San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Vimala Joan Martha: Art Is Meditation

Vimala Joan Martha says it’s OK if she doesn’t die famous. She claims that her art is “not going to change anyone’s life.” And yet it’s clear that during the 30-plus years of her career, she has affected many in Costa Rica. From teaching painting and drawing at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) to her involvement with the incipient feminist movement, Martha’s contributions to her adopted country have been significant.

The 61-year-old artist recently showed her work at the José Luis López Escarré Gallery inside the National Theater in San José. In this gallery that shares space with the historic theater’s café,Martha discussed her life in Costa Rica, her travels and the new direction of her work.

The Teaching Years

Martha and her former husband relocated to Costa Rica from Denmark in 1973 after some friends convinced them to make the move. Excluding a few years in the U.S. city of Los Angeles, she has lived here ever since.

Initially Martha obtained a position teaching painting and drawing at the UCR in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro. As an artist who grew up in New York and graduated from BostonUniversity’s College of Fine Arts,Martha found the art students here had limited experience and exposure.

“When I first came to this country, people were painting casitas típicas … the art students at the university,” she recalls, gesturing with her ring-adorned hands.

Martha found that her students had often never even seen examples of European masters, and other international art was foreign to them. In an age before the Internet, “it was a different world,” she describes. “So I was saying things to them that they had never heard before. Being very, very demanding and telling them that what they were doing wasn’t good enough, and they were horrified.”

After nine years at the university, and despite feeling that she had “some real impact on the young Costa Rican artists,” Martha left the UCR, in part because of the limited opportunities she felt were being given to extranjeros.

Martha’s own artwork was changing, too.

An Evolution in Style

When Martha first came to the country, she was more interested in landscape painting and was creating representational work. She also went through a portrait phase, though she says she has left portraits completely.

“My work has always had a kind of double life, being realistic or figurative and nonfigurative or abstract. And now I really don’t do figurative work anymore; I stopped painting figuratively somewhere in the late ’90s.”

After leaving UCR, Martha spent a few years teaching at Country Day, an exclusive private school in the western suburb of Escazú.

During this time she became involved with Costa Rica’s feminist movement, participating in classes and demonstrations. She made friends with several of the activists who started women’s groups and were studying feminist issues in the country and throughout Latin America. Pieces of her artwork adorn the covers of scholarly books on the feminist movement, one entitled “La Mujer en Latinoamérica,” co-authored by Sara Sharratt, a professor of psychology and a pioneer of women’s studies in Costa Rica.

As her artistic style was evolving, so was her dedication to yoga and meditation. After many years of study, Martha’s art began to reflect her personal path. The spiritual name Vimala was given to Martha by her teacher.

She describes adding the name to her work: “I have been exhibiting here since the ’70s and people know me as Joan Martha.

For me it marks when the shift in my work developed to mainly incorporate my whole person; it wasn’t a separate thing that I did.

There was my art and my yoga, and now I feel it’s all my yoga, or all my art.”

Since 2003 Martha has given up representational work. These days, her pieces are often small and quiet. She creates abstract collages from a variety of materials: acrylic paint, watercolors, different types of paper, pieces of her own paintings, and most recently bindis, traditional forehead decorations from India. Describing this work, Martha says, “It feels like meditation to me.”

Although Martha says her art is not representative of Costa Rica, and her last exhibit was heavily influenced by her recent five-month trip to Asia, she explains that there is a relationship between her art and Costa Rica: “I can’t tell you in words what it is, but there has to be. This is the environment I live and work in. I’m in a very beautiful place.

Beauty is an absolute essential component for me personally. I can’t make ugly art. I just don’t have the motivation.”

Martha no longer teaches art, saying she’s not convinced that art can actually be taught. She has discovered that, for her, teaching yoga is much more rewarding.

“You see instant results teaching yoga,” she says. “You see people walk into a class, all this tension in their bodies and their faces, and then leave noticeably changed.”

When asked about her goals, Martha says that besides growing old gracefully, she hopes her art will enhance the beauty of people’s lives.

“To me that’s enough,” she says. “If someone feels uplifted by looking at it, I’m satisfied.”

To contact the artist, call 393-0995 or e-mail


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