San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Californian Artist Inspired by Costa Rica

To Carl Aldana, Californian artist and former Hollywood art director, Costa Rica isn’t merely beautiful; it’s a country that compels him to paint.

His latest collection of vibrant, technicolor paintings, now on display at the National Gallery in San José, is the result – the outpouring – of the enchantment felt by the artist who fell in love with this country, quite unexpectedly, some 14 years ago.

“I came here with no intention to paint,” says Aldana, 69, of his first visit to Costa Rica. “But I discovered this incredibly rich source of inspiration. There are things here that just affect me. This exhibition is about moments I have experienced here.”

Aldana has been a consistent figure in the California art scene since the 1960s, winning recognition in the United States and beyond for his varied and often expressionist work typically featuring figures, landscapes and architecture.

In “Costa Rica Luminosa,” an exhibit in watercolors and oils, Aldana has done a fine job of capturing the light and rich abundance of color, the iridescence, and something of the vulnerability of the landscapes that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled in Costa Rica. These are paintings that make you feel like you’re there, seemingly engaging the senses beyond sight alone.

“What affected me most here was the saturation of color,” he says, thinking for a moment before describing the experience by way of comparison with his familiar Los Angeles. “L.A. looks like an old pair of jeans with the color just run out of them, and Costa Rica is the opposite. It’s almost too much – like you’ve over-tuned your television.”

Raymundo Volio, owner of Galería Mirarte in San José, who produced the show for Aldana, captures this sentiment eloquently when he says, “Carl paints in Spanish,” an observation Aldana considers a profound reference to his Latino roots.

“He means there’s this suppressed Hispanic person in me and this is the only way I can get him out,” he explains.

Aldana was born in Guatemala in 1938, but at age 6 he left with his mother for California. He was sent to a school where nobody spoke Spanish – an experience he describes as “unintentionally abusive” and that led to a “total amnesia” for Spanish.

Aldana’s wife Susie, his constant, patient companion in his love affair with art, says, “In Costa Rica Carl found a way to return to the emotion and language of his youth.”

Aldana’s enthusiasm for Costa Rica is as evident in his voice as it is in the vibrancy of his paintings. It is, he says, “a real honor” to show his work at the National Gallery.

Humble words for a man with a seven-page resume that can only offer a glimpse of successes spanning the art and film worlds.

In 2000, Aldana retired from a Hollywood career that began quite by accident more than 20 years previously.

“Man, I was lucky,” he says of his big break.

“I was teaching painting. We had a new baby and I wasn’t making much money. So I asked a couple of friends who had got into Hollywood to get me a job as a janitor,” he chuckles. “Well, instead, I was asked to do storyboards for Paramount.”

Since then, Aldana has worked on an impressive list of more than 100 films, including “Air Force One,” “Ghost,” “The American President” and “The Horse Whisperer.”

How did working in film influence his art? “I do a lot of paintings in sequence – diptychs and triptychs – to try to capture that sense of moving your point of view, like a pan sequence in a movie,” he says.

He describes this exhibit as “expressionist,” but he is, he admits, somewhat erratic.

“I like to not be in control of it,” he says. “I like to find out more about myself by letting this stuff come out of my subconscious. Otherwise it’s just like making shirts.” Aldana makes a point of emphasizing that this show is about sharing his work with the people of Costa Rica.

“I did these pieces out of love,” he says, “and I’m so excited that I get to share them. That’s the way I want to work.”

Admission to the exhibit is free, and 10% of all sales will be donated to the people of the central Pacific town of Parrita to help them rebuild after the recent flooding.

Aldana will also donate his share of fees charged for a watercolor workshop to the cause.

Does Aldana make sacrifices for his art? He looks at his wife and they grin at each other.

“He paints every single day,” she says with an accepting laugh.

Aldana admits he is lucky to have such support.

“I love what I do, and I’m glad I can do it. I’ll never stop,” he says.

Exhibits and Events

Carl Aldana’s “Costa Rica Luminosa” exhibit is at the National Gallery, in San José’s Children’s Museum, until Nov. 29.

A spin-off exhibit featuring some of Aldana’s more abstract works is at the gallery at VeritasUniversity in Zapote, southeast of San José, until Nov. 30.

Aldana will give a presentation on creating storyboards and art direction in the film industry Nov. 21 at 5 p.m. in the Roberto Sasso Sasso Auditorium at VeritasUniversity. He will also hold a workshop on painting with watercolors Nov. 29 at 9 a.m. at the Ramada Plaza Herradura in Cariari, northwest of San José. For more information, call 234-9774.


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