Have you ever walked past that largerthan-life female statue on downtown San José’s Avenida Central and wondered who could have created such a voluptuous figure of a woman? Wonder no more.
Sculptor Manuel Vargas appears uncomfortable in a stuffy suit and tie at the opening of his latest exhibition “La Matrona” (“The Matron”) in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio La California – but give him the instruments of his craft and watch him work his magic.
Vargas, 54, has been creating sculptures since 1973, with most of his work focusing on the female figure. However, Vargas deviates from the superficial portrayal of women so common in the slim and sexual imagery of today. Proving that “Big is Beautiful,” his women are gigantic in every sense of the word: larger-than-anatomically-correct proportions and rotund figures fill up his collections.
Asked why he refuses to succumb to the typical expectation of female beauty, Vargas replies humbly, “My proposal is not external beauty; on the contrary, I look to communicate feelings and emotions through the use of metaphors. The expression I look for arises from the interior of the sculpture. The volume of the sculpture gives space to all
those emotions; the viewer should see these women for their interior.”
Born in Tilarán, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, Vargas obtained an arts degree at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) before traveling in 1981 to Carrara, Italy, where he focused his attention on working with stone and marble, securing qualifications from the technical institute Pietro Tacca. After six months of study, he returned to Costa Rica in full force, to create bold, full-figured women for display on Avenida Central and a number of exhibitions.
The sculptor focuses mainly on bronze, stone and wood carvings, and, true to his down-to-earth character, he favors the wood medium above all.
“I prefer wood,” he told The Tico Times, “because it is a warmer material, beautiful and expressive in what it transmits. Plus it adds depth to the subject I am displaying, the human figure.”
Vargas says “La Matrona,” is a tribute to the women, particularly the mothers, of Costa Rica.
“Mothers have character, strength and much determination,” he says. “They have that internal force that allows them to lead, often alone. These women give strength to and inspire their children.”
Much of the exhibition draws on his own recollections of the mother figure.
“It has to do with memories from my childhood,” Vargas says nostalgically. “My inspiration to develop my work comes from the contact, the observations from a very early age, I had with all these people. I still remember those powerful images of strong women with great character and determination.”
Vargas says his own mother has been a great source of strength in his life.
“My mother was the one who embedded my values,” he says. “She was the inspiration and the support I needed to become who I am today.”
In a culture often criticized for its machismo bias, Vargas claims the Central American woman is key in the education of children, “teaching great values in their daily lives so that they can better develop this society,” insisting that Costa Rican mothers are mothers who have “great influence over their children.”
Vargas says his most visited statue on Avenida Central, “La Chola de la Avenida,” is his way of engaging the spectator in an everyday recognition of the female role.
“My interest focuses on the direct bonding between the physical image and the individual that someone can have with my work,” he explains, “the associations they can make with a real person who exists in their memory, their mother, their grandmother, an aunt and even their mother-in-law.”
He goes on to explain the need for human connection in the city sprawl of San José: “I want to portray the interaction that can exist between art and the urban space.”
His desire to create a maternal figure for San José has been warmly received. Aside from the usual tourists snapping photos, groups of locals gather in La Chola’s shade.
U.S. sculptor Brain McMullen says he loves that there is a collective group of children who constantly seem to be guarding the sculpture.
“It has become a superstition for good luck if you walk past and slap her backside,” McMullen says. “The children always fall into hysterics when they see me, looking like a Gringo, doing the same.”
McMullen critically describes Vargas as “a master sculptor of grand forms and subtle expression.”
“Dignity, wisdom and the sublime are what come to mind when I view Manuel Vargas’ sculptures,” says McMullen, himself an accomplished sculptor (TT, Feb. 22).
“Though his art depicts the cholas of Guanacaste, his message is so universal. His sculpture possesses such deep emotion; even his smallest works are intimate monuments to the women of Costa Rica.”
“La Matrona” will be showing through May 7 at the offices of Vida Plena (257-2717), Barrio La California, 25 meters west of the Nicaraguan Embassy.