997, Tétreault has participated in more than 150 group shows and more than 50 solo exhibitions in cities around the world, including Montreal, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mexico City, Bogotá and Caracas. His works are part of the permanent collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the WinnipegArtGallery, the Saitama Museum of Modern Art in Japan, the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá and the Public Library of Paris. His paintings also grace the walls of such corporations as Air Canada and Scotiabank.

Entitled “Nomadic Journey of Sacred Life,” Tétreault’s first show in Costa Rica will feature 39 pieces from his three main periods. The artist’s “psychedelic” period of the 1970s is represented by fanciful technicolor prints reminiscent of rock album covers of the time. In this world of playful fantasy, even the titles speak in jest (“Heraldic Self-Portrait for a Pilgrim,” 1975, and “A Suitcase of Humor for a Congenial Trip,” 1976.)

His more serious works from the 1980s and ’90s show concern for the different cultures of the world. From 2000 on, the artist’s works reveal a preoccupation with nature and an active ecological conscience.

Tétreault once said he feels “solidarity with clowns, gypsies, dreamers and marginal people, solidarity with the cultures of the planet, with Mother Earth, with wild open space and with the shamanic spirit.”

He studied wood printing in Japan as a young man. This experience, along with various stays abroad and extensive travels, shaped the artist’s life philosophy. He considers himself a nomad.

“I am a wanderer, a sort of nomad of the imagination,” he says. “I love the cultures of faraway lands and always come back from my travels yearning to go again.”

This taste for the exotic is reflected in his 1980s and ’90s works, which feature mandalas reminiscent of Nepalese Buddhist art, love scenes borrowed from Japanese erotic prints and tribal motifs typical of African cloth. We see symbols resembling Arabic calligraphy and designs not unlike those found on Persian rugs.

Though Tétreault borrows elements from different cultures, he never copies them, but rather reinterprets them. He juxtaposes the exotic with the ordinary, the sacred with the mundane.

His use of vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes works. The viewer cannot help but share his enthusiasm for life in all its diversity. With him, we celebrate the differences in human spirit.

While Tétreault is attracted to foreign races, he feels a special affinity for the indigenous people of the world. He has visited the Hopi and Navajo tribes in the U.S. state of Arizona on many occasions. He has spent long periods of time living among the Inuit, Cree and Montagnais tribes of northern Canada. On his trips to Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala, it is the indigenous people he seeks out.

This solidarity for aboriginal people led Tétreault to organize a grand show in 1992 featuring 75 indigenous artists from Canada and Mexico. The show, entitled “NewTerritories: 350/500 Years After” was a great success and traveled from Canada to Mexico.

The exhibit helped launch the careers of many indigenous artists, including Eddy Poitras, who subsequently became the first aboriginal Canadian artist to be invited to the prestigious Venice Biennale. The show also secured Tétreault a reputation as a hardworking and farsighted curator.

Why “350/500”?

“Because 1992 was the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city of Montreal,” the Canadian artist answers. “1992 was also the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. There were many celebrations and cultural events. But very few of those celebrations included indigenous artists. There was little public recognition of their contribution to society. I felt I had to do something to draw attention to the works of these overlooked artists.”

Fourteen years after “350/500,” Tétreault’s commitment to indigenous people hasn’t waned. These days, the artist is turning his attention to the plight of the Bribrí and Cabécar indigenous groups of Costa Rica.

With his wife Patricia Kim, Tétreault contributes to a fund that helps indigenous women start small business ventures in the southern jungles of Costa Rica. The project is piloted by Patricia and run by the Association of Indigenous Women of Talamanca (ACOMUITA).

Tétreault has been living in Costa Rica since 1999. Though he returns regularly to Canada to paint, his inspirations come from Costa Rica. The rain forest at his doorstep shows him both the power and precariousness of nature. This is a theme to which the artist has often returned since moving here.

Yet it is only with distance, in the quietness of his Canadian studio, that the artist can put on canvas all his apprehension for a world on the verge of irreversible change.

To draw attention to the problem of deforestation and other ecological issues, Tétreault spends his time planting trees.

“It is only by planting trees that you realize how long it takes these trees to mature; what takes years to grow can be destroyed in a matter of minutes, unfortunately,” he laments.

Tétreault’s planted trees are part of his pet project. The artist is hoping to build a botanical sculpture garden in Punta Uva, on the southern Caribbean coast.

“I spend my days working the earth and planting exotic trees and flowers now,” he says. “This is a long-term project. The trees will have to grow and the garden take shape before I put in the artworks. So, for now, I am a gardener.”

“I am a nomad planting roots these days,” he adds, chuckling.

For information about the exhibit, call CalderónGuardiaMuseum at 222-6392.


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